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					Conference report

Teaching VRML and Java in Art and Design Education

University of Teesside
8th April 1998

The Easter break saw the logical conclusion of a set of three workshops, held by the
NVRCADs, take place at the University of Teesside. Whilst the first workshop in
Coventry had introduced the idea of 3D on the net to an Art and Design Education
audience (Digital Creativity, Vol. 8, No.3/4, October 1997, pp168-172), the second in
Exeter had addressed some of the technical considerations involved in downloading
software/ creating VRML and Java oneself, this third workshop took a look at the
work already being done in introducing VRML into Art and Design Education.
Six speakers bravely battled some technical difficulties to outline the problems and
elations of introducing VRML onto courses at their institutions. Issues that seemed to
recur were hardware and software hurdles, the idea of cross disciplinary teaching and
the sheer difficulty of staff keeping abreast with the development of this technology.

The first speaker was Avon Huxor from Middlesex University, invited to speak as a
keynote on what he sees as the future of technologies such as VRML. Avon told the
audience that he felt he had recently made progress in defining what he thinks VRML
is useful for, namely collaboration. However, whilst there is currently scope for
collaboration on the Internet with the advent of multi-user worlds, Avon pointed out
that in practice lack of content , lack of the use of the spatial aspects of the world and
inappropriate behaviour of those using the worlds meant that existing models were not
ideal. Avon found this disappointing as he felt that students needed to be made
familiar with these technologies as teleworking becomes more accepted. Avon
returned instead to two dimensional collaborative working using systems such as
BSCW (http://bscw.gmd.de) and ICQ (http://www.mirabilis.com) and from there
began to incorporate content into a multi-user space which he built using Active
Worlds 3D browser (http://www.activeworlds.com). He demonstrated that careful
thought was needed about how offices and their spaces work and in particular about
exploiting chance encounter and delineating personal space. The results seemed to
engage colleagues more and moderate their behaviour. This moderation was also
explored in the work that Avon showed us that he had been doing with BT. Here a
webcam showing BT’s physical site at Martelsham Heath was intertwined with virtual
office space, thereby encouraging users to feel they had ‘come to work’.

The second speaker Taylor Nuttall spoke as a VRML tutor for Innovation in Digital
and Electronic Arts (IDEA), a project run jointly by the Manchester Multimedia
Centre, Manchester Metropolitan University and the European Social Fund. This
project is aimed at anyone who feels themselves creative, whether in business,
education or the arts and aims to marry technology and creativity. As a component of
this project Taylor teaches a VRML course consisting of 3x 6 hr sessions over a
period of three weeks. In addition the students are expected to put in 12hrs per week
of their own time. Students are required to be familiar with writing HTML and
general file and image manipulation. Tuition is carried out on Apple Macs despite
well known difficulties with lack or incompleteness of browsers on this platform. This
was a conscious decision made because the students are most likely to have access to
this platform during and after training. Students are thrown straight in the deep end
being required, first of all, to install the browsers! They then begin to learn VRML
purely with a text editor. Pitfalls encountered are incompatibility of different browsers
and platforms, and difficulty in finding good scripting information to give to students.
The students themselves seem to feel that they are only just beginning to grasp the
possibilities of VRML when the course ends.

Mike is the Course Coordinator for BSc MediaLab Arts, School of Computing,
University of Plymouth. As such he teaches VRML as part of a
wider course which also looks at other VR kit and packages.

David Smith from Newport School of Art and Design entitled his talk, "The Blind
Leading the Partially Sighted: VRML as a Case Study in Teaching Advanced Digital
Techniques in Art and Design" He gave us a thought provoking talk which asked
educators to consider how they will cope in the future as it becomes more and more
likely that students will wish to concentrate on technologies that the educators
themselves know little or nothing about and which they do not have the time or the
resources to learn.

Alan Peacock from The Faculty of Art and Design, The University of Hertfordshire
showed exactly how this question may be tackled. Alan is a team member of a course
named 'Virtualities and Visualisation' run jointly by staff from the Faculty of Art and
Design and the Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences at Hertfordshire.
Whilst Alan and his colleagues do have knowledge of VRML, they have learnt from
experience that they must have the student present to explain the work, despite the
time that this takes, and students must show that the technology works on a specified
machine with specified software. If one applies this to David’s contentions, one can
see that in Alan’s model the student demonstrating the work allows for student/tutor
discourse as is traditional in Art and Design, but also that the responsibility for the
demonstration and execution of the work lies with the student.

Clive Fencott from the University of Teesside teaches VRML to a range of computing
and multimedia students. His contention was that the most fundamental concept to
make students understand when designing virtual spaces is the need to provide a
feeling of presence for the user. This involves recognising that, in many instances,
representing carefully chosen aspects of a space rather than a complete replication is
all that is needed.

At a specific hardware/software level, it emerged from the day that there is still much
to be said for continued use of text editors to create VRML content and that problems
of browser and platform incompatibility persist. These are issues which are almost
beyond control for the lecturer but the day taught us there are aspects of teaching
VRML over which lecturers do have control. Those who have begun teaching VRML
in art and design, such as the speakers above, have found that collaboration between
disciplines is often the key to closing a perceived gap between technology and art.
Thus the workshop answered the call by the audience at previous workshops for
examples exactly of this nature. It also seems that students found it useful to consider
the context in which they create virtual spaces in VRML. As more students begin,
perhaps, to consider attempting projects using technologies such as VRML, providing
this context might prove a more workable solution for lecturers than attempting to
learn package after package at breakneck speed.

				
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