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Virtual gorilla puts students in the wild


June 12, 1996
Web posted at: 7:30 a.m. EDT

From Correspondent Marsha Walton

ATLANTA (CNN) -- Imagine walking into a zoo and roaming with gorillas instead of watching them from behind a barrier. That is the goal of the Virtual Gorilla Exhibit Project taking place in Atlanta.

The Georgia Institute of Technology's Virtual Environments Group and Zoo Atlanta are working together to put students, and others, into the gorilla's environment without agitating the animals or endangering the people.

The virtual reality program being developed not only allows participants to roam with the gorillas, but also simulates interaction with the magnificent animals.


Local school children who have donned the virtual goggles and stepped into the test ring are transformed into inquisitive virtual adolescent gorillas, and they love it.

Students must quickly master complex 3-D technology and concepts like "running with your eyes," as the technique for virtual movement is called. And although the students testing the program are involved as a focus group to provide feedback to the systems developers, they have learned a lot themselves.

The school-age testers say the simulation is so good that it can fool you into thinking you have stumbled on the ground in the gorilla habitat, without moving an inch.

With over 80 different gorilla sounds and an extensive repertoire of movements, it can even be intimidating to be part of a virtual gorilla family. The wrong virtual posture or movement can send the adult male gorilla into a rage. Annoy the family patriarch and the program puts you in a virtual "dog house," or gorilla holding cell. (675K QuickTime movie)

The unbiased student testers had only a few complaints. They wanted to look down in the virtual world and see their own gorilla feet and arms. Right now, the program fails to provide any representation of the participants virtual gorilla body.

Student testers also wanted to have two virtual gorilla participants roam around the habitat at the same time with the gorilla family.


The focus of the virtual gorilla project is to enhance the public's understanding of, and experience with, gorillas. Zoo Atlanta Director Terry Maple said they do not want to draw attention away from the flesh and bone animals. The technology must be placed in the proper context so that the naturalism is advanced, he said. Nature -- its wonder and fragility -- are the focus of this cutting-edge work, he said. (135K AIFF or WAV sound)


The computer jocks from Georgia Tech spent hours communing with the gorillas and their habitat in an effort to give the virtual gorillas believability. The projects crew precisely mapped the gorilla habitat and spent hours observing movements and behaviors before returning to the glow of computer screens.

Animators on the project team, made up of biologists and computer engineers, also took advantage of piles of research on gorillas and footage already shot of them in their natural habitats.

By the reactions of the initial testers, the virtual gorilla has a chance to rewrite how grade-school students learn about the natural world.

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