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Helsinki Goes Virtual

The Finns are about to re-create Helsinki. The virtual capital will be available via the Internet and will have a true resemblance to the orginal. Behind this VR project are: Helsinki Telephone Company (HPY) , the City of Helsinki, the largest Finnish computer & communications companies, cultural institutes and art colleges. The project will provide commercial information, services, general information, entertainment and media content.

Image We have seen it before - nice 3-D illustrations on computer screens of imaginary cities, buildings of ancient times, museums etc. Impressive demos of VR, but how useful are they? Are they perhaps too virtual, and not enough reality? In VR, as in so many areas of advanced technologies, the Finns are in the front. Now they want to make VR useful to ordinary people and they have (as is their tendency) taken the next big step. The consortium will create a three-dimensional model of Helsinki on the information networks, and people will be able to move through this virtual city using their personal computers. The city's cultural, commercial and public services will be within the reach of everyone via the information networks.

Helsinki Arena 2000

The aim of the project, called Helsinki Arena 2000 , is to create a local multimedia network to which every home can connect. It will combine the fully digitalized telephone network, HPY broadband networks and the Internet, as well as existing and new services into an integrated package; this will be easily accessible to ordinary people, and based on the local urban landscape.

Users will be able to experience a virtual Helsinki in which they can move freely. They will be able to look at their surroundings, view public areas in real-time, access electronic cultural services on-line, make purchases in shops, conduct business, etc. They will also be able to receive information services, use entertainment services (financed by payment or advertising), make PC- and video-phone calls, hold videophone conferences, visit amusement parks and casinos, and meet members of clubs and associations. A part of the network system is already in commercially use. "We expect the 3-D model to be commercially implemented around the end 1998 or early 1999", says technology director (email removed) of HPY. "At the same time as commercial services are introduced, the 3-D model will also serve as a test bed for new VR services". Finish trade and industry, especially banks, NOKIA and the different teleoperators have shown great interest in the project, and support it financially.

Virtual Reality platform

All along, the goal has been to make this platform available and accessible to most people. To use the most demanding interactive services, they will require a 200 MHz Pentium Pro CPU, with video camera, display accelerator, sound card and an ISDN or broadband communications link. An industry-standard Internet browser with virtual reality plug-ins and Internet call combined with video communication plug ins will also be needed. This may sound distinctly unreal, but according to forecasts, such machines will be the ordinary home PC by the year 2000 within the Helsinki Capital Area.

The city model will be drawn with ordinary architectural software and transformed on the Internet into a fixed three dimensional model (VRML). Doors, telephone box directory information and a map of the city model will offer links outside the basic services. Moving through doors into interiors will take place in the same way as moving from one Internet page to another.


It will come as no surprise that a major partner behind the project is Helsinki Telephone Company (HPY), the largest private telephone company in Finland. We know that the Finns have a well-developed high-speed network infrastructure. By providing the right kind of (Internet) applications and services they expect that about 80% of the Internet communication and browsing will be local or regional traffic. Such a system would create a lot of local high-speed traffic, yielding a potentially high revenue for the local operator.

Each member of the consortium will implement its own services independently on a free or commercial basis, and HPY will co-ordinate the integration of these sub-projects. The project will amount to at least 140 person-years. And there is scope for still further expansion; HPY's own development contribution is valued at ECU 2,5 million. As the number of users grows, additional capacity will be needed on the information networks, calling for an investment of hundreds of millions of ECUs. However, no decision on investments of this scale has yet been made.

The city model and other services will be connected to the user's own computer via the nearest backbone node. Helsinki Arena 2000 will develop telecommunications networks in an evolutionary way. Future developments will be based on existing networks and standards. HPY's network connections will the basis for the Helsinki Arena 2000 service network, using a hybrid combination of ISDN and ATM technologies. Interactive multimedia requires smooth, uncongested connections, so the network will gradually be improved up to the year 2000; households that wish to will be able to send and receive television-quality moving pictures with their home PCs.

ACTS projects and VR

There are around ten ACTS projects working in the Virtual Reality arena, many of which will doubtless find they could have a part to play in this ambitious project. One of these projects is MAESTRO . The project is developing the use of telepresence for maintenance, installation and the repairing of mechanical equipment. The resulting technology will enable users to train themselves to deal with maintenance tasks by connecting up to a Virtual Workshop, where they can learn maintenance procedures through computer-augmented video-based telepresence. To this end, the project makes use of high-speed networks, video-based telepresence and Augmented Reality. MAESTRO uses DOVRE (Distributed Object-oriented Virtual Reality Environment) to provide a Cyberspace Operating System and an infrastructure for connecting users at different locations into the same virtual common meeting place.

(email removed) of Telenor R&D , a partner in the Maestro consortium, thinks the HELSINKI Arena 2000 project is very interesting. "The Internet has up to now mainly been associated with strong globalisation. A network system like HELSINKI Arena 2000 brings the focus of internet applications down to the regional environment; focusing on the 'local village' rather than the 'global village'. One big challenge will, of course, be to find useful applications to run on the platform. I see a lot of good demonstrator applications, but which of them will actually be used? Most VR applications are developed in order to visualise specific objects or worlds. If VR is going to be more than a 'buzz world', the next generation of VR applications must have real content and provide interactivity both between users and objects, and among users in the virtual world".

Helsinki Arena 2000 will be an interesting electronic forum by the year 2000, when Helsinki will be the Cultural Capital of Europe and celebrating its 450th anniversary. The consortium aims to build meeting points where people can meet and interact physically or virtually. The project also heavily promotes PC-based video-connectivity.

Among the other VR-related projects in the ACTS program are:
CICC , RESOLV , COVEN , MIRAGE , TAPESTRIES , SICMA , DVP , and (email removed) .

					(email removed)
					, Telenor 24.09.1997