As a soft breeze breaks through the springtime heat at Zoo Atlanta, a young female gorilla's mind turns to troublemaking. She heads toward a large silverback male resting in the shade of an immense oak tree.
At first, he simply glares at the youngster as she playfully lunges at him and strikes aggressive poses she's learned from the others. But when his stares and annoyed coughs go unheeded, he suddenly charges the juvenile, screaming and beating his fists against his chest. Wisely, she flees.
Excited and a little scared, the female retreats to a nearby wooden shelter and pulls off her helmet. This gorilla, as it turns out, is actually a human student seeing firsthand how apes interact in the wild, through virtual reality.
The experience is part of a unique educational program being tested by Zoo Atlanta and Georgia Institute of Technology. At a press conference May 15, researchers from both organizations demonstrated what they believe is the world's first virtual reality gorilla exhibit.
Local schoolchildren were on hand to try out the virtual reality system, which puts them into a real gorilla habitat as a member of a gorilla family. The demonstrations were in the Ford African Rain Forest's Gorillas of the Cameroon Interpretive Center, against the backdrop of the home of Zoo Atlanta's most famous gorilla, Willie B.
In the future, researchers hope to create a program that can run on smaller, less expensive computers, allowing it to be installed permanently at the zoo as well as tour schools.
"Our Zoo Atlanta team of scientists and educators first began to plan a 'virtual zoo' three years ago," said Dr. Terry L. Maple, director of the zoo and one of the world's foremost authorities on gorilla behavior. "We instantly thought of Georgia Tech as our design partner, and we are extremely impressed with the scholarly approach taken by Dr. (Larry F.) Hodges and Dr. (Jean) Wineman, who have worked closely with our behavior experts.
"Today, we introduce the 'virtual gorilla' experience," he added. "With the help of Georgia Tech, we hope to work together to expand this project so that the 'virtual zoo' will one day be a reality."
To make the project an effective teaching tool, researchers worked hard to make both the virtual environment and the virtual apes as realistic as possible, said Hodges, an associate professor in Georgia Tech's College of Computing and an associate director of the school's Graphics, Visualization and Usability Center.
To properly recreate the gorilla's environment, the researchers -- led by Hodges and Wineman, associate professor and director of the doctoral program in the College of Architecture -- used photographs, videos, contour maps, architectural blueprints and design layouts.
"This is the most accurate and detailed model of a real outdoor area that has ever been created for a virtual environment," Hodges said. "Brian Wills (a research scientist in the College of Architecture) has spent over 700 hours creating the computer model of the habitat."
Accurate models, in turn, will help researchers design better habitats -- a goal of any zoo conservationist -- and build better exhibits for spectators.
But making an accurate virtual reality environment was only half the work. The virtual gorillas also have to look and behave like real gorillas.
Using videos, anthropomorphic data and behavioral data on movement and interaction, Georgia Tech doctoral student Don Allison created virtual gorillas that simulate real movement and generalized behavior.
"Our job was, 'Can we do something that would be accurate gorilla behavior?' " Hodges explained. "So if an adolescent male gorilla approaches the dominant silverback male gorilla, the Zoo Atlanta researchers could tell us the range and probabilities of the silverback's actual responses."
Zoo researchers are impressed with the final outcome, which wasn't easy to achieve. Unlike monkeys, apes are not extremely active animals, and much of their social interaction is subtle -- a cut of the eyes, a flick of the hand or an annoyed cough.
"People always expect them to be like monkeys, who do run around," said Lori Perkins, conservation biologist with the zoo's Conservation Action Resource Center (ARC). "The Georgia Tech researchers certainly could have gone in that direction. They could have made a cartoon gorilla. But the whole point was to make it realistic."
Students using the virtual reality system will be transported into the zoo's Habitat 3 with a typical gorilla family. In reality, this habitat is the home of Willie B, a 439-lb silverback male, and his family -- Kinyani, Shamba, the pregnant Mia Moja, Choomba and her 2-year-old infant Kudzoo.
The students will assume the role of a juvenile gorilla who becomes restless in the company of an adult male and an adult female, both of whom are resting contently. The male will rebuke an annoying or aggressive approach. Females are more tolerant and will accept a meek approach as an invitation for grooming.
The juvenile, who is at the bottom of the hierarchy, will always back down from a fight.
"The best way for kids to understand gorilla behavior is to become a gorilla," said Kyle Burks, a Conservation ARC research associate. "This experience is probably the closest we could come in the world to doing that."
Dr. Rita McManamon, Zoo Atlanta's senior vice president of veterinary services and director of the Conservation ARC, agreed.
"This project represents a powerful educational tool," she said. "The partnership of advanced technological capabilities and accurate behavioral information from zoo researchers can allow children to truly experience the dynamic social world of these fascinating creatures."
The project also "has implications for learning about peaceful resolution of conflict, one of the many things kids can learn from gorillas as a result of this partnership," she added.
Funding for the project comes from Zoo Atlanta and Georgia Tech's EduTech Institute. The Graphics, Visualization and Usability Center provided virtual reality and computer resources.
Conservation ARC research associate Kristen Lukas also served as a gorilla behavior consultant for the project.
For more information, check out the Virtual Reality Gorilla Exhibit web page: (http://www.cc.gatech.edu/grads/a/Don.Allison/gorilla/gorilla.html).