Chapter 18. Education

From helping master core skills required in a variety of vocations, to aiding students in learning abstract concepts in complex fields such as architecture, to experiential learning for children, virtual and augmented reality hold incredible potential in the field of education. In this chapter we explore several existing applications having a proven impact on learning outcomes, and we detail some of the challenges faced in the implementing systems to assist in the educational process.

Tangible Skills Education

One of the earliest and most successful application realms for virtual and augmented reality systems in education is the teaching of specific, tangible, skill sets. From astronauts using immersive systems to practice assembly and repair procedures for the International Space Station, to teaching specific skilled trades, development of such applications and turnkey systems is a straightforward process. In a simplified explanation, these types of applications take on a common pattern: take this virtual tool, carry out this task, and refine your movements and procedures until you are within the required tolerances. Such educational applications are significantly easier to implement than, say, developing systems to teach complex physics and chemistry theories.

In this section we explore two applications where immersive virtual reality systems are used to teach acquired, practiced tangible skills, the outcomes for which can be quantified and analyzed for immediate feedback.

VRTEX 360 Welding Simulator

The education of skilled tradesman invariably requires hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of supervised training and practice to build the skill set and expertise necessary to pass certification exams for a particular field. Often the training is expensive, dangerous, and wasteful. One of the skilled trades most well known for these challenges is that of industrial welding. Students of the craft spend considerable time, effort, and consumable materials practicing a myriad of techniques to consistently turn out a good product.

To make this learning process more efficient and less expensive, Lincoln Electric of Cleveland, Ohio, a multinational manufacturer of welding equipment and products, teamed up with VRSim, Inc. of East Hartford, Connecticut, to develop a high-performance, virtual reality–based welding simulator for use in schools to supplement and enhance traditional methods of training welders.

The VRTEX 360 is a complete welding station trainer designed to simulate a variety of welding processes, including shielded metal arc welding (SMAW), gas metal arc welding (GMAW), pipe welding, multiposition welding, and more. As shown in Figure 18.1, the system is completely immersive and incorporates a head-worn display built into a welding helmet, multiple position sensors, lifelike welding gun and stinger assemblies, adjustable welding stand, and large flat-panel display for system control and instructor viewing of student efforts.


Credit: Used with permission of Lincoln Electric, Cleveland, OH U.S.A.

Figure 18.1 The VRTEX 360 Arc Welding Simulator by Lincoln Electric is in use worldwide and includes comprehensive curricula for developing a variety of welding skills.

The VRTEX 360 is specifically designed to help educators provide hands-on training that’s consistent with standard industry methodology and evaluation criteria, but without the normal issues associated with safety, material waste, and so on. The system features actual machine setup replication and a realistic simulation of a welding puddle, sounds and effects, and utilities to measure and record a student’s training results in real time, allowing instructors to identify deficiencies tied to the welder’s movement instantly (Lincoln, 2012).

A powerful feature of the VRTEX 360 can be found in the realistic behavior of the system’s stinger device (a clamp that holds a welding rod during shielded metal arc welding), which retracts into the handpiece simulating the manner in which an electrode melts away during a real welding task, the factors for which vary depending on materials and conditions set for a scenario.

The welding helmet incorporates dual Sony 1280 × 720 OLED microdisplays and optical assemblies that are adjustable for varied interpupillary distances. The position and orientation of the helmet display and the welder’s gun are tracked using magnetic position sensors supplied by Polhemus (see Chapter 11, “Sensors for Tracking Position, Orientation and Motion”). As shown in Figure 18.2, the system provides highly accurate simulations of the welding process and weld puddle dynamics based on a student’s hand movements and angle, travel time, and training system settings.


Credit: Used with permission of Lincoln Electric, Cleveland, OH U.S.A.

Figure 18.2 The VRTEX Welding Helmet uses an integrated face-mounted display to immerse the student in the virtual environment where they can practice their welding technique.

A smaller, easily transportable version of the system is also available for use in a classroom environment, at a recruitment event, and even as an HR screening tool.

In terms of quantifiable benefits, across a number of studies (Stone et al., 2011a, 2011b, 2013), outcomes resulting from the use of immersive virtual reality welding simulators in core skills education have produced results that are statistically and demonstrably significant, in all instances demonstrating skills development equal to or exceeding those of traditionally trained students. In one study (Stone et al., 2011b), those students who received integrated training (50% traditional welding, 50% via simulation) resulted in a 41.6% increase in overall certifications earned over those in the straight traditional welding group.

