Education

Entering another world

A glimpse into virtual reality

Magic happens in the RUG’s virtual reality lab: a molecule becomes as big as house, a femur floats in mid-air, an empty classroom becomes a packed courtroom. ‘We can make impossible things possible.’
by Emily Howard

At first, the Virtual Reality (VR) Lab at the Centre for Information Technology looks like any ordinary classroom, with a few headsets and some equipment placed around the edges. But from behind the VR headsets, the view is completely different.

Gert-Jan Verheij, educational technologist at the VR Lab, holds up a card with unrecognisable 2D shapes printed on it. It doesn’t seem special. But put a VR headset on, and suddenly there is a 3D bone revolving in midair. This is virtual reality.

‘In Archaeology, if you find a bone, you have to classify it, explains Verheij. ‘In the early days, you had to go back to the Groningen reference collection to identify the bone. But with this database you can just search for the bone that matches yours.’

The new VR Lab opened in May. In addition to the existing technology at the 15-year old Reality Center, the Lab now boasts innovative products like the Occulus Rift, a 360-degree camera, and the Samsung Gear VR, which Verheij uses to show me the bones.

Overcoming nerves

The equipment, though technical, will be used in several different faculties, says André Rosendaal, project manager of IT in Education at the faculty of Arts. At the Lab, ‘we try to experiment with education and innovation,’ he says. As a pilot, Rosendaal helped create a virtual 3D model of an old 19th-century camera. ‘There are only twenty of these cameras left in Europe,’ he explains. ‘It would have been impossible to get one in real life.’

The Law department has also launched a project using virtual reality. For their final assessment, Bachelor law students can plead their cases in a completely virtual court. ‘This environment lets them practice, to overcome being nervous,’ Rosendaal explains.

In addition to using the VR themselves, students of Arts, Culture and Media could also approach the equipment and its audiovisual impact as an object of study, he says.

Suddenly possible

Verheij pulls out another new piece of equipment. It’s a flat screen with blurry drawings on it that don’t seem to resemble anything. But combine it with the VR glasses, and once again seemingly real bones are floating in the air. This particular application is for medical students; the screen prompts the user to identify the bones in the lower leg, and then requires the user to place a knee joint correctly into the socket. It’s surprisingly tricky to get it right.

‘You can also scan animal bones into the software, so you can use it in veterinary science too,’ says Verheij. ‘That’s the idea of the lab, to use one application for different faculties.’

Medical students could even learn techniques to cut open the human body – all virtually. The equipment ‘makes impossible things possible’, says Rosendaal, as he demonstrates the program’s ability to scale a tiny molecule to the size of a person.

Interaction

At the moment, three faculties – Spatial Sciences, Arts, and the UMCG – have registered to use the lab. But Verheij hopes more will join. ‘Next week, the faculty of Behavioural Sciences will bring the school of education here, to think about possibilities of learning how to manage a classroom as a teacher with VR’, says Verheij.

The equipment can be used by any faculty as a way to practice presentations. It could even be used to create an interactive virtual audience.

Students and teachers can come to the VR Lab for closed or open workshops. The Biology study association will visit soon, and Verheij hopes that once students have mastered the equipment they will consider how VR could be used in their own fields. ‘They can visit and then go to their instructors and say, “hey, we have an idea”.’

The VR Hub, which manages the VR Lab, will also host workshops on how to make your own simple applications.

Changing the map

The virtual reality equipment is spread across the Zernike campus. On the way to see another recent innovation, Verheij shows the theatre around which the Reality Center was created 15 years ago. The big, curved screen at the front can show 3D images. Now, the theatre is used to present new VR projects like Mercator City.

Mercator City is an interactive 3D map of the Zernike campus, which users can adapt however they like. In one classroom, Spatial Sciences students are learning how to use the equipment to design their own campuses.

‘You can modify the whole environment’, says Gerd Weitkamp, assistant professor of Spatial Sciences, who is teaching the class. His own headset is connected to a screen for everyone to see. He puts it on. ‘You can say, I want to get rid of this, I want to add new buildings, I want to change the trees.’

With a single movement, he makes a tree next to the Spatial Sciences building triple in size.

Roads, sidewalks and bicycle lanes

Weitkamp shows the students how to build roads, sidewalks, and bicycle lanes. ‘The most important thing is that students can upload their pre-designed 2D maps as a base, and add 3D models on top’, he explains. The VR makes it possible for students to get a sense of how their designs will look in reality.

The students inspect each other’s designs and share constructive criticism. ‘They learn very fast,’ Weitkamp smiles. The students their export their designs to software which analyses whether they have successfully made the campus more accessible. ‘You can also export this to a 2D map and do all kinds of analysis to it’, Weitkamp adds.

The Mercator City designs are just the beginning. ‘All these models will become a kind of library. We want other faculties to be able to use these models too’, Weitkamp says.

Theses

In the future, students may even be able to use VR equipment for their theses. But first, Verheij says, staff and students from faculties across the university need to get involved. ‘In every curriculum it is happening, but it’s very slow. Drip, drip, drip’, he says.

He encourages classes, study associations, teachers and researchers to visit the Lab. ‘The researcher is step number one. Once they come up with ideas, we can help them.’

Outside of the classroom, the Zernike campus looks like it always does. There are no giant trees, no new roads, no freshly designed buildings. But somehow, they are easy to see anyway. The line between physical reality and virtual reality has blurred.

Nederlands

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