Virtual Reality in Geography.  Peter Fisher & David Unwin (ed.). London and New York: Taylor & Francis, 2002.  X and 404 pp., maps, diagrs., photos, index, CD-ROM.  $85.00 hardcover (ISBN 0-7484-0905-X).

 

Reviewed by Michael P. Peterson, Department of Geography, University of Nebraska at Omaha, Omaha, Nebraska.

 

Virtual reality (VR) has intrigued geographers for over a decade.  More than one colleague of mine has been heard to say that they would like to pursue research in the area, if they could find the time.  The notion of virtual, whatever it may be, is appealing particularly for cartographers and geographers, who struggle with the representation of reality and the thought that present representations in the form of maps are somehow too abstract and therefore not sufficiently meaningful.  It is this very struggle that pervades this edited volume.

 

Of course, abstraction is central to our understanding of the world.  To some extent, the more abstract the representation, the better it works as a functional representation of reality.  Indeed, what is our purpose if not to make abstractions of the world, in various forms, that are more useful and descriptive than examining the world itself.  I am reminded of a famous scene from the movie A Few Good Men in which Jack Nicholson's character, upon questioning by a prosecutor at a military trial, responds:  "You want the truth? You can't handle the truth!"

 

This collection of works is the result of a workshop held in association with the Institute of British Geographers in 1999.   Of the 40 authors, 33 are from the UK.  The 25 chapters are divided into four sections: 1) Introduction to VR and technology; 2) Virtual Landscapes; 3) Virtual Cities; and 4) Other Worlds.  The CD contains 53.2 MB of material, mostly color reproductions of the figures from the book and an online version of the references with links to sources of information. About half of the illustrations are in B&W, or work just as well in B&W, so the CD is not a great help for this.  In addition, some of the color JPEG illustrations have been needlessly compressed and are not very clear.  Chapters 9 and 10 are accompanied with actual VR files on the CD presented in the VRML format.  Chapter 9, done by a group from the University of Anglia in Norwich has over a hundred of them. A plug-in needs to be installed to view these files through a web browser.  The CD also contains an interesting and operational computer program called panoraMap that allows the user to click on a map and view a panorama scene of the area while the corresponding map depicts the current field of view.

 

One of the underlying themes of the book is the attempt at defining the nature of virtual reality.  Jo Wood, one of the chapter authors, comments that the danger of a book with 25 chapters on virtual reality is that it will provide 25 definitions of the term.  Indeed, there is an element of that to this book.  Nowhere is this more evident than in Chapter 2 as the six authors for Part 1 of the book present alternative schematic representations of virtual reality that embody each of their views.  These representations are analogous to models of cartographic communication that include stages such as the geographical environment, the recognized geographical environment, representation and user.  They all seem to agree that VR ties the user into the representation stage, in a similar way to previous definitions of interactive cartography but with a stronger tie between the representation and the user.  Mark Gillings, in Chapter 3, addresses the definition problem most directly.  As he states, "VR appears to have achieved widespread acceptance without having any history of its own production, or any clear definition as to what precisely it is" (p. 18).  He goes on to state that VR is "… shaped by desires and expectations rather than any detailed understanding and careful evaluation … An expensive form of 'eye-candy', there to be visually devoured and little more" (p. 19).  He concludes that "Any adherence to a single, orthodox classification, or search for any stable and emphatic definition is not only inherently futile, but also profoundly restrictive" (p. 24).

As technology evolves, the creation of nebulous concepts, such as virtual reality, is inevitable.  It is now a part of our language, our jargon, and we must do the best we can with it – and find applications where it, or something like it, is genuinely useful.  The chapters that follow attempt to do this. Brodlie & El-Khalili examine web-based applications that bring the technology to a wider audience. Haklay looks at the intersection of GIS and VR. Menno-Jan Kraak examines the concept of visual exploration in VR, a process analogous to cartographic visualization.  Part 1 of the book ends with an examination of geo-referenced digital panoramic imagery by Jason Dykes.

 

 The virtual landscapes section begins with a multi-authored chapter by authors from the second part of the book. Andrew Lovett, et al, follow with the longest chapter in the book that examines the representation of agricultural landscapes. David Miller, et al, then look at the potential of assessing the visual impact of the development of wind turbines on a rural landscape.  Iain Brown, et al, examine GIS data structures for VR.  Jo Wood looks at scale dependencies in VR representations.  Purves, et al, discuss the problem of providing context in VR.  Moore & Gerrard present a VR tour of a fieldwork destination area in South Devon. 

 

The third part of a book on virtual cities begins again with a multi-authored introductory chapter by the authors of this section.  Fairbairn & Taylor look at data collection issues, including GPS and land surveying techniques.   Ogleby uses VR to reconstruct the ancient city of Ayutthaya in present-day Thailand.  Moore looks at visualizing more abstract urban data and a program called UrbanModeller.  Batty & Smith examine how virtuality is embodied within representations of cities.

 

The fourth part of the book also begins with an introductory chapter to the book by the authors of this last section.  Dodge then describes the artifical VR world embodied in AlphaWorld, an online system for social interaction.  Harvey looks at a VR system for visualizing data quality.  Kitchin and Dodge examine the mapping of VR spaces.  Cheesman and Perkins look at the use of VR to look at the mapping and navigational skills of visually-impaired people.  Finally, Jacobson et al, examine multi-modal VR systems that provide qualitatively different forms of spatial representation from traditional media such as maps.

 

The promise of virtual reality is that it gets us a step closer to the truth, even if it turns out that we can’t “handle the truth.”  Although virtual reality has certainly been “over-hyped,” there are valid applications – as this book demonstrates  – and perhaps many more to be discovered.  It is certainly a valid area of interest for both geographers and cartographers, and something of which to take notice.  With few exceptions, tools for VR are still rudimentary and with poor user-interfaces.  Most of all, the guiding concepts for VR, particularly its relationship with maps and other media, still needs to evolve.

 

In summary, this book is an interesting collection of essays and would be a valuable supplement to an upper-division undergraduate or graduate course.  Only a few of the chapters, however, would help those colleagues of mine with an interest in VR actually become proficient in the area.  It will provide them with a good overview of the field and an introduction to some of the problems and potential of virtual reality.

 

Keywords:  cartography, visualization, virtual worlds, non-immersive VR