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The Potential of VR for UK Higher Education

Potential of V.R. for UK H.E.

Roy Kalawsky

Professor Roy Kalawsky from Loughborough University gave the keynote address to start the workshop and to focus attention on the issues before the participants. The report below notes the themes addressed in his presentation.

Education today

There is a growing demand for continuing education. This relates to the fact that our industrial competitiveness depends on skill acquisition We can see a change in career patterns emerging with many people retraining at least twice during their working life.

The rapid technological changes we see today need a more responsive educational process. Open learning centres can be very effective in providing the resources needed which can be accessed in a flexible way. Large corporations are turning to universities for support in helping to give their staff appropriate skills. Residential training courses are expensive both in cost and time. We need something that is more accessible and affordable.

The Shape of Things to Come

We are likely to see education services available on demand. These will be tailored to the client's need. Remote learning could become the norm. Already, distance learning initiatives are on the increase. These take a technological approach making use of advanced IT and telecommunications. We do however need to look carefully at the educational processes.

We need to consider what the role of universities will be in such a setting. Will they become limited to examinations at undergraduate level and to research? Is there, however, no substitute for hands on learning experiences?

Revolution or Evolution in Education

Technology is evolving to provide richer environments at a cost which is viable for use in teaching.

Multimedia has been around for some time and is cost effective but does not allow a high degree of interactivity or model development. The internet, through WWW and the emerging VRML, is easy to access and has a wealth of information but is open to abuse as the quality cannot be guaranteed. We are getting access to high bandwidth networks and intermittent predictable access can be provided through ISDN, making remote working using new technologies viable.

VR brings together many of these developments and has the potential to provide a solution and to provide a very rich learning environment.

Strengths of VR

VR applications allow high levels of interactivity which can provide a strong sense of immersion - this is a powerful characteristic. Systems have inherent flexibility and adaptability.

Weaknesses of VR

VR is frequently seen as a visualization front end and it is more than that. Low cost systems suffer from poor quality interfaces and are frequently disappointing. In proposing increased use of VR we need to be very clear of what VR brings to education.

Why VR Systems: An Educational Context

VR systems are more than just a visualization system. We can have personal simulators. The underlying modelling environments hold the key and VR systems enable users to control these models.

VR systems will exploit interactivity. We all learn faster by 'doing' rather than reading. People learn from mistakes. Virtual environments make this possible.

We can get more efficient learning by an enhanced sense of presence. Students can get a better understanding of process. An example was quoted of using VR to show the inside of a piston design which revealed how it works. Students were able to see interactions which would not normally be covered in a lecture - engineering is 3D.

VR systems also have an inherent flexibility. Virtual environments are re-programmable.

Potential Applications

The following are examples of potential application of VR in education:

Critical Underlying Issues

What will be the quality of teaching and learning delivered? The key question is will a VR system be better than current approaches?

As with other aspects of online material there are issues of IPR and copyright. Who owns the material? How do we protect material over the network? This is a wide issue.

Many of the issues are "people issues". Will this create jobs or remove jobs? How do we introduce the concept? Will people accept the concept? Unless we can answer these questions people will not take on the use of virtual environments.

What is the Right Technology?

If VR is to have a widespread takeup we need to advise the community on the delivery technology to be used. What sort of display should be used - desk-top, projected or head coupled? How important is multi-sensory interaction? Will environments be single user or shared ones? What technologies will gain greatest user acceptance? What can we use in labs with large numbers of students and what is more suited to home use for distance learning? Can we develop a system that is truly independent of the user's technology? What is the minimum assumed level going to be?

We also need to advise on the cost of ownership - compared to cost of a lecturer?

Obsolescence is also an issue. The shelf life of a great deal of technology is typically 3-4 years. Stability may never be achieved in VR systems.

This is a problem of insufficient development of standards. There are different standards for equipment. There is a need for a standard interaction interface. There is a need for an open transport protocol and format standards to facilitate remote use and exchange of models.


The preparation and maintenance of the software for courseware needs careful consideration. Will this be developed in HE by programmes such as TLTP or will commercial offerings emerge? How do we integrate the new resources into current courses to ensure that there is a good educational gain? We will need courseware tools to help us develop resources. These need to be accessible to a non-expert user.

When developing software, do we want to simulate reality, or do we want to use the fact that we are not working within real physical worlds with constraints of time and distance? An interesting thought.

Courseware has a dependence on delivery technology - we need to have open standards to ensure we are futureproof and that as many people as possible can use the systems developed. Courseware production may be the dominant cost of the whole system - we want to develop courseware that can transfer to new technology as it emerges, again this is a standards issue

Education/Training benefit

There are many questions to be answered.

How do we measure the educational benefit? Do people learn better in a virtual environment? Will virtual training experience ever replace real training experience? - would you be a passenger in an aircraft whose pilot had never flown a real aircraft before? Can we quantify the payback? How do we realise/achieve the potential benefits?

We need to start to gain the experience to answer these questions and to disseminate that experience.

A Personal Vision

Roy suggested that over the next 3-5 years he could see PCs becoming Personal Assistants which were intuitive (using online intelligent agents) and which would require only low computer-literacy by their user.

These PCs will employ VR style interfaces, that is they will have: head tracked stereoscopic display capability; head mounted display capability; outputs for large screens; voice input; 3D interaction system; wireless ISDN or similar networking; applications downloaded from network

Following this we will see over the next few years the availability of freeware from wireless network service provider who will offer services. People will subscribe to education service provider for courses. Virtual laboratory bureau will emerge.

Discussion Points

Following Roy's talk a number of points emerged in discussion:

VR is hard to distinguish from other technologies. Technologies are converging - pure immersive VR, CAD, multimedia and low cost WWW/Internet access via TV technology.

We need to look at applications and ask how we are going to deliver that need.

VR needs to show "real" lab effects of mistakes - explosions, electric shocks etc!

Portability is vital - across systems, space and time if the cost of producing educational material is going to be able to be justified.

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