Educational Computing & Technology Magazine, January 1994

Main Feature

Virtual Reality in our classrooms now?

Look No Gloves!

David Palmer argues that education can - and must - continue to harness the power of VR

Virtual Reality (VR) is back in the news. At a conference recently the
general feeling was that either it would not happen for a long time or it
just was not relevant to education. This is patently untrue. Virtual Reality
(the creation electronically of a virtual, or simulat- ed. world with which the user can
interact) is going to be very important in education. It is already used intensively in
a variety of forms of teaching... perhaps the most obvious is its extensive use in
flight simulators.

Goggless

Nor does VR require a strange-looking head-set and glove. There are many more
areas of computer experience that could be legitimately described as VR: even a
game like Sonic the Hedgehog can be considered to be a form of Virtual Reality.
Indeed it is possible to make out a strong case for including text-based activities like
some business simulations and adventure games. Walk around any school computer
room when the students have a free choice of software and see what they are
doing. Certainly. there will be some who are wordprocessing but the majority will
be involved in interactive programs and most of those programs will be creating
some sort of electronic world with the children in control.
Given the level of stimulus which such software can supply, it is worth promoting
VR as a tool for learning. If, in the future. the sophistication of the interface reaches
the immersion level of the head-set then this stimulation will be proportionally
higher. This will not automatically mean an end to appreciation of the 'real' world.
One of the pioneers of the head-set tech- nology said that his vision of natural
objects was sharpened by his experience of artificial ones. Just as a spellchecker
does not spell for you but can improve your spelling skills, VR may be able to
improve your perception of the 'real' world. By allowing you to experience
worIds that are normally out of your reach it can offer a new perspective on
those things you take for granted.

Flights of fancy

No-one should ignore the potential of these tools. There are many simulations
used on school networks. Some are busi- ness and some are fantasy - with prob-
lem-solving built in. All of them are forms of VR which offer stimulation and learning
experiences. The technology involved is developing rapidly; it is becoming possible
to do things in real time that were not possible before. The quality of flight simu-
lators on desktop machines currently available illustrates this fact As more and
more powerful compression techniques are being developed on each pIatform, the
ability to handle changing images and viewpoints in a realistic way is becoming
increasingly feasible for near everyday use on existing machines.

Virtual Museum

Visual procedures which were previously only available on high-powered or dedicat-
ed computers are now much more com- mon. An example is the construction and
rendering of a building which you can then walk around or even enter. As an experi-
ment in presenting information through the medium of a virtual experience, Apple
have produced a CDROM called 'The Virtuol Museum'. This is only a test project
and not on sale. Students that I work with really enjoy it - watching them work you
have no doubt of its value as a tool. It uses the setting of a museum to present
multimedia resources in a variety of subjects. You see the lobby of the museum as
your starting point and can 'move' through the rooms and select displays
with which to interact These may produce Quicktime movies or simulations
related to the exhibit, all set in attractive frames. The most popular of these is the
'fly-over' on the surface of Mars. Information from the NASA Mars probe
was used to generate a model of the Martian surface which you can fly over - or
into! It includes a spectacular canyon and an extinct (or possibly dormant) volcano.
The Quicktime movies have VCR-type controls which allow you to control the play-
back and freeze individual frames.

There are also some very interesting movies of a foetus. Recordings have been
made with an ultrasound scanner at various stages of development for compari-
son. There is some humour too such as the reaction when you click on a bench
and hear a voice saying that 'due to the interactive nature of the exhibits, sitting is
not encouraged'

TV too

Virtual Reality certainly can be used for entertainment. This is good news, since
the mercenary engine of this sort of business is driving research along at a greater
pace than education could achieve on its own. Broadsword TV is a company at the
forefront of this exploration. They produce the television programmes
'Cyberzone' and 'Knightmare'. Take the time to watch a child getting invoIved in
the way these programmes develop if you want to see real fascination!
The company has also imported (at something over 100,000) a new
technology called 'Vactor' (short for Virtual Actor). It alIows a human to
map its facial movements onto a computer-generated face. The same
technology used for 'Knightmare' is also used on the Saturday morning
programme 'Alive and Kicking'. For a possible educational use, imagine
two computer-generated faces on the screen controlled by a teacher and a stu-
dent wearing the special head-sets with sensors attached. As the teacher says a
word, the face on the screen mimics the actions in perfect synchronisation with the
sound. The student can repeat the word and see if her/his face is moving in
the same way.

This is for use in special education but there are other uses as well.
Large audiences of adults can be quite engrossed by an animated charac-
ter on a screen talking to them while it is being controlled by a speaker off-stage.
They are involved in a way that normally only happens with the most charismatic of
speakers.

Special needs

One group that has no doubt about VR in education is VIRART (Virtual Reality
Applications Research Team). Based at Nottingham University, they are using VR
as a tool in an extraordinary range of ways. One project has created a variety of
virtual worlds for disabled children to explore. In this way they can gain insights
into everyday experiences that might otherwise remain out of reach. The lure of
VR for students might be the fact that with it you can reach worlds that are nor-
mally not physically accessible to them.

Imagine, for instance, being able to do an experiment in a laboratory on the
moon. The program Interactive Physics already allows this. Adding the sort of
stage set that is possible with full VR immersion would make it even more
vivid and memorable. Other projects create models of industrial situations either to
train operatives or to spot problems in the manufacturing process.

Another project maps an information set onto a 3-D world. This is particularly
exciting. I have seen students make fantastic progress with concepts in traditionally
difficult areas when they have made a link to real, concrete activities. Linking flat 2-D
information to a (virtual) 3-D world offers tne chance of dramatic gains. Most people
who have trained themselves to perform prodigious feats of memory use mental
3-D maps to store their data. It makes a lot of sense to formalise the technique.

Imagine the stimulating effect of being able to create a virtual world - possibly
modelled on a familiar place - and then attaching pieces of data to objects in the
virtual. world. On your computer screen you could practise wandering around this
world, touching the objects to examine the data that they contain. Soon you
would be able to recall the data without the computer screen by merely imagining
that you are near a key object.

Everyone's VR?

But - as was said at the beginning of this article - Virtual Reality is not confined to
the laboratory of the future or to university departments. So-caIled 'video games'
have much in common with VR. There is also much talk at the moment about the
dangers of such games. Concerns centre around repetitive strain injury, anti-social
behaviour and wasted time. Steven Heppell commented recently that we
spend a lot of time trying to train children to practise the scientific principles
'observe', 'hypothesize' and 'experiment'. Then we attack them for using these very
techniques, which are the only way to progress through the levels. The implica-
tion is that 'video-games' are thus a legitimate activity.