Thanks to a unique partnership between the public, private and academic sectors in Portugal and Brazil, the decommissioned pyrite mine in Lousal, in the Alentjo region of Portugal, has become the site of the first large-scale immersive Virtual Reality system ever installed in Portugal. Today, the Lousal Live Science Centre provides an interactive learning experience about mining, as well as facilities for academic and commercial research and product testing using the latest virtualisation technologies.
Virtualisation technology transforms old mining site in Portugal into a leading centre for scientific education and research
The Lousal Live Science Centre is part of the Portuguese Live Science Centres Network, an initiative of the Portuguese Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education to promote interactive science and technology education and the dissemination of science and technology in Portugal.
The virtualisation infrastructure at Lousal, known as a CAVE-Hollowspace, is one of the first in Europe to emerge from Portuguese and Brazilian academic research based in Windows platforms and Barco projection systems, and is oriented to science-based entertainment, science research and R&D services for industry. The system is owned by Fundação Frederic Velge, a joint venture between SAPEC, the Belgium company that owns the Lousal Mine, which was in operation until the late 1980s, and the Grandola City Hall in Portugal.
The Lousal initiative is a joint collaboration between several organisations: in Portugal, Fundação Frederic Velge, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education, and several public universities (ISCTE, Technical University of Lisbon, Classical University of Lisbon); and in Brazil, Petrobrás and PUCRio de Janeiro, a public university.
The physical configuration of the Lousal CAVE-Hollowspace includes six projection planes in a U-shaped layout: it has two projection planes in front (5.6 m x 2.7 m of projection surface), two on the floor (with the same dimensions), and one on each side (3.4 m x 2.7 m). The system is supported by a high-end graphics computing cluster running Microsoft Windows, which is able to generate a consolidated synthetic image of 8.3 million pixels in real time and in stereo and is able to manage 3D scenes with millions of triangles. There are seven sound-speakers facing the audience and a subwoofer under the floor. For public exhibitions, a storyteller navigates in the Virtual Environment for audiences of up to 14 people.
Fernando Fantasia, the CEO of Fundação Frederic Velge, explains that “The Centre's first purpose is to show a cinematic story about the miner and his work. The story is called ‘Virtual Visit to the Mine'. Other applications are also planned: the project will offer the unique possibility for schools, universities and research laboratories to test and visualise their academic and research projects. The Portuguese high-tech industry may also benefit from using this infrastructure for digital visualisation and testing of research in areas such as plastics moulding, industrial product design, oil exploration and mining, and engineering.”
The Lousal pyrite Mine today (Alentejo, Portugal)
Luciano Pereira Soares, Phd in Computer Graphics, a Brazilian pioneer in the development of these types of facilities in South America, and now at Petrobrás and PUC-Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, thinks that “immersive virtual reality facilities enable people to go to places where it is not possible to be otherwise. Educators can travel to any age, studying how humanity was and will be. Engineers, designers and marketers can analyse their industrial products before they are produced. Miners can enter an oil reservoir and decide the best place to dig. The CAVE-Hollowspace at Lousal will offer the most modern technology in virtual reality to fully immerse users in any virtual environment. This solution, a best practice case in the adoption of Windows platforms for this type of high-end computing infrastructure, has accurate image synthesis, high quality sound and precise user tracking, key elements to virtual reality simulations. I believe that in a short time, many users in Portugal and all over the world will take advantage of this facility for their projects.”
According to Rafael Bastos, ADETTI researcher and PhD student at ISCTE, Portugal, “The adoption of the Microsoft platform and development tools for the base system support has facilitated our in-house core developments for the CAVE-Hollowspace, namely the infraredbased user tracking sub-system, the software to manage both the 3D graphics and 3D sound information over the network, the multimodal user computer interaction sub-system, our real-time image synthesis algorithms and our Virtual Reality content authoring sub-system. Our system will be easily disseminated in Portuguese and Brazilian academic research. Speech recognition is another effective interaction mechanism for immersive systems. Discrete interactions such as pausing and restarting the simulation or choosing interaction device can be easily be accomplished by a voice command. For this purpose, our project has adopted the Microsoft language pack in Portuguese, developed by MLDC, which greatly improves natural multimodal interaction.”
The Microsoft Language Development Center (MLDC) in Portugal was founded in 2005. This Microsoft Development Center is one of the four established in Europe and the first, outside of the US, dedicated to local language development. MLDC's unique characteristic is its long-term plan to bring key language component product development to Europe and other regions. MLDC acts as an expansion branch of the Redmond-based Microsoft product development group, responsible for speech in Microsoft, and benefits from the experience, technological background and support of this group. MLDC aims to support the language expansion policy of the Redmond-based product group, by creating a ‘best practice of local language development' that can be applied in Europe and other regions.