User Interface for Volume Rendering in Virtual Reality Environments

by   Jonathan Klein, et al.

Volume Rendering applications require sophisticated user interaction for the definition and refinement of transfer functions. Traditional 2D desktop user interface elements have been developed to solve this task, but such concepts do not map well to the interaction devices available in Virtual Reality environments. In this paper, we propose an intuitive user interface for Volume Rendering specifically designed for Virtual Reality environments. The proposed interface allows transfer function design and refinement based on intuitive two-handed operation of Wand-like controllers. Additional interaction modes such as navigation and clip plane manipulation are supported as well. The system is implemented using the Sony PlayStation Move controller system. This choice is based on controller device capabilities as well as application and environment constraints. Initial results document the potential of our approach.



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Volume Rendering applications require sophisticated user interaction for the definition and refinement of transfer functions. Traditional 2D desktop user interface elements have been developed to solve this task, but such concepts do not map well to the interaction devices available in Virtual Reality environments.

In this paper, we propose an intuitive user interface for Volume Rendering specifically designed for Virtual Reality environments. The proposed interface allows transfer function design and refinement based on intuitive two-handed operation of Wand-like controllers. Additional interaction modes such as navigation and clip plane manipulation are supported as well.

The system is implemented using the Sony PlayStation Move controller system. This choice is based on controller device capabilities as well as application and environment constraints.

Initial results document the potential of our approach.

1 Introduction

Volume Rendering visualizes 3D grids of voxels. Each voxel typically stores a scalar value representing density, as retrieved via a 3D scanning technique such as CT or MRI. Direct Volume Rendering techniques such as volume ray casting work directly on the voxel data instead of extracted geometry such as isosurfaces. Such techniques use a transfer function to map voxel values to opacity and color. The volume ray caster then generates a ray through the 3D grid for every pixel in the image plane, samples the voxel data along the ray, and composites the opacity and color information given by the transfer function to compute the final pixel color.

A basic transfer function is a one-dimensional function that directly maps a scalar voxel value to opacity and color. Volume Rendering applications require user interface concepts that allow efficient and precise design and refinement of such transfer functions, to enable the user to visualize the interesting parts of the volume data set. In the traditional 2D graphical user interface domain of desktop systems, this problem is solved using 2D widgets that typically allow mouse-based manipulation of the functions [3]. This paper focuses on one-dimensional transfer functions, but note that advanced two-dimensional transfer functions models exist that take the gradient or the curvature at the voxel location into account and require even more complex user interfaces.

Since Virtual Environments are especially well suited to explore spatial properties of complex 3D data, bringing Volume Rendering applications into such environments is a natural step. However, defining new user interfaces suitable both for the Virtual Environment and for the Volume Rendering application is difficult. Previous approaches mainly focused on porting traditional 2D point-and-click concepts to the Virtual Environment [8, 5, 9]. This tends to be unintuitive, to complicate the interaction, and to make only limited use of available interaction devices.

In this paper, we propose an intuitive 3D user interface for Volume Rendering based on interaction devices that are suitable for Virtual Reality environments. We focus on a simplified approach to design and refine transfer functions that allows intuitive use of interaction devices, specifically the Sony PlayStation Move controller system. Our demonstration system also supports other Volume Rendering interaction modes such as navigation and clip plane manipulation.

The remainder of this paper is organized as follows. Sec. 2 discusses related work. In Sec. 3, we describe our user interface concepts in detail, and present its implementation based on Sony PlayStation Move controllers in a Virtual Reality Lab. Initial results are shown in Sec. 4. Sec. 5 concludes this paper.

2 Related Work

One of the first applications of Volume Rendering in a Virtual Reality environment was presented by Brady et al. in 1995 [1]. This early work concentrated on navigation using a Wand-like device. In 2000, Wohlfahrter et al. presented a two-handed interaction system with support for navigating, dragging, scaling, and cutting volume data in a Virtual Reality environment [12]. Neither of these early approaches supported transfer function manipulation.

