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Exploiting Virtual Reality Techniques in Education and Training: Technological Issues

4. Developments in VR Technology

4.1 Introduction

The term technology has multiple meanings from a pure hardware perspective to a more complete systems perspective where the term applies to the implementation of a concept. According to Microsoft’s Encarta 1995 encycloepedia :
“Technology, is a general term for the processes by which human beings fashion tools and machines to increase their control and understanding of the material environment. The term is derived from the Greek words tekhne, which refers to an art or craft, and logia, meaning an area of study; thus, technology means, literally, the study, or science, of crafting. Many historians of science argue not only that technology is an essential condition of advanced, industrial civilization but also that the rate of technological change has developed its own momentum in recent centuries. Innovations now seem to appear at a rate that increases geometrically, without respect to geographical limits or political systems. These innovations tend to transform traditional cultural systems, frequently with unexpected social consequences. Thus technology can be conceived as both a creative and a destructive process.”

Given the nature of technological development it is unwise to restrict this report to just hardware issues. The key to an effective virtual environment system is the close integration of enabling hardware with software support tools. This process of integration is often referred to as systems integration. This means that the concept of operation and the implementation (hardware and software) should be addressed together. Furthermore, there is such a close relationship between the hardware and the software that it is unwise to deal with each subject separately. More and more computer based systems incorporate software as part of their firmware and this makes it difficult to separate out the constituent parts. Before considering the type of technology used to implement a VR system for educational purposes it is useful to consider the various forms of virtual environment. The aim here is to dispel the belief that a virtual reality based system can only be provided by a head mounted display. In fact, a head mounted display may be the wrong device to use for some applications since it creates a single user experience. A broader definition of VR must be assumed which retains the key attributes of a VR system; namely the greater sense of presence and interaction the user gets when immersed in a virtual environment.

Perhaps of equal importance is the whole process of making a virtual environment available. While the technology used to deliver the virtual environment is very important so too is the technology used to create the virtual environment.

Overriding all these considerations is the need to address the human factors issues and in particular those attributes that either make it much easier or harder to achieve the required degree of education/training transfer. In many respects this will depend upon the nature and context of the training environment. However, it is important to ensure that the technology does not interfere with the learning process. An example of this is where an inappropriate update rate is provided. In this case the user quickly becomes frustrated with the system and extremely reluctant to take the system seriously. This unfortunately affects the quality of the educational/training effectiveness. On the other hand, over simplification of the applications environment can insult the intelligence of the user, leading to rejection.

As might be expected, cost will also be a dominant factor in determining which technology to employ. Therefore, it will be crucial to ensure that an appropriate set of technologies are employed and balanced against performance requirements, training effectiveness and affordability.

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