Saturday, May 8, 2010

Virtual Objects: Understanding the Child's Scale Through Immersive Virtual Product Design


This research project involves the documentation and investigation of understanding the child’s perspective of a virtual product that can be viewed and interacted with in a natural way within a Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (CAVE) or an immersive virtual environment. This environment allows for multiple instances of a product to be placed, viewed and interacted with in an immersive virtual environment. The interactions that occur between users and the virtual objects include such activities as lifting, moving, rotating, and dropping.

The products tested were designed to be specifically used by children ages 6-8. The child’s perspective of classroom furniture is difficult for an adult to visualize due to the adult’s height and the product’s small scale and proportions. In an immersive virtual environment, the scale of the environment and objects within can be adjusted to allow an adult user to see the objects from a children’s perspective. Using mathematical equations to calculate the scale variance, the scene can be adjusted to put the viewer in the position of the child’s point of view.

Through this study, I hope to demonstrate how interior products can be field tested using computer visualization and rendering programs. I seek to explore how a scaled simulated virtual environment can enable an adult to understand the child’s point of view during simulated interaction with child-centered objects in a space. With the objects tested intended for use in an elementary classroom, there are multiple instances occurring within the space which enables the user to develop a variety of object arrangements and configurations during the testing sessions. By using this technology, the participants are able to visualize the repetition of the objects without having to produce multiple physical models and enabled to understand the scale at which a child will experience these objects.

Through this study, the point of view of a child can begin to be understood by adults and more importantly designers. The anticipated result is that this research and design will result in a collection of fully interactive virtual classroom furniture that will allow a user to move the objects contained in the room around to view different seating positions, seating arrangements, and colors. The final results will be written and documented through images to be shared with peers, designers, and researchers.


Immersive virtual product design (IVPD) is a relatively new visualization and simulation practice, which allows for simulations to be utilized for early product design phases (Bao, Jin, Gu, Yan & Ma, 2002). Immersive virtual product design allows for a realistic experience including interactive elements such as navigation and wand-controlled manipulation. Virtual prototypes have been used to demonstrate and visualize aspects of a product that would otherwise require a full-scale physical model to be fabricated and, in fact, this virtual method allows a designer to “design, simulate, prototype, and visualize the entire design in the digital world” (p. 594). This form of visualization and simulation is conducted in a CAVE Automatic virtual environment. In the CAVE a room is provided with “a 3D environment rear-projected onto several walls and viewed through stereoscopic glasses” (Spalter 1999, p. 313). The room allows for a number of users to be present and participate, either actively or passively (Bruno, Caruso, Li, Milite, & Muzzupappa, 2008), with virtual objects in “an intuitive manner” (Bao et al 2002, p. 592). The users of a virtual environment are equipped with a headset for virtual viewing and often with a wand or hand held device that controls movement and navigation from the head participant’s perspective.

In reviewing the discourse surrounding virtual prototyping, it is recognized that “a virtual prototype should be able to reproduce, as realistically as possible, the behavior of the product from any point of view” (Bruno, Caruso, Li, Milite, & Muzzupappa 2009, p. 620). This practice of utilizing CAVE environments or immersive environments for product design has alleviated cost concerns and time constraints with prototyping through eliminating the high expense of purchasing materials and fabricating the products (Bao et al, 2002). According to Bao (2009) there are four elements that are used in creating a virtual environment including Virtual reality, Computer-aided design, simulation, and toolkits. The challenges presented in the discourse of immersive virtual product design include limited access to expert understanding of programming and modeling conversions. The processes used in combination with the required software necessitate that the modeler and programmer work towards becoming an expert in the chosen software, or system of software used to product a virtual environment. There are numerous software programs that can work to create virtual environments such as Maya, SketchUp, and Virtools. The ability to master these programs takes time and often these projects involve collaboration between designers, programmers, and modelers.

