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.
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 Mr. Risto Linturi 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.
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.
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.
Ola Odegard 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 TELE-SHOPPE.
By Thorbjorn Thorbjornsen, Telenor 24.09.1997