Use of the VRTEX simulator is now widely accepted as a viable option for welding education and is used in 141 countries around the world along with comprehensive curricula available in 16 languages.

SimSpray Spray Paint Training System

Spray painting is a technique widely used in industries ranging from aerospace, to automotive, to manufacturing and construction. Far more than simply waving a spray gun around to cover a surface, it is a skilled trade that requires considerable training and expertise to properly apply a variety of paints and industrial coatings at proper thicknesses. Inconsistent applications can mean uneven coatings. Depending on the industry, uneven coatings can result in everything from a lousy finish on an automotive collision repair, to dramatic reductions in aerodynamic efficiency and increased operating costs of high-performance aircraft, to creating a fire or corrosion hazard if an industrial coating is improperly applied. As a case in point, manually applied paints and protective coatings are widely used by NASA in the U.S. space program.

Some of the challenges faced in professional spray paint training include the high expense of environmentally controlled paint booths, excessive setup and prep times for different parts and surfaces (ranging from simple flat-metal surfaces to irregularly shaped objects like a car door or fuselage panel), the cost of raw materials, and potential health hazards. These and other factors pose significant challenges to the amount of knowledge transfer that can actually occur during a training program.

The SimSpray training system developed by VRSim, Inc. of East Hartford, Connecticut, dramatically reduces or eliminates many of these challenges. Designed to augment traditional training methodologies, SimSpray combines physical components such as a custom spray gun with haptic feedback to provide a “kickback” feeling, along with a stereoscopic head-mounted display and position/orientation sensors to immerse trainees in a 3D, simulated environment where they can practice the proper techniques for spray painting and coating.

The full SimSpray system is shown in Figure 18.3. The system incorporates a two-sensor magnetic tracker from Polhemus to precisely monitor the position and orientation of both the spray gun and the Sony HMZ-T1 stereoscopic head-mounted display.


Credit: Image courtesy of VRSim, Inc

Figure 18.3 The SimSpray training system incorporates the use of a stereoscopic head-mounted display and force feedback cues to provide students a realistic training utility.

The SimSpray system comes with a comprehensive set of software utilities to enable a wide selection of painting scenarios, including process choice, parts selection (flat panel, wavy panel, car fender, fuel tank, and so on), and painting environment (booth, shop, bridge). Two versions of the systems are available (standard and industrial) to accommodate varying training needs.

In addition to giving students immediate realistic visual feedback such as is depicted in Figure 18.4, the system also provides instructors with a variety of tools and metrics with which to evaluate a student’s learning progress. A utility known as Paintometer calculates totals for actual time spent painting, measures of the paint/coating applied and wasted, number of parts painted, VOC (volatile organic compound) total emissions, and more.


Credit: Image courtesy of VRSim, Inc

Figure 18.4 When combined with professional instruction, the ability to continually repeat tasks and refine techniques enables students using SimSpray to become more proficient painters.

Perhaps most important, SimSpray inverts the traditional training model by maximizing the amount of time a student spends actually pulling the trigger on a paint gun and practicing the skills necessary to correctly carry out a painting or coating task, such as mil build, standoff distance, travel angle and speed, and edge blending. This inversion directly translates into more training repetitions in less time without the added costs of materials, consumables, and waste disposal fees.

Similar to the VRTEX welding simulator detailed earlier, SimSpray is now accepted as a viable training tool and is used at schools across the United States and around the world.

Theory, Knowledge Acquisition, and Concept Formation

In addition to applications in teaching inflexible, practiced skill sets such as those examples in the previous section, augmented and virtual reality also hold significant potential in the teaching of topical theory and concepts. An ideal example is that of architecture and the building sciences.