The framework of the immersive environment enhances the process of product design due to its allowance of “real-time interaction” (Boa et al 2009, p. 593). With the immersive environment providing the ability to enhance design and evaluation, designers of courthouses have begun to adopt the practice of immersive environment into the design process to allow for themselves and their clients to visualize and experience sight lines (See: Dunston, Arns, & McGlothlin, 2007; Joch, 2005). The immersive environment has also been utilized in evaluating medical facilities to supplement the act of creating full-scale mockups which require a great deal of time and money to construct. Through this process designers and medical staff can test for clearances, layout options, distances, and design flaws, which can be realized and addressed prior to construction. One particular study of a medical patient room revealed that the amount of furniture provided was excessive compared to the size of the room, a fact which may be overlooked when viewing floor plans or even rendered perspectives of a space. These tests, due to the real-time interactivity, demonstrate a higher level of participant understanding in an immersive environment when compared to a projected image or a single screen viewing.

In addition to the benefits immersive simulation offers to the design phase, virtual reality has been utilized as both a teaching and learning tool for designers as well as users (See: Passig, Klein, & Noyman, 2001; Patera & Draper, 2007). The benefit in using the immersive virtual environment is that the file can be scaled to reflect varying proportions in relation to the head user and participants. This can be especially useful when designing objects for children. With being able to manipulate the scale, an adult user can visualize the physical point of view that a child holds in a given space. There are limitations to adult user truly adapting to the child’s frame of mind when viewing these objects but the virtual environment can be used as an instrument to test varying visual perspectives.

In addition to testing the visual aspects of a child, immersive virtual environments have been used to allow for adults to experience the child’s visual and cognitive perspective (Passig et al, 2001). It has been demonstrated that the ability to understand the child’s viewpoint is imperative in the early educational setting, with this period marking a drastic change in environmental experiences and growth in cognition. The immersive virtual environment provides an interactive platform that provides a multitude of perception opportunities including visual, haptic, scale, and audio. Child perception can be better understood through adjustment and design of these environments to mirror their scale and perception level. These environments can ultimately provide a tool to assist designers and teachers to better understand how children perceive environments and how to design environments and product for their world.

Adults, recognized as the gatekeepers to children’s worlds, are responsible for the assisting or hindering a child’s exploration of their world through designing environments that either meet their developmental need or lack the necessary affordances (Chak, 2002). Affordance is a visual perception that a user makes based on “the different characteristics of the individual, such as his or her physical dimensions and abilities, social needs, and personal intentions, are matched with the environments features” (Kytta 2006, p. 145). Through developing an understanding of child affordances, designers can provide children with environments and products that challenge their abilities and provide risks that advance the child’s development of cognitive and physical skills. There is a delicate balance that must be struck within these environments and products. The design decisions can be based on the ability, creativity, and past experiences of the child and is dependent on perceived affordances in the form and surfaces of the object in relation to their individual abilities stemming from size and perspective (Carreau & Pelletier, 2004)..

The question has been raised as to the possibility of planning for a higher number of child-related affordances through the incorporation of children in the planning of these environments due to the various differences perceived in affordances between children and adults (Kytta, 2006). It may then be proposed that through an immersive environment an adult may be able to participant with the objects and environments through the child’s perspective at a given scale, realizing affordances and design opportunities unseen from the adult vantage point.


This study of the scale of a child in an immersive virtual environment was completed using a combination of qualitative and creative methods. The aims of the study were to a) develop a relationship with Duke University in an effort to work with expert technicians and access the DiVE , b) develop a 3D computer model to be viewed in the immersive virtual environment, c) work with expert technicians to apply scripts to objects, d) test model in DiVE, e) conduct a pilot study to gain feedback on assessment tools and virtual objects , f) conduct a participant study, and g) analyze information and provide a written discussion of results. The primary research question for the study is: How successfully can the use of immersive virtual products be used to convey the simulation of a child’s perspective of a product for an adult participant? The secondary research question for this study is: What is the process for creating an immersive virtual product and world?

Product Design
This object (see fig. 1) was previously designed in a Graduate Studio Course. The object was modeled both in digital form and as a physical full scale model. The object is meant to be used in the classroom environment and can be rotated to accommodate a variety of seating positions. The theory of despecialization and theory of affordance, along with a child’s imaginative abilities, were driving factors when determining the form of the object.

3D Modeling
A combination of software was used in this study including AutoCAD, SketchUp, Maya, and Virtools. AutoCAD is a drafting software program that has been used to create the profiles for the object. These drawings were then imported into SketchUp, which is a 3-D modeling program. Once in SketchUp, the lines were turned into plans which were then extruded. Once the basic shape was realized the shape was ‘booleaned’ to form contours. The final edges were smoothed away using the ‘follow me’ tool. The classroom background was created using SketchUp. The basic space was created using a combination of rectangles, push/pulls, and instances. The object and the environment were then separated in SketchUp and then exported as .fbx files.

