CyberGRID – NSF-Funded Virtual Collaboration Environment
May 10, 2011
CyberGRID began as an independent study for professor John E. Taylor of Columbia University’s civil engineering department. At the time that I approached professor Taylor he conducted a yearly class that involved doing collaborative design projects with 4 other universities around the world. This collaboration was facilitated via online classrooms in Second Life, a well-known web-based 3D environment for social, commercial, and academic meetups. With Second Life, Taylor’s class virtually met and worked with other students and professors from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, the Helsinki University of Technology (HUT), the University of Twente in the Netherlands, and the University of Washington (Seattle).
Professor Taylor initially asked a good friend of mine, Daniel Lasry, and myself to make alterations to the virtual islands that he was already leasing within the Second Life environment, as well as, attempt to write plug-ins for the Second Life interface to provide his students with customized interactivity. After researching the capabilities of Second Life development, Daniel and I decided that CyberGRID’s customizability was limited by licensing restrictions that Second Life had in place. We convinced professor Taylor to allow us to start from scratch and develop a comprehensive and fully customized virtual learning environment using the Unity game development platform, and Maya and Photoshop for asset creation. The first phase of the project was in the form of an independent study where we familiarized ourselves with the Unity software and began developing a new aesthetic, a new interface, and new functionality based on feedback from users of the previous version of CyberGRID.
Phase 1 – Early Concepts and Learning (Independent Study)
During this phase of the project, the other designers and myself were familiarizing ourselves with the Unity development environment. I had to learn how to optimize 3D models for game design, ensuring that the assets were all polygons and making sure that the faces were all pointed the correct direction. Below is a scrapped concept render of part of the CyberGRID environment that I created during this early phase of the project.
Phase 2 – Beta Development (NSF Funding)
After our team excelled during our independent study we were hired to continue working on the development of CyberGRID over the summer of 2010. During this time is when the project really took off. I was responsible for designing and creating an extensive virtual environment, creating/locating a collection of 3D virtual avatars (see my 3D Character Design post for a more thorough description of this process) for the future users of the application, and animating and texturing the characters and environment, and designing some of the UI.
These sketches are some early sketches of the environment design:
Here are some screenshots of the UI and game environment:
Phase 3 – Refinement and Testing
As we progressed into the following school year, we stayed on board and expanded the virtual environment and it’s features. The following elements were added:
- 3D sound
- Personal screen-sharing on a joint virtual screen
- Avatar customization and animations
- An explorable Manhattan
- Annotation of shared documents
Currently, the development and use of CyberGRID is being pushed forward by professor John E. Taylor of Virginia Tech’s Engineering Department as he continues his research in virtual learning environments and the psychology of the relationship between human and computer interface.