Architectural Education

The learning task faced by architecture students is immense. On one hand, a key objective in most university programs is the development of skills required to combine concepts of space, form, materials, function, and aesthetics in the design of large, habitable structures. On the other hand, the student must learn to accurately translate and externalize these mental concepts to communicate the ideas and design intent to others. The mechanisms through which this is accomplished typically take the form of plans, sections and elevations, sketches, color renderings, scale models, visualizations, construction documents, and more. The difficulty in combining these tasks is that until the student sees a design physically constructed at scale, there is no means with which to validate a concordance between how the structure was mentally envisioned and what was actually depicted through the tools used to guide construction such as drawings or CAD models. None provides a means for the student to actually experience the structure from the perspective through which it would eventually be used—that is, the inside. What is the impact the space has on a visitor? How does the space appear from different angles and positions? Are windows of an appropriate size and placement for the existing or intended views? This basic visualization and externalization problem has plagued the profession for centuries and extends far beyond a modern academic setting.

Enter VR

From the earliest days that the individual component technologies for fully immersive virtual reality systems were first cobbled together for civilian uses within university research labs, architectural walk-throughs have been a baseline, mainstay application. This is due, in part, to the parallel development of commercially available CAD utilities that greatly facilitated the design of the geometric models that could be imported into a simulation utility. Rare is the architect, or instructor, who does not immediately grasp the significance of the technology and the problems it can solve in their field. Although there are numerous tools available to assist in the visual analysis of an architectural space, immersive systems such as head-mounted displays or computer-assisted virtual environment (CAVE)-like systems are some of the first true solutions for visualizing, communicating, and experiencing design decisions at true scale.

Fast forward to the present. Dozens of university architecture programs across North America, and literally hundreds worldwide, have either established virtual and augmented reality visualization labs or are attempting to integrate the use of immersive displays into the pedagogical flow of the course of study. But along these lines, significant challenges exist.

The value of these systems for spatial analysis, design review, and problem identification are obvious, and there is a growing body of case studies to demonstrate such strengths. (See Chapter 14, “Architecture and Construction.”) But from a pedagogical standpoint, how are the outcomes of using immersive and augmenting displays in architectural design education actually measured against traditional techniques? What are the mechanisms through which the benefits are quantified? What are the metrics? Should students still be taught all of the more traditional techniques of design representation? If not, which skill sets should be eliminated?

These and many other questions are currently being wrestled with at institutions around the world. Some have initially opted to use the technology to help new entrants firmly develop crucial cognitive abilities such as visual-spatial skills (ability to mentally manipulate 2-and 3-dimensional figures), projection and regeneration of solids, and so on. Often, problems in this area are not rooted in aptitude, but in the method of teaching (Pandey et al., 2015). In this type of application, progress and the impact of this visualization technology can actually be measured with standard testing and outcome comparison with other techniques.

But what about the opinion-driven aspects of design analysis? How do you quantitatively measure the effect of the use of immersive visualization technologies on design ability in a field notorious for differing opinions and tastes? Invariably, many programs rely upon subjective analysis of faculty and other students (such as experienced during the design review, also known as the critique, crit, or jury process found in all architectural schools), as well as testimonials and detailed surveys of the students, the preponderance of which are extremely enthusiastic.

Another important question being addressed is when, within a multiyear course of study, the use of these technologies should begin being used as part of the design curriculum. For instance, in researching this chapter, I encountered an anonymous forum post recounting a first-year design studio project within which the instructor’s directions were simple: “Design a beautiful cube. Use any tool available in the studio to complete the project.” The poster went on to relate how, in using a geometric modeling program and head-mounted display, as opposed to physical materials, he missed out on the insights gained by watching the creativity and work of others in his design studio class. To this student, it represented an “Aha” moment, that there is a proper time and place for the use of the technology. Although this example may be overly simplistic, it cuts to the core of the challenge faced by instructors grappling not only with the question of how to integrate a powerful new technology into the curriculum, but when.

Virtual Overlays

It is not just immersive displays that are disrupting architectural design education. The advent of augmenting displays such as those detailed in Chapter 5, “Augmenting Displays,” is also likely to have a transformational impact on the industry. Used in combination with Building Information Modeling (BIM) applications such as Autodesk Revit (described in greater detail in Chapter 14), whole new opportunities are emerging for those in the architectural design profession, but determining how to properly prepare students in their use within professional practice is still being addressed.

As an example, in a partnership between Florida International University (Miami) and Missouri State University (Springfield), researchers have begun a multidisciplinary investigation into the use of augmenting displays, BIM, and interactive lessons to determine if the combination of these technologies can improve students’ problem-solving and collaborative learning skills leading to the design of more sustainable and better-performing buildings. As depicted in Figure 18.5, a portion of the investigation will involve students using augmenting displays to view BIM data overlaid onto their real-world view of buildings on campus.


Credit: Image courtesy of Florida International University

Figure 18.5 Researchers from Florida International University and Missouri State University will be using augmenting displays to enable students to visualize Building Information Modeling (BIM) data overlaid onto real-world views of structures on campus.

The project, Strategies for Learning: Augmented Reality and Collaborative Problem-Solving for Building Sciences, is funded in part with a grant from the National Science Foundation and is intended to explore not only “if” the technologies can improve learning outcomes, but “how” to craft the curriculum to bring about such a result, as well as begin the development of a set of metrics by which such outcomes can be measured and analyzed (NSF, 2015).

Google Expeditions Pioneer Program

The application of virtual reality within a learning environment is not only limited to higher education. The Google Expeditions Pioneer Program is a new immersive learning experience for the K-12 sector that enables teachers to engage their classes in virtual field trips, providing the opportunity for students to gain a deeper understanding of the world beyond the classroom. As shown in Figure 18.6, using low-cost stereoscopic viewers distributed to students, instructors can guide classes on visits to museums, distant geographic locations, and even into space to study the layout and organization of our solar system (Suburu, 2015).


Credit: Image courtesy of Laurie Sullivan via Flickr under a CC 2.0 license

Figure 18.6 The Google Expeditions Pioneer Program has enabled more than 100,000 students around the world to use inexpensive virtual reality headsets as part of their school curriculum.

Part of the Google for Education initiative and conducted in partnership with automotive manufacturer Surburu, PBS, educational publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and others, the goal of the program is to enhance the in-classroom learning experience by applying Google’s technologies and resources. As of November 2015, more than 100,000 students in schools around the world have used Google Expeditions in their classes.

Schools apply directly to Google for participation in the program. If selected, the company supplies what is referred to as an Expeditions Kit, which contains Android-based ASUS smartphones, display housings such as Google Cardboard or Mattel’s View-Master virtual reality viewers, an instructor’s tablet, a wireless router to enable the smartphones to operate offline, as well as teaching materials. The system enables instructors to guide up to 50 students on tours of more than 120 locations such as Antarctica, the Acropolis of Athens, the Great Wall of China, and elsewhere, with each of the expeditions including some combination of 360° spherical imagery, videos, and sound. The instructor’s tablet enables the teacher to control the expeditions while providing information and facts about the scenes to guide the class.

An important aspect to the deployment of this program is the fact that Google representatives actually visit each school where the technology is deployed to facilitate setup and to provide training for instructors.


It is clear by the application examples provided in this chapter that virtual and augmented reality hold significant potential within the educational arena. But, as in most instances, the technology is only now becoming available in the form of stable commercial offerings. There has been little time for the art and science of teaching methodologies incorporating these technologies to take shape. Few instructors in the plethora of applicable fields have enough personal experience with the technologies to understand how they should be employed to the actual benefit of students or how to harness their strengths to advance pedagogic goals.

Digital innovation in educational environments does not automatically translate into higher quality learning outcomes. As explained by Dr. Kentaro Toyama of the University of Michigan, technology’s primary effect is to amplify human forces. In education, technologies amplify whatever pedagogical capacity is already there (Toyoma, 2015). In effect, this means that without knowledgeable instructors appropriately familiar with or trained in the use of a new technology, or without carefully adapted curricula, there is little chance for the new technology to amplify outcomes.

As a hypothetical example, enabling a classroom of high school students to randomly fly around models of ancient Greek ruins with smartphone-based stereoscopic viewers might make for an interesting activity, but without a plan or guidance, it could actually end up as more of a distraction than an educational tool. Conversely, guiding the students on a virtual tour where the instructor points out the unique features of Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns, or the differences between temples and stoas (a covered walkway or portico), could dramatically enhance the traditional curriculum and the overall retention of knowledge.

Educational psychologist Dr. Richard E. Mayer of the University of California at Santa Barbara has written extensively on the topic of learning, teaching, and assessing using multimedia technologies (Mayer, 1999, 2003, 2005, 2008). Many of his research findings are directly relevant to the application of virtual and augmented reality technologies in educational settings and are highly recommended reading.

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