These .fbx files were then imported into Maya and several changes were needed. The changes were made during a training session with Holton Thompson, an expert modeler at Duke University. The surfaces in the classroom environment were triangulated and the several materials were reapplied. Lighting was added through a combination of both directional lighting and ambient lighting. The object was imported into the same Maya file and then duplicated. Prior to the final duplication, the object was split into two parts to allow for a two bounding boxes to form the object. This practice of splitting the object into two piece was conducted to allow for greater manipulation and interact in a more realistic manner when the physics engine was applied the object.

Once finalized the Maya file was exported to Virtools as a .cmo file. The physics engine applied in Virtools was written by David Zelinski, an expert programmer with Duke University. The physics engine included gravity, physics, move, and rotation. Through Virtools the digital file was projected into the immersive virtual environment for both the testing sessions and the pilot sessions.

Immersive Virtual Simulation
The location for simulation took place at the DiVE, which is located on the campus of Duke University in the CINEMA Building. The DiVE is an immersive virtual environment which includes a 6-sided CAVE-like virtual reality theater (Visualization Technology Group, 2008). With the selection of this facility, experts in the software were available for consultation. Participants of the Pilot study included 3 fellow classmates and a professor. The participants to be used in the formal study will include 8 first and second grade teachers.

The pilot study began with a physical prototype experience session, followed by a virtual prototype experience session. The physical product experience (See Fig. 1.3) involved the participants working alone to arrange a pair of the physical prototypes in a variety of arrangements (See Appendix C). Once completed the participants then entered the DiVE, where the file opened to a basic classroom arrangement at the adult scale. The participant that was wearing the head-user glasses had a total of 3 minutes to become familiar with the interface and controls during the first task. The participants worked in pairs and were read a total of 5 tasks (See Appendix C). The paradigm consisted of a 15 minute allotment and the participants switched the role of head-user for each task. The participants were observed throughout the session in a semi-participatory approach (See fig. 1.4) with the student researcher present in the DiVE. Once the fifteen minute session was complete, the participants exited and participated in a brief questionnaire on the experience. The second pair of participants completed both the virtual product experience and the physical product experience but the order was reversed.

Through arranging a pilot study and utilizing a pilot questionnaire (See Appendix B), a series of questions were analyzed to assess the questions to be asked to teachers. The questionnaire, just as questionnaires in previous studies such as this, sought to gain the participants emotional response to the environment and products (Dunston, 2007).The intention of the questionnaire, along with understanding emotional response, is to obtain whether participants were successful in adopting the child’s point of view and if this perspective can be used to understand how children perceive an environment differently in comparison to an adult.

Financial support
The cost of using the DiVE for the teacher participant sessions requires funding which has been granted by the College of Human Environmental Sciences.

Project Timeline
Fall Semester 2009: Design of objects
Spring Semester 2010: Import files into Maya
Import files into Virtools
Apply scripts to objects and classroom in Virtools
Create questionnaire and narrative
Conduct pilot study sessions
Provide written documentation
Summer Semester 2010: Address revisions from pilot study sessions
Conduct teacher participant sessions
Provide written documentation


The questionnaire and pilot study yielded a series of mixed results. The preference between adult versus child perspective is inconclusive although the preference for the adult perspective was due to the participants feeling more comfortable with the scale and size of the space.

The participants found the visuals to be comparative in both experiences although the haptic aspects in terms of touch and weight were found to be lacking in the virtual prototype interactions. The difference in perceived functions between an adult and child involved a mixed response, with some participants finding little differences and others concluding that the imaginative expression of children could be manifested through these objects.

The challenges recognized by the participants included the awkward manipulation of utilizing the wand to maneuver the objects. The time needed to adjust to the method of manipulation was not provided to the participants and this could have resulted in the inability for the participants to recognize the child’s perspective. The time needed to move the objects in the DiVE compared to the physical prototypes took longer. Simple movements that an adult participant has mastered with a physical prototype proved challenging with the virtual prototype. With the DiVE having been used throughout the day, the wand may have lost battery power, which made it prone to locking up. The combination of the difficulty in wand response and the time consuming movements, the DiVE was seen by a few participants as awkward and frustrating.

