Time bandits make real gains in virtual space

July 10, 1998

Many British universities are missing out on the spectacular benefits of virtual reality technology for teaching and learning. Roy Kalawsky points to a few that are leading the field

Practical aspects of study such as laboratory or workshop sessions are important, but access to well-equipped laboratories is expensive in terms of equipment provision and supervision. To maximise this important resource it is necessary to schedule laboratory sessions and this in turn imposes time constraints on the student.

What is required is a means of providing access to a virtual laboratory where most of the practical experience can be gained. This does not imply that real laboratories will become redundant. The virtual laboratory will supplement the student's experience and maximise the use of the student's time in the laboratory. To provide virtual laboratories requires the use of virtual reality (VR) technology.

VR is concerned with the delivery of a completely computer generated environment or experience to one or more people. Today's definition of VR is no longer restricted to someone wearing a head mounted display. Instead, other forms exist and cover the conventional desktop computer, large screen projection systems providing a semi-immersive experience through to all enveloping or fully immersive head mounted display systems. VR technology has matured considerably over the past three years to the point where it is perfectly feasible to consider using it as an educational support tool. In the formative years there were many unsubstantiated claims about the benefits of VR. Fortunately, as the technology has become better understood a more down-to-earth approach has been taken and serious applications are beginning to emerge.

Students enjoy interacting with a virtual environment as it allows them to explore different perspectives of a particular educational experience. In this respect the quality and context of the virtual environment is extremely important. To achieve a high degree of fidelity demands relatively expensive technology, although this will become more affordable in time. Probably the most important breakthrough for higher education establishments is the remarkable performance that can now be achieved by even a modest PC.

The cost of the hardware is becoming more accessible to the institution as well as the student. Coupling this with the increasing availability of network access for the student it is easy to predict that VR applications will become more commonplace. For example, in the not too distant future students will be able to remotely access a range of virtual laboratories from communal computer rooms or their networked study/bedroom.

A remotely accessible virtual laboratory removes the access barriers associated with conventional laboratories. Students are able to revisit the virtual laboratory for as long and as many times as necessary to complete their work.

It must be stressed that a virtual environment is a supplement to the real laboratory. The student could use the VR system to become familiar with the key concepts before being exposed to a laboratory session. By carefully designing the educational content of the VR experience it should be possible to make the time spent in the laboratory more effective.

The virtual environment has the advantage of being extremely flexible while supporting a high level of interaction. Virtual environments can mimic the real world on a range of scales from the microscopic to representations that deal with astronomical events. It is also perfectly feasible to use VR to present abstract concepts that relate to the material being studied. The educational institution's real investment is not necessarily in the delivery hardware, but is instead invested in the courseware. Isolating oneself from the underlying technology will be a challenge but not insurmountable.

There is a view that the United States is ahead in the application of VR to the education sector but the United Kingdom has also made significant progress. The misconception has come about because work in the US is reported more widely than the UK. There are more than 40 pre-developed VR applications being used in US schools in an exploratory sense to understand the value of the technology. There are also cases where the technology is being used in the US higher education sector, though the success or otherwise has not been reported.

However, in the UK the JISC Technology Applications Programme has sponsored a number of important VR based educational projects (http:// www.jtap.ac.uk/projects/ VR.html).

Many VR based educational tools were reviewed at the three-day international conference on Virtual Reality in Education and Training, in London which ended yesterday. At this second VRET conference the serious interest being shown in VR as a tool for the future educator was very evident. A number of institutions are now gearing themselves up to take advantage of VR technologies in support of their research and teaching.

Andrew Denford, chief executive of Denford Ltd, has established a set of virtual worlds to enhance the teaching of control and automated manufacturing technology. Students get the chance to design and evaluate a product using VR technology before passing the design on to a series of automated manufacturing tools which then manufacture a real prototype.

Another application is being produced at the University of Houston, Texas. A project called ScienceSpace will help students master important and difficult concepts in science. For example, MaxwellWorld supports the exploration of electrostatics and then leads onto Gauss's law. Other virtual environments are being produced with funding from the Applications of Advanced Technology Research Programme at the National Science Foundation. NASA is also supporting the project.

Roy Kalawsky is professor of human-computer integration and director of the Advanced VR Research Centre, Loughborough University. He chaired this week's VRET conference.

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