Digital economy: the SHIVA project – using geometric modelling research to give a creative outlet to disabled children

The digital economy makes a significant contribution to the overall UK economy, and the rapid advance of technology means that research in this area to unlock its benefits for all sections of  society is important. A group from Bournemouth University’s National Centre for Computer Animation (NCCA) have applied their technical knowledge and expertise to the area of education,  which has led to some fantastic results for young people at the local Victoria Education Centre. The impact of the SHIVA project was recognised through a 2015 Times Higher Education Award for Outstanding Digital Innovation in Teaching or Research.

Artistic activities are an important educational and therapeutic tool, but people with disabilities, who have little or no limb control, can find it difficult to engage using conventional methods, unable to access tools to express their creativity and imagination. A team from NCCA have have adapted their research to develop a software system that enables disabled students to bring art to life.

They have worked with Victoria Education Centre – a local school for children with physical and learning disabilities – on the SHIVA project (Sculpture for Healthcare: Interaction and Virtual Art in 3D), enabling the students to create and 3D print complex objects. The project combines technology and software developed by the team with simple artistic commands and controls allowing the children to create shapes including teddy bears, buildings and Christmas decorations.

“When the project started it was just an idea to make something in 3D for these children,” explains BU’s Professor of Computer Animation Alexander Pasko, who has led on the project. “But then we thought let’s add 3D printing to it so they can produce something tangible. So we took our approach to modelling and made the rendering very fast so that children could modify the sculpture or figurine and produce them in real-time.”

With no suitable existing virtual sculpting software the team worked with the school to accommodate the various needs and abilities of the different users. “Creating the interface for SHIVA was the difficult part,” Professor Pasko adds. “Each child had to have their own interface – some of them can only touch the screen, some can only use their eyes and so on – and so it has to be reconfigurable per person.”

A number of prototypes were developed in conjunction with the school, resulting in a ‘totem-pole’ sculpting system; the user stacks objects together and performs simple modelling operations to create and transform shapes. Their model is then 3D printed, giving the children a tangible output for their creativity. It has been used by 15 students; including two who use eye gaze technology.  Onestudent who began by creating random objects can now make identifiable models, such as a teddy-bear. By applying their technical expertise to a different discipline – that of education – the  team have broughtsignificant benefits to the young people and teachers at Victoria College.

“The children who participated have changed their perspectives about what they can and can’t do”, says Professor Pasko, adding that the SHIVA software has been used by teachers and therapists  at the school in learning and art-based activities, as well as improving manual dexterity and cognitive development. The team now plans to work with a small startup company to develop and  commercialise the SHIVA software, which was supported by EU Interreg program funding, and includes partners from France and Norway.

“We think we need to develop this further to install it in several schools for children with special needs and collect more statistically significant data,” says Professor Pasko. The SHIVA project is the latest strand in years of research and activity conducted by the team to improve and enhance geometric modelling in virtual environments. They have developed mathematical equations that allow more complex and naturalistic virtual modelling, enabling many unusual operations including smooth transitions between the shapes and interiors of objects.

“The current dominating idea is that you model the surface, maybe you paint it somehow with textures and so on, but it’s still empty inside,” explains Professor Pasko. “If you take a computer game, for example, and you chop an object with a sword, using the current approach you see that empty space – but with our approach you would be able to see everything inside.”

Such approaches have become increasingly important as technology rapidly develops and multi-material and 3D printing becomes more accessible. The team’s techniques and equations can potentially be used to model and 3D print both natural and complex artificial objects ranging from medical parts to customised jewellery. The advent of 3D printing technology may also influence  more traditional animation techniques, such as creating and animating models in stop-motion.

Dr Valery Adzhiev, Senior Research Lecturer, says: “Before they used to shoot the animation using models handmade from Plasticine or similar materials, which was quite labour-intensive and  time-consuming, now computers can produce and 3D print these characters with small differences and unlimited preciseness. With our approach, it’s more natural looking because it gives the model everything that they would have in real-life.”

Following the success of the project and their recent Times Higher Education Award, the team hope that their work in equations and modelling will continue to make a tangible difference to  children and industry for years to come.

McLoughlin, L., Fryazinov, O., Moseley, M., Sanchez, M., Adzhiev, V., Comninos, P. and Pasko, A., (2016) Virtual sculpting and 3D printing for young people with disabilities.

This article appeared in the 2016 Bournemouth Research Chronicle. Download a copy of the magazine, or view the articles online.