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Virtual Reality Facilitates Higher Ed Research and Teaches High-Risk Skills

From neuroscience to ship navigation, virtual environments deliver real-world learning inside the classroom.

From the outside, it’s nondescript: a large cube, surrounded by racks of projectors and topped with a frame holding additional projectors. Like so much else in life, though, it’s what’s inside that counts.

Duke University built the Duke immersive Virtual Environment in 2005 and upgraded it in 2015, funding both projects with National Science Foundation grants. “This kind of device was invented at the University of Chicago back in the early 1990s,” says DiVE Director Regis Kopper.

The DiVE was one of the first high-fidelity simulators that multiple people could experience simultaneously. Now, through the recent upgrade, users can take advantage of virtual reality simulations at four times the previous resolution.

Technology Builds on Deep Roots

In complex, risk-intensive fields and those involving high-pressure conditions, simulators like the DiVE can be an important piece of the learning process.

Alison Rudd, assistant director of the University of South Alabama Simulation Program, says developers coded the earliest simulators in the late 1970s for aerospace and medical uses, but online learning has given them new importance, she says.

“It’s challenging to find avenues for active learning in the online environment, and this is one way to engage students, both individually and in teams,” Rudd says.

Whether at Duke or at a host of other schools, the use of extremely rich contextual virtual environments is expanding opportunities for instructors to bring the world to their students.

Researchers Dive into Their Work

The upgraded DiVE features six Dell T7400 workstations, each with a Quadro K6000 graphics processing unit and two Christie Mirage WU7K-M projectors; head and hand tracking through an InterSense IS-900 unit; and Volfoni Edge RF Shutter Glasses for stereoscopic 3D effects.

Despite the complex engineering behind the DiVE, using it is simple. In fact, users don’t even need active IT support.

“Any researcher or student who wants to use the DiVE goes through a certification process, which basically takes one hour of training and then an assessment,” says Kopper, who is also an assistant research professor of mechanical engineering and materials science.

The DiVE lets researchers undertake projects that would otherwise be risky. Kopper shared the example of a neuroscience research project that uses simulated Olympic trap shooting to explore how people improve at a precise task. Test subjects perform the task in the DiVE while neuroscientists monitor their brain activity with an electroencephalogram.

“We could potentially think about doing that at a real shooting range — that would give us all the real elements of the task — and we wouldn’t need to simulate and perhaps lose some fidelity of the physics or the environmental variables,” Kopper says.

But the DiVE lets researchers gather detailed data that would be difficult to capture otherwise. “For example, we can know exactly where the person shot, how far from the center of the target, how long it took the person to start moving toward the target and how long it took the person to reach the target and get to the zone of the target,” he says. “We have all of these specific metrics we can look at.”

The DiVE also creates opportunities for interdisciplinary research; Kopper sees psychologists, physicists, neuroscientists, art historians, archaeologists, architects and engineers working together. Computer scientists code the programs.

Providing At-Sea Training on Land

Simulation has a different purpose at the California State University Maritime Academy, in Vallejo, Calif.: to prepare students for a life at sea. Undergraduates in marine transportation graduate with a bachelor’s degree and a third mate’s Coast Guard license.

Simulators are an important part of their education. Stepping into one of three full-mission bridge simulators replicates the experience of standing in an ocean liner’s pilothouse and lets students practice their skills in handling a ship — without risk.

“In the simulator, you can push the limits of the environment: increase the amount of current that’s there, go to the limits of the amount of wind that can be handled by the tugs,” says Capt. Victor Schisler, one of Cal Maritime’s simulator instructors.

The academy’s three full-mission bridge simulators and eight limited simulators rely on 175 Alienware computers, each of which powers a radar set, ship console, electronic navigation system or other component. The full-mission bridge simulators also incorporate a total of 30 projectors and seven plasma screens.

Instructor Capt. Scott Powell points to pedagogical bonuses. “A true benefit to simulation is the ability to replay and debrief with the student, along with providing feedback on his or her performance.”

Students also train for rare events they may not encounter during at-sea training, such as loss or disruption of a global positioning system signal.

Schisler says one of the biggest benefits is the discussion that the simulations generate, for both students and professional mariners who visit Cal Maritime to brush up their skills.

“When you bring professionals together in a room and you have a tool like a simulator to put in front of them, it generates a lot of conversation that they’re not going to have otherwise,” he says.

Creating a Web-Friendly Experience

In Massachusetts, HBX Live doesn’t simulate a real-world environment for the purpose of training, but rather to re-create the storied experience of sitting in a classroom at Harvard Business School.

“The initial goal of HBX Live was to re-create the magic of the HBS classroom environment in a true virtual classroom,” says Patrick Mullane, executive director of HBX, the business school’s fully digital learning initiative.

The virtual classroom, housed in a TV studio, took 18 months to design, build and test. A five-member team produces HBX Live classes like live television, supporting the instructor in the studio and students who log in through a web-based interface. The HBX Live team, including Senior Managing Director Elizabeth Hess and Senior Production Engineer Michael Soulios, employed several technologies to create the experience of HBX Live. Eight racks of servers; 20 miles of fiber and coaxial cabling; Cisco Systems Jabber, AnyConnect and CallManager; Panasonic PTZ cameras; and a Christie LED wall are some of the components.

HBX Live has proved invaluable to the students who use it. “The interface was very user-friendly and intuitive,” says Jim Dubela, an American Airlines pilot and HBX student.

Context Is the Key to Success

Whatever type of simulation institutions desire, Rudd stresses the importance of getting it right: Simulation should be in the service of learning, teaching and research.

“Apply the technology in a meaningful context for students,” she advises.

When colleges and universities use simulators well — to reinforce classroom concepts and teach teamwork and communication skills — they develop graduates who are prepared for the rigor of the careers that await them.

charles harris
May 12 2016

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