An evaluation of a user controlled exploration of a 3D environment

Written by Paul Bourke
October 1992

There are number of levels at which a user can 'experience' 3 dimensional scenes by using computer renderings. One method is simply to generate a number of images from different view points or camera positions. Another alternative is to create an animation, a sequence of renderings showing what would be seen if the camera were moved along a path through the 3D model. The one characteristic of both these techniques is that they do not allow the viewer to interactively choose the position from which to view the scene. This project investigates and attempts to implement a scheme by which the user can choose to go anywhere and look in any direction within the computer based model. This is a similar approach that virtual reality applications take except that in that case the rendering is much simpler in order to achieve real time response.

There are some constraints that do now allow the ideal user controlled walk through experience. The more important of these constraints are described below along with their effect on this project.

  • Highly realistic scenes cannot be computed interactively, indeed it can take many hours on even very powerful hardware platforms. The views therefore need to be precomputed. In this example each frame took about 20 minutes on a Silicon Graphics mainframe using the Radiance rendering application. The image creation process was entirely automated so there was no human intervention after the rendering process was initiated.

  • The storage requirements for a large number of precomputed views will be very high. This translates into a restriction on the number of discrete camera positions and the number of views per position. This example distributed view positions on an 11x11 rectangular mesh, 8 views were computed for each mesh (or node) position at 45 degree steps, see figure 1. The images are compressed since the lower the average image file size the more images per unit storage are possible. The more images that can be stored the finer the view position mesh and the more views per node. In the demonstration here the constraint on disk space was a very modest 44MB Syquist removable disk. Each image was a 256x256 pixel 24 bit colour bitmap and averaged 45KB in size. This constrained the project to the 11x11 mesh with 8 views per mesh node. If more storage space was available then one would generally increase the number of mesh nodes before increasing the number of views per node. For this project the model describing the 3D scene was 40x40m square, the 11x11 mesh chosen means that the viewing positions are 4m apart. While the view directions were calculated in 45 degree steps the camera aperture angle of 60 degrees gave some image overlap when turning left or right, see figure 2.

  • The images cannot all fit in memory, and therefore the images can not be played back at high speeds (20-30 frames per second) as in the case of an animation. The software that was written for this project displays the scene from the user chosen position and viewing angle by reading the appropriate image file from disk. The load/decompress/display operations took less than 2 seconds per image.

An application called UVIEW was written for the Macintosh. It takes the image database and allows the user to traverse through it in discrete steps. The user is restricted to only two operations, the first is to move forward or backward, the second is to turn left or right. Moving forward or backward is simply moving from one node to the next while retaining the same view direction. Turning left or right is just changing the view direction appropriately while remaining at the same node. See figure 2 and 3 for examples of the view rotation and position change.

The user chose these two movements with the four arrow keys. For any user movement or view change the software determines the next image file, loads it from the disk, decompresses it, and then displays it. In order to avoid a "map" relating positions and views to files, the file names contain the necessary information. Each file name contains three numbers, the x and y position and the view angle. For example the file called 20,8,45 is the image at position (20,8) looking 45 degrees from north. The software searches for all legal image file names in a directory and uses the file name information to create the mapping of images to positions and views.

Figure 1. Camera nodes and views.

Figure 2. 8 views at each node.

Figure 3. Forward and back, single view direction.

One conclusion from this project was that the mesh spacing and number of views per node were too low. A great improvement is noticed at 12 views per node, that is stepping the camera direction in 30 degree steps with about a 45 degree camera aperture for some view overlap. The mesh spacing should then be chosen as small as possible, constrained by the storage space available. For most scenes a 30x30 mesh would be ideal. The above would result in around 20,000 images, at 45Kb each this storage medium would most likely be removable read/write optical disks.

An useful extension might be to define the mesh at more precision for the more interesting parts of a scene, see figure 4.

A possibility that proved unsuccessful was to define various paths through the scene. This had the advantage in providing a more intelligent route through the model but the restriction on the users viewing choices didn't satisfy the aims of this project. An example of the path concept can be seen in figure 5. Another problem with this approach is the high human input required to design the paths through the scene. The mesh method chosen can easily be made an entirely automated process given a 3D model.

Figure 4. Variable mesh density.

Figure 5
. Predefined paths.