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Exploiting Virtual Reality Techniques in Education and Training: Technological Issues

3. Relevance to Higher Education (cont)

3.4 Educational Benefit

Virtual reality techniques are likely to have a major impact on the UK’s educational process by providing educational establishments with access to sophisticated laboratory facilities even if in a virtual form. It will be possible to create virtual simulations of many different applications, for example, combustion engine simulations, etc. As time goes by these simulations will become more realistic. This will mean that educational establishments can use facilities that would otherwise be too expensive to justify. The stimulus for the proposed study originated in part from requests by various educational/training establishments and the Advisory Group On Computer Graphics seeking to understand how and where to apply VR to teaching/laboratory programmes. In particular, the type of VR technology to be employed is a fundamental issue. A further issue not readily understood is where the benefits will be obtained from the different levels of VR technology.

There are several aspects to this project which will be of significant value to the educational community. In particular, the ability to access an interactive virtual design studio for practical ‘hands-on’ design training involving a remote tutor is extremely important. Evaluation will provide evidence both of the cost effectiveness of the provision as well as the learning experience of the student in comparison with more conventional teaching methods. The development of a scaleable solution that is technology independent is seen as a major step towards teaching methods that do not become obsolete as technology matures.

Taking a broad definition of VR it there are a number of charateristics that make it an ideal medium for education and include:

3.4.1 Functional Analysis

A functional analysis of the educational requirement which includes a task analysis will highlight the potential of a VR system to fulfill the role as a teaching aid for higher education. The following table identifies the required educational attribute that an educational tool should provide. This is shown tabulated with desirability and whether a VR system can meet the need.
Table 2 Desirable Features Required in a VR system
Educational attributeDesirabilityVR
Exploration High Yes
Interaction High Yes
Non real time (fast/slow time) Medium Yes
Performance assessment HighYes
Sense of scale Medium Yes
Simulation High Yes
Visualisation High Yes
Repeatability High Yes
Abstract representation High Yes

3.5 Educational Attributes

In order to determine the most likely educational application areas it is worth just considering the key attributes that a VR system provides from an end user’s perspective. These include:

From this list it is possible to derive overall benefits, such a cost benefits because of the flexibility of the VR system. In this case it means that a single VR system could be re-programmed to support a number of different applications. In the case of a laboratory tool then this will mean that a VR could replace a large number of expensive measuring instruments.

The following table shows a breakdown of the different educational areas against the required attribute that is thought to be important in an educational context. The table entries are scored in terms of high, medium and low impact though this is rather subjective at this stage.

Table 3 VR Attribute Versus Application
EDUCATIONAL SUBJECT Visualisation Interaction Presence Sense of scale Multi-sensory Prototyping Safety
Civil Engineering High High High High Medium High High
Aerospace Engineering High High High High-Medium Medium High High
Architecture High High-Medium High High Medium High High-Medium
Automotive Engineering High High High High-Medium Medium High High-Medium
Chemistry High Medium High-Medium Medium-Low Low High Medium-Low
Design High High High High High-Medium High High-Medium
Finance High-Medium Medium-Low Low Low Low Low Low
General Engineering High High High-Medium High-Medium High-Medium High High-Medium
Geographical Information Systems High Medium High-Medium High-Medium Medium-Low Medium-Low Medium-Low
Historical Artefacts High-Medium Medium-Low High-Medium High-Medium Medium-Low Low Low
Manufacturing High High High High-Medium High-Medium High-Medium High-Medium
Medical High High High High High Medium High
Sports Science Medium High High High High High-Medium High-Medium

A table entry of high or high-medium shows that VR could be used to advantage. If the majority of the required VR attributes are scored in this way then there is a very high probability that VR could be of value. However, it is best to take a cautious view since not every educational programme will benefit or justify the use of a VR system.

3.5.1 Training to Use the New Environment

Even though we are all used to working in a 3D environment in the real world our main interface with a computer based system tends to be via a mouse and keyboard. These can hardly be described as 3D interaction systems. Therefore, we need to employ appropriate 3D interfaces when working in a virtual system. The exact interface will be a function of the application and the more immersive enviromnments will necessitate the user moving in the environment. The effectiveness of current interaction systems does not appear to be very good and may even be intrusive in the sense that they inhibit the user. It is interesting that 3D interaction has until recently been neglected. For example, mant CAD systems that describe themselves as 3D design systems still use the mouse and keyboard as input. Non computer literate users find these input methods non-intuitive and are seeking an alternative and more effective interface. A virtual environment is no different and raises a number of important 3D interaction issues.

3.5.2 Courseware/Environments Who will prepare and maintain courseware?

The task of creating a virtual environment should not be underestimated. In its empirical form a virtual environment is a collection of objects that are related to each other by simple links through to complication physics or behaviours. Creating an accurate facsimile of a real environment is an involved task and not necessary for all applications. In a traditional simulation system a user interacts with a runtime system that ensures objects are correctly maintained with respect to others. An educational programme needs to impose another level of control or interaction. For instance it may be necessary to control the simulation in a very specific manner by fixing certain variables and allowing the user to a sub set of variables and observe the resultant action or effect. It seems appropriate for courseware to be developed by educationalists assisted by special software tools. These software tools (yet to be developed) would allow the courseware designer to control specific variables in the context of an education programme. Courseware aurthoring tools are available for non VR applications and may need to be adapted to suit a VR system.

One question that needs considering is how far is it necessary to simulate reality? The level of fidelity is an important factor since it will define the performance of the enabling technology and the extent of the application software. It may be possible to use abstract environments for many educational purposes. These would be simplified application models that have been specially tailored to highlight the key features. Cost will be a major factor to consider. Each application programme will need to have a requirements analysis performed so that the key educational attributes are represented in the virtual environment. Unlike, a real application though it will be necessary to embed the training programme into the application. This all amounts to the need to produce considerable amounts of software and 3D models. It is very probable that cost of courseware production may be the dominant cost of the whole system Courseware authoring tools will need to be developed

The production of courseware authoring tools will be a mandatory requirement if cost effective systems are to be made available to the educational community. These tools must be integrated with an virtual environment authoring system.
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