One of the first works on transfer function editing for Volume Rendering in Virtual Reality environments was presented by Schulze-Döbold et al. in 2001 [8]. Their transfer function editor requires a 6 DOF controller with three buttons. The controller is primarily used to point at an interaction element to select it for manipulation. To control scalar values, the editor uses virtual knobs that are manipulated by twisting the hand. The three buttons are used to manipulate position and size of the 2D transfer function editor inside the 3D environment. This interface is directly based on the 2D desktop point-an-click interface. Consequently, the authors refer to the controller as a 3D mouse. Schulze-Döbold later refined the user interface based on feedback collected in a user study [7], but the principal design remained unchanged.

Wössner et al. reuse Schulze-Döbold’s work for the purpose of collaborative volume exploration in distributed setups [13]. Kniss et al. split the task of defining multidimensional transfer functions into a classification step and an exploration step [5]. The classification step, which defines the transfer function, is performed prior to visualization on a classical 2D desktop system using the mouse. The Virtual Reality interface is based on Schulze-Döbold’s work.

Later works also mainly use variations of this approach of bringing 2D point-and-click interfaces to 3D environments [4, 9]. An exception is the work of Tawara and Ono from 2010, in which they combined a Wiimote and a motion tracking cube to get a tracked manipulation device for a volume data application [11]. However, their approach focuses on volume segmentation in augmented reality; in particular, it does not support transfer function manipulation.

3 3D User Interface for Volume Rendering

A user interface for Volume Rendering applications must support two key interaction modes:

  • Navigation. This allows to inspect the volume from various perspectives by applying translations and rotations. A Virtual Reality environment with user tracking additionally allows the user to move around the volume.

  • Transfer function manipulation. A transfer function allows to visualize the interesting parts of the volume (by assigning color and opacity to the interesting voxel value ranges) and at the same time remove other parts of the volume from view (by mapping the corresponding voxel values to zero opacity).

In addition to these modes, Volume Rendering applications usually provide supplemental tools such as clip planes.

Figure 1: Overview of the Virtual Reality environment

In this paper, we focus on the transfer function manipulation mode of the user interface.

3.1 Choice of Input Devices

Our choice of input devices, interface concepts, and implementation details was based on the interaction requirements given by the Volume Rendering application, with special emphasis on transfer function manipulation, and on the specific constraints given by the Virtual Reality environment.

The Virtual Reality environment which we used in this project has an open cylindrical screen and a floor screen, providing a wide field of view. See Fig. 1 and 2. The cylindrical screen has four rear-projection stereo channels and the floor screen has two front-projection stereo channels. Additionally, the environment provides optical user tracking.

We considered interaction devices that are based on readily available and affordable hardware components and provide enough input facilities for both navigation and transfer function editing. Devices that fulfill these criteria include the Microsoft Kinect, the Nintendo Wiimote, and the Sony PlayStation Move. Traditional game controllers as well as the Flystick provided by our optical tracking system were excluded since they do not provide enough input facilities.

Microsoft Kinect uses an optical tracking system to follow the movement of the user, allowing full-body gesture interaction. Unfortunately the Kinect system requires the camera to be placed directly in front of the user, which was not possible in our environment. We experimented with a Kinect camera placed at the top of the screen and looking at the user with an angle of approximately 45 degrees, but this setup leads to unusable tracking data.

The concepts of the Wiimote and the Move are similar. In both systems the user holds a wand-like controller in his hand that can measure its movement and orientation. The Move system additionally uses an optical tracking system to determine the absolute position of the controller, and can therefore provide position and orientation data with higher precision and reliability. In contrast to the Kinect system, the Move system works fine with the camera mounted on top of the screen, as shown in Fig. 1. Furthermore, the Move controller has a glowing bulb on top whose color can be changed. This gives interesting opportunities for user feedback (see Sec. 3.2.1).

Recently, Takala et al. identified a lack of user interface concepts based on the PlayStation Move system, partly due to the locked-up nature of the SDK [10]. That situation has changed: the SDK is now freely available for educational and research purposes. Additionally, prices for the hardware part of system dropped significantly.

For these reasons, we chose to base our experiments on the PlayStation Move system.

Figure 2: Interactive Volume Rendering in the Virtual Reality environment

3.2 Interface Concept

To allow both navigation and transfer function manipulation and to have enough input facilities for the various functionalities required by these two modes, we decided to use both the Move controller (for the right hand) and an additional Move Nav-Pad (for the left hand). See Fig. 


. The Move controller, whose bulb is tracked by the camera of the system, is used for manipulation (translation and rotation in navigation mode, and modification in transfer function editing mode), while the Move Nav-Pad is used for selection and switching purposes. This configuration is classified by Schultheis et al. 

[6] as an asymmetric two-handed interface using two Wand-like input devices.

3.2.1 Transfer Function Editing

Small changes to a transfer function can result in significant changes in the visualization result, and usually more than one range of voxel values represents interesting parts of the volume data. For this reason, typical Volume Rendering applications allow to specify the transfer function using piecewise linear building blocks. However, this requires a very fine-grained control, typically using a Mouse-based interface.

In order to allow more intuitive manipulation of transfer functions using hand-held devices that typically favor coarser control movements, we use a different transfer function model. In our model, a transfer function is defined as the sum of window functions, called peaks. Each peak highlights a small voxel value range in a specific color.

Figure 3: The Sony PlayStation Move Nav-Pad (left) and controller (right). Both devices provide digital buttons (green) and an analogue trigger (blue). The Nav-Pad provides an additional analogue stick (red), while the controller has a bulb (orange) on its top that can glow in different colors.

A peak is defined by its center , width , and height :


(Alternatively, different window functions could be used).

The result of a transfer function for a voxel value is then defined as the result of alpha-blending the peak colors using the peak value as the opacity value.

In practical use, only a small number of peaks is required, since more peaks tend to clutter up the visualization result. An example is given in Fig. 4.

This transfer function model significantly reduces the number of parameters that a user has to modify, while still allowing flexible and powerful transfer functions.

The user can add a peak to a transfer function and select its color from a list of predefined colors using digital buttons on the Move Nav-Pad (see Fig. 3). Similarly, peaks can be deleted, temporarily disabled, or selected for parameter adjustment using additional Nav-Pad buttons.

To change the center , width , and height of a peak, the Move controller is used. We tried different combinations of mapping these three peak parameters to the -, -, and -axes of the Move controller. Using the -axis proved to be unintuitive and therefore difficult to control. Our current solution is that the user has to choose (using buttons on the Move controller) to adjust either and or . This has the advantage that both adjustments take place in the -plane. The reason for separating from the other parameters was that the visualization result is especially sensitive to changes of peak widths, so that users tend to first define position and height of a peak and then fine-tune the result by adjusting its width.

To provide the user with visual feedback about the current transfer function properties and the selection state, we display an overview widget at a fixed position in the Virtual Environment, as shown in Fig. 4. Note that this widget is for informational purposes only and does not require traditional point-and-click functionality.

As an additional aid, we set the color of the glowing Move controller bulb to the color of the transfer function that is currently selected. Experienced users can use this feedback to determine the current state of transfer function manipulation without looking at the overview widget.

3.2.2 Navigation

Navigation is implemented by performing translation and rotation using the tracked Move controller. Translation is active while the largest digital button of the Move controller is pressed, while rotation is active while the analogue trigger of the Move controller is pressed. See Fig. 3. Translation works by directly applying Move controller position changes to the volume. Rotation works by mapping horizontal controller movements to volume rotations around the -axis, vertical movements to volume rotations around the -axis, and controller rotations around the -axis to volume rotations around the -axis.

An obvious alternative would be to directly apply both Move controller position and orientation changes to the volume while in navigation mode, but separating translation and orientation in the way described above allows a more fine-grained control of movement, which is useful to examine smaller volume areas in detail. Furthermore, mapping controller movements to rotations instead of directly using the controller orientation avoids uncomfortable wrist positions. Requiring a button to be pressed for navigation mode allows the user to move freely in the Virtual Reality environment without unintentionally moving the volume.

Figure 4: Transfer function defined by peaks. Each peak assigns color and opacity information to a voxel value range. The histogram of voxel values is displayed in white in the background.

3.3 Implementation

The physical setup is described by Fig. 1.

Our software implementation is based on the Equalizer framework for parallel and distributed rendering [2]. This allows the application to run across the six nodes of our render cluster, each of which renders one of the stereo channels using two graphics cards.

We used the official Move.Me SDK from Sony for connecting the PlayStation Move system to Equalizer. The controller sends its sensor data via Bluetooth to the PlayStation console, on which the Move.Me SDK runs as a server application. Our application acts as a client to this server and receives position, orientation, and button state data via network UDP packets. This data is transformed to custom input events and handed over to the Equalizer event handling mechanisms to allow consistent input event handling.

The GPU-based volume ray caster is based on a ray casting shader implementation provided by the Visualization Library project111 The ray caster is straightforward but proved sufficient for our purposes while being fast enough for interactive use in a Virtual Reality environment.

Figure 5: Predefined result
Figure 6: Result of the experienced user
Figure 7: Result of the inexperienced user

4 Initial Results

In the figures throughout this paper, we used the “Baby Head” data set available from the volume library of Stefan Roettger222

As a first test of our concept, we performed an experiment involving one test user with experience in both Virtual Reality and Volume Rendering applications and another test user with no experiences in these domains.

The task for these two test users was to reproduce a visualization result for the “Baby Head” data set, starting from a default transfer function. The predefined visualization result was produced with a transfer function consisting of three peaks that separate the skeleton (green), the teeth (red), and the skin (blue). See Fig. 7.

The experienced test user was able to solve the task in less than half a minute with good results, shown in Fig. 7. After an introduction to controller usage and button configuration, the inexperienced user was able to achieve a satisfying result, shown in Fig. 7, in approximately one minute.

In this and similar experiments with several test data sets (only one of which is shown here), the simplified transfer function model was powerful enough and the transfer function manipulation was precise enough to highlight interesting aspects the data. More demanding data sets might require more fine-grained control, which may require changes to the transfer function model and/or adjustments to the interface sensitivity.

The two-handed interface requires some coordination between both hands which inexperienced users are unaccustomed to. However, after some practice, this does not seem pose a problem.

Another challenge especially for inexperienced users is to remember the mapping between controller movements and buttons to the various interaction functionalities of the application. We plan to integrate an online help function that displays images of the controllers on screen, along with schematic descriptions of their usage, in order to avoid the need for leaving the Virtual Reality environment to look up user interface documentation.

Despite these shortcomings, we believe the approach has the potential to be usable in real-world Volume Rendering applications.

5 Conclusion

We propose a 3D user interface concept for Volume Rendering in Virtual Environments. Unlike previous approaches, this concept does not try to map traditional 2D point-and-click concepts to the Virtual Environment; instead, it is based on a set of intuitive user actions using the Sony PlayStation Move controller system.

For this purpose, a simplified transfer function model was designed that allows a reduction of interaction complexity. This comes at the cost of reduced flexibility and precision when compared to a traditional 2D desktop interface, but we believe that our system is still flexible and precise enough for exploration of most volume data sets, while allowing faster and more intuitive manipulation of transfer functions.

In the future, we would like to refine the interface based on user feedback. Furthermore, it would be interesting to explore the possibility to extent our approach to two-dimensional transfer functions.


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