The virtual product was found to demonstrate the natural movement of the product in terms of rotation, pick up, movement, and throwing ability. The physics engine applied to the objects enabled the realistic interaction with the objects which included collision effects and gravity. The majority of participants adopted the child’s point of view claiming the view was more playful and enjoyable. The difference in appearance of the perspective was not noticeable at first for some of the participants; however this could be due to the fact that there were no changes in the environment other than the scale or their fixed attention on the interactivity obstacles created by the often unresponsive wand.

Despite the lack of sensory and haptic interactivity easily experienced with the physical prototypes, the ability for the virtual product to contribute to the participants overall understanding was successful in that it offered a new perspective, offered a new proportion of the object, and provided a visual of the products in the classroom in an immersive capacity.


The pilot study has offered insight into potential improvements to the overall study. A great deal of information still exists to be found through using the DiVE, especially qualitative data regarding object movement and positioning. Through the pilot study several issues were found with the format of the experiment involving time constraints and number of participants. The variation in the time limits for the two experiences resulted in mixed results. A constant time structure for both experiences is recommended. Since the study demonstrated that participants would have benefited in their understanding of the controls if more time were provided in experiencing the virtual prototypes, additional time will be utilized in the early stage of the virtual interactions to better understand controls.

The environment was kept simple and although multiple backgrounds were intended for this environment a single background was utilized in the pilot study due to time constraints and file complications. The researcher had no previous experience with Maya and learning the process of exporting from SketchUp to Maya took a period of trial and error. Several improvements can be made to the environment to improve the participant experience including sounds, which may or may not add to the intended experience of adopting the child’s point of view.

Ultimately, the student researcher found the DiVE to be an excellent tool for viewing and evaluating simple manipulations of the virtual products. The project was a success in developing a relationship with Duke and creating the immersive virtual environment. Using what has been learned through this process, further progress can be made in adopting the practice of immersive virtual product design when designing for children. The researcher will continue with the study which will comprise of a several revisions to the environment and questionnaire, along with a teacher participant session to gather further qualitative information regarding the experience of understanding the child’s point of view.


Bao, J., Jin, Y., Gu, M., Yan, J., & Ma, D. (2002). Immersive Virtual Product Development. Journal of Materials Processing Technology, 129, 592-596.

Bruno, F., Caruso, F., Li, K., Milite, A., & Muzzupappa, M. (2008). Dynamic simulation of virtual prototypes in immersive environment. The International Journal of Advanced Manufacturing Technology, 43(5-6), 620-630.

Carreau, P., & Pelletier, H. (2004). The despecialization of objects. Platform, Printemps/Spring 2004(Interior Design, In Other Words), 16-17.

Chak, A. (2002). Understanding Children's Curiosity and Exploration through the Lenses of Lewin's Field Theory: on Developing and Appraisal Framework. Early Child Development and Care, 172(1), 77-87

Dunston, P. S., Arns, L. L., & McGlothlin, J. D. (2007). An Immersive Virtual Reality Mock-Up For Design Review of Hospital Patient Rooms. Presented at the 7th International Conference on Construction Applications of Virtual Reality.

Gibson, J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Joch, A. (2005). Virtual Reality and Digital Modeling Go on Trial for a Federal Courtroom Design. Architectural Record. Retrieved from

Kytta, M. (2006). Environmental Child-Friendliness in the Light of the Bullerby Model. In Children and their environments: learning, using, and designing spaces (pp. 141-158). Cambridge UK; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Oh, H., Yoon, S., & Hawley, J. (2004). What Virtual Reality Can Offer to the Furniture Industry. Journal of Textile and Apparel Technology and Management, 4(1), 2-17.

Passig, D., Klein, P., & Noyman, T. (2001). Awareness of Toddlers' Initial Cognitive Experiences with Virtual Reality. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 17, 332-344.

Patera, M., & Draper, S. W. (2007). Do Immersive Environments Improve Interior Design Students' Apprehension of Space? In Learning and Teaching with Technology in Art Design and Communication. Presented at the Design on eLearning. Retrieved from

Spalter, A. (1999). 3D Input and Output. In The Computer in the Visual Arts (pp. pp 297-316). Addison Wesley Longman Inc.

Visualization Technology Group. (2008). Retrieved from

1 comment:

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