The use of VR is seen as being important in the context of Geographical Information Systems. Jonathan Raper noted the way that VR offers the potential for: exploratory data analysis; virtual observation and measurement and spatial decision making environments to be offered to students to enhance their learning experience. There are problems to overcome before this can be a reality, particularly in terms of the cost of systems. There are also problems relating to the nature of the software toolkits which means users need to be developers at the current time.
Andy Avery also picked up this theme and noted that the integration of GIS and VR offers an alternative, more intuitive interaction to the data than is currently available. But the GIS/VR integration has more to offer than simply an improved interface. The GIS/VR integration offers the opportunity to remove some of the data abstraction, permits free viewpoint movement anywhere within or outside the model boundaries, and generates views in real time. Again the cost issues were raised by Andy who also stressed the need to prove that there were considerable cost benefits in using advanced systems in education.
Vassilis Bourdakis reported on the potential of VR to help architects appreciate and utilise Computer Aided Architectural Design as an everyday tool in their design work - that is not just for drafting and presentation. In order to start enabling students to use the technology it is probably wise to use non-immersive systems and have them more widely available.
The benefits of VR in museums were described by James Hemsley who noted the educational benefits to be gained in the representations of reconstructions of archaeological remains and of historical buildings. Also of benefit is the development of 3D object resources. Current projects include those which bring together physically separated objects into one whole to aid understanding.
A paper by Ken Brodlie, Peter Dew and Terrence Fernando from the University of Leeds described the interest of the Computer Studies School in the teaching of virtual environments and their application to a number of practical situations. The teaching is focused on their M.Sc. programme in Vision, Visualization and Virtual Environments. The applications used on the course are mainly based on research in the school and include: advance driving simulator (which uses reality where possible - steering wheel, accelerator peddle - with the input devices all being real and the output devices being part real, part virtual); collaborative engineering environment; virtual science park (saves using a green field site); synthetic virtual worlds.
Robin Helmsley described the work of the Medical Imaging Group at UCL in developing the "Interactive Skeleton". This allows the student of anatomy to manipulate a virtual human skeleton and provides rich textual information. Other work is progressing on access to models of scanned human bodies. The work throws up the question, as in other application areas described above, as to whether the cost of immersive VR can be justified for teaching purposes. The cost of scanning is also an issue which needs to be addressed. We need to consider how the models will be stored, exchanged and subsequently accessed and manipulated.
The benefit of VR for medicine was a theme of the paper by Averil McCarthy who reported on the work of the VR in Medicine and Biology Group at the University of Sheffield. Although the group have been mainly concerned with the use of VR in research, the group has also investigated the use in teaching and administration. A major problem with teaching is the availability of suitable equipment in sufficient numbers. On the administration side, there have been models built to illustrate the set up in expensively equipped rooms prior to purchase to ensure that the set up is optimal.
The paper by Henry Rzepa and Omer Casher described their work in the area of chemistry and molecular sciences which they feel provides a perfect application for VR methods. Molecules are well defined three dimensional objects with a variety of inter-related attributes and computable properties. They are well indexed, and a wealth of published information is available about them. They have worked to enable use of molecules across the internet by developing various MIME types. Recent work has focused on the use of VRML and their current work involves the development of a properly supported 3D virtual chemistry library. This will be based on courses at Imperial College and will link to other resources elsewhere in this "Open Molecule Initiative".
Colin Shell and Timothy Ritchey discussed their work on the VR modelling of a major archaeological site, Catalhoyuk, in Turkey. Virtual Reality reconstructions of archaeological sites abound, but they are usually very generalised structures with simple rendering of simplified geometry. Most archaeological sites, and certainly Catalhoyuk, have irregular structures and uneven, not truly rectilinear walls. Similarly, the wall may not be represented by simple rendering. In some cases high resolution digital images of art need to be displayed in their correct relationship to features in rooms. To be a useful archaeological research and teaching tool VR must go beyond the simple geometries and be able to put back in their correct relationships portable objects and the structures that contained them. Ultimately, with high resolution digital recording during the course of an excavation, and accurate 3D surveying of all structural features and object positions, VR could provide the only surviving true record of a site after its excavation. For this voxel information needs to be included and displayable.
One of the principal benefits of Virtual Reality in archaeological teaching will be the training it will give in requiring the student/archaeologist to think in three dimensional volume terms. This is a particular problem arising from the established method of excavating sites horizontally, leaving vertical sections at appropriate intervals. The excavation report is limited to these plans and sections to physically represent the site. The vertical sections are not normally sufficiently close together to allow the intervening stratigraphy to be interpolated.
The other area where real-time VR will be very useful is the visualization of simulation models of past human-environment interaction, where the impact of changes in agricultural strategies can impact significantly on the landscape. The need is to display spatially the interrelationships of the models component variables in real time as the model runs, as well as showing visually the consequent changes in human and animal populations, vegetation and geomorphology etc.
Many disciplines use field courses to address a variety of objectives. David Unwin suggested that some of these needs could be met using virtual environments. Field work has many benefits but it is expensive. It also has some important equity considerations. Field trips present problems to people with disabilities and/or who are athletically challenged - this is an increasing issue with lifelong learning on the agenda. There are inequalities concerned with the types of places visited due to remoteness (beyond Europe) and safety (preference for rural over inner city). It is also becoming more difficult to timetable field courses with modular degrees. The virtual field course, David suggests, will find application in three educational contexts, providing enhancement of the current learning experience for some and a replacement for others. Firstly, it will be useful in preliminary work before going on the field course as well as during and after to organise data; secondly, is the ability to work in physically challenging environments which students would be unable to visit; thirdly, it will enable students to experience, at low cost, at least something of an environment which might be otherwise denied them for personal reasons. There are problems which need to be addressed including: choice of appropriate tools; the question as to whether it needs immersion; the problems regarding the massive amount of data needed.
Chris Osland noted that the main financial pressure will come when, as a result of the price drops which are likely to occur over the next few years, it becomes cheaper to install a turnkey virtual laboratory (for instance) than a real one. It is unfortunately unlikely that quality of teaching / learning will be considered as strongly as price and this will probably tend to cause VR/VE solutions to be attempted rather prematurely.
Averil McCarthy stressed the need to identify real problems which may be solved more easily or effectively with VR. From an educational point of view, we need to be able to justify the use of VR by its contribution to an enhanced learning process. What is the "value added" that VR will contribute to the process?
Noel Williams noted that embedding VR in a classroom is not merely about giving systems to teachers. Even where a system successfully addresses a generic educational objective, it may not be taken on board by the educators. There may, of course, be resistance to the technology for political, occupational or ideological reasons. But there may also be fundamental educational problems, if the system cannot be integrated into the actual curriculum as currently delivered. Courseware using virtual environments needs to be developed to meet desirable educational goals using the right combinations of expertise and the right tools. Such courseware needs to be able to be embedded in varying educational contexts. How can we achieve this?
Roy Ruddle described the use of virtual environments as providing lecturer aids to help illustrate a lecture and as an addition to traditional handouts. This requires "just in time" preparation and this leads to the need for the availability of efficient database generation. Roy suggested some desirable requirements for software tools to help promote rapid database generation - though these do not appear to be a feature of commercial packages at this time. This use requires more limited functionality than professional courseware development. The need is for suitable tools which can be used with minimum author experience.
Venkat Sastry reflected the general view that we needed to address the question as to where the significant gains are if we adopt VR. We also need to look at current usage (not, as he points out, mere interest) of VR in the classroom and to start to record some case studies as the technology matures. If VR is to be taken up we need to have recommendations on the minimum required set up and to start to acquire appropriate skills in order to develop and use systems.
John Wann reflected on the questions surrounding the technology which need to be addressed before VR becomes widely used. The issues addressed concerned the display technology (when is stereoscopic information important; when can other information sources supplement for binocular information; what kind of trade-off can be made between field of view and resolution?); image generation technology (what will be the primary image generation requirements of users in HE?); peripheral technology (is there a subset of user interfaces that rapidly become intuitive, but do not limit the application; can the same interaction protocols be mapped to devices suitable for users with restricted movement opportunities?). We need to be able to define the requirements for education and consider whether these are likely to be met by systems in the medium term.
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