Virtual reality, 360° video capture and computer animation: in this research unit we bring together the domains of computer graphics and image processing. Whether we are creating images from a 2D or 3D model or, conversely, distilling models from camera images, in Visual Computing we bundle and combine these forms of expertise.
Visual Computing is a sub-domain of information technology that focuses on the algorithms, data structures and applications used for the capture, synthesis, representation, analysis, manipulation, distribution and reproduction of images and sound on computers. It includes disciplines such as computer graphics (how can we display and manipulate 3D environments?), computer vision (how can a computer recognise and interpret an environment?) and image processing (how can we convert an image into another image so that it is more suitable for certain tasks?). Virtual reality is one eye-catching application of Visual Computing. We focused on computer graphics right from the start, subsequently combining this with our knowledge in image processing to become, fifteen years ago, real pioneers in the field of virtual reality.
In recent years we have focused a lot on the use of electronics for graphics and image processing for other applications. The computing power of graphics processing units (GPUs) is huge, making highly computer-intensive simulations and artificial intelligence tasks possible. The market for GPUs is immense, including computer games and virtual reality applications in the entertainment industry. This has made these mini-supercomputers very affordable.
VR goggles may be pretty mainstream today, but we’ve been researching 360-degree and holographic video capture and processing these for goggles since 2003. Together with our external partners - such as the theatre company CREW and the Flemish public broadcaster VRT - we explored potential applications with EDM at an early stage in the development of the technology. This was pioneering work of the highest order.
One of the most memorable projects we completed is an array we built in the artists’ restaurant at Pukkelpop in 2012: an almost 360-degree projection screen showing live images from a virtual reality camera on the festival’s main stage. Performers such as Björk used this virtual environment to soak up the atmosphere on stage before their show - it was superb. In addition, the images were also broadcast live for three days during the festival via a web viewer that we developed, allowing people who had stayed at home to experience the festival as if they had been there. This project made us go viral for quite some time.
Today we are still building 360-degree cameras, but the application domains have changed. It is noticeable that other industries are gradually trying to tap into the potential of VR. For example, together with dLiveMed, a start-up from Genk, we have built a platform to offer documented surgical techniques on the internet. We set up our 360-degree cameras in the operating theatre, so that we can view and follow operations from every angle. This way of filming is very positive for both doctors and patients: there are no camera people in the operating theatre, the cameras are easy to disinfect, and the surgeon does not have to give instructions to the camera crew and can concentrate fully on the operation.
EDM creates video images and the start-up then assembles these onto a timeline. Sketches, 3D scans and notes are added, and the finished product is then made available on an online platform. Working with colleagues from NSS and our spin-off Androme, we also helped create this platform. The platform means that the images can be used much more flexibly at conferences. Just like with a football match, users can replay actions and view them from different angles.
The application possibilities of Visual Computing are virtually unlimited. The technologies we develop and research are relevant to any sector or discipline. As a researcher, I continue to find it fascinating to use the knowledge we build up here in very concrete ways in projects with clear social and economic added value.
EDM is of course an academic research institute. It goes without saying that we focus on basic research and publications. We also attend top conferences. These things are extremely important. By excelling academically, we have also been able to enter into productive partnerships with global players such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT Boston), the Max-Planck Institute (Germany) and the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT Japan). Yet academic excellence alone is not enough for us.
How can we adapt our skills and expertise even better to the needs of our society? How can we ensure that academic research output flows through to industry, where it can also deliver economic added value? We constantly ask ourselves these questions at EDM. We have had an excellent network for European and regional collaborative R&D projects for many years, and working with local and international businesses is second nature to us. EDM is about much more than just publications. We want to make a difference with our expertise that extends far beyond the confines of the university.