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July 8, 1993

ADVANCED ROBOTICS RESEARCH EXPLOITS ITS VIRTUAL REALITY TECHNOLOGY TO PROVE THERE’s LIFE AFTER GROVERNMENT GRANTS

By CBR Staff Writer

Since Salford-based Advanced Robotics Research Ltd lost it’s government funding last September, it has been examining how it can apply its work on virtual reality to the real world. The body was set up four years by the UK Department of Trade & Industry to develop the findings of the International Advanced Robotics programme, carried out in the mid-1980s, on a national level. Salford University won the bid to host the centre because of its links with industry and its focus on high technology. The work initially centred on how human operators interact with semi-autonomous robots, particularly in hazardous conditions, such as under water, on a battlefield, or in nuclear sites. Virtual reality was used to create virtual models of these dangerous environments as well as other less threatening architectural surroundings. The technology provided an intuitive human-computer interface, which enabled the operator to control his robots remotely. However, when funding for the Virtual Environment Remote Driving Experiment, Verdex, ran out, the centre realised it could exploit the expertise it had built up to develop new, more general applications for commmercial and industrial use. It formed a limited company, Advanced Robotics Research Ltd, and started trying to woo the hearts of businessmen. Luckily, the group had already generated some interest by undertaking free work for several firms, such as British Nuclear Fuels, to show them what uses virtual reality could be put to in their own projects. But, the big break came in January this year. An article carried in ew Scientist magazine sparked the interest of the BBC, which gave the firm coverage on the Nine O’Clock News. Things snowballed and within a couple of months, it had signed up 11 companies, ranging from ICI Plc to GEC Alsthom SA. Advanced Robotics works with such firms to develop mainly one-off applications, such as helping Rolls Royce Plc design the Trent 800 engine for the new Boeing 777. But its most successful market is working with local government on environmental impact studies. And it expects to be commissioned to develop a virtual model of the Olympic stadium, if Manchester wins the bid. The group has also strengthened its connections with Salford University, in particular the department of surveying. The department has for some time carried out basic research on virtual reality due to the technology’s environmental applications as mentioned above. But it has now incorporated a virtual reality module into the third year of its video, imaging and communications course.

Photographs the surface

Advanced Robotics managing director Bob Stone will act as visiting lecturer one day a week and aims to set up a similar research centre at the University complete with data link. Students can use the firm’s facilities and possibilities of employment exist if they prove suitable. Advanced Robotics specialises in taking basic models generated using standard computer-aided design packages and converting them for a Silicon Graphics Inc Onyx – Reality Engine 2 – machine, by means of proprietary conversion software. Textures are then scanned on top of the images to give them more depth and make them look more lifelike. For example, if a developer wants to create a virtual table, he draws its basic shape, using a computer-aided design package. He then transfers the image to his virtual reality workstation. With a standard camera, he photographs the surface of a table and scans it into his machine. He then layers the texture on top of the basic table shape to create a lifelike image. Advanced Robotics hopes to make this proprietary conversion software commercially available. The intention is to convert it for CAD++, a product that came out of the European Community STEP initiative. CAD++ takes data from one computer-aided design package and enables it to be used by another, but is currently limited to this world alone. The product is distributed in the UK by Simeo Ltd and Advanced Research sees the firm as a possible partner, although no agreement has been reached as yet. So, it se

ems there is life after government funding. The company is confident it can make a go of it and is already starting to come into its own financially – it generated UKP1.5m turnover this year and expects to be in profit within 12 months. – Catherine Everett

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