Virtual Raft Floats Human-Computer Interaction Themes at UC Irvine

By Anna Lynn Spitzer

12.09.04 --Bill Tomlinson likes to play with his imaginary friends. When the Calit² academic participant and assistant professor of informatics and drama isn't teaching students in the ACE (Arts Computation Engineering) graduate program, he devotes his time to a research prototype that employs computer-generated animated characters.

Bill Tomlinson
Bill Tomlinson

The characters in Tomlinson's Virtual Raft project reside in small communities on three "virtual islands" - desktop computer screens. Real space is like an ocean to these animated people - individuals born on one island are unable to travel to the other islands without human help. Handheld tablet PCs serve as rafts that humans use to help their animated counterparts migrate from one island to another. When a human participant brings the raft close to one of the islands, a virtual resident can jump onto it, balancing on the raft while being carried to one of the other islands. Once the raft is close enough to another island, the character on the raft can jump off onto its new home.

The project delighted guests at the grand opening of the Calit² building last month ( In April, Tomlinson will take it to the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2005), in Portland, Ore., a renowned conference on human-computer interactions. The cutting-edge Virtual Raft demonstration features autonomous behavior, interactive animation, a computer vision system and a novel handheld interface.

In addition to sharing his work with the academic community, Tomlinson plans to use the project as an educational tool. He believes human-computer interaction paradigms can be used to teach social studies, ecology or color theory in an engaging and easily understood fashion.

"The core metaphor behind the Virtual Raft is that real space is like water to a virtual character and virtual space is like land for them," Tomlinson explains. "People have an intuitive grasp of this because they understand the concept of land, and they know that everyone needs water to survive. Using a metaphor to a set of ideas that people already recognize can help them to understand a new interaction paradigm."

Virtual Raft Project
Virtual Raft Project
Screenshots of the Virtual Raft Project

Tomlinson would like to see the demonstration installed at science museums and other public venues. In the future, he's also planning to adapt the demonstration to include different types of animated species in order to convey ecological and environmental biology themes.

Tomlinson holds a joint appointment in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences and the Claire Trevor School of the Arts.

A short video about the Virtual Raft project can be viewed online at: