A Primer on Virtual Reality

By McCluskey, Jim | T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education), December 1992 | Go to article overview

A Primer on Virtual Reality


McCluskey, Jim, T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education)


In the 1960s a team of University of Illinois researchers developed PLATO, the first, true computer-assisted instructional system. Since then, we have seen the mainframe turned into the mini, micro and, now, notebook computer, all increasingly becoming standard issue in elementary, middle and high schools as well as college institutions. Success proves that the introduction of technology into our classrooms hasn't been wrong.

Today we gaze upon a new educational technological horizon: "virtual reality" or as it known in the industry, VR. This cutting-edge technology is not well understood yet, suffering from inaccurate hype and the lack of a frame of reference for most people. But it is an active area of research, much of it in terms of educational applications, and it holds the potential for very dramatic impact on the learning process.

In this paper I will describe some of the technologies that have led up to virtual reality, and their relationship to education; define and describe a VR system; give examples of some of the applications and research areas currently being explored; and discuss some of the pedagogical and design issues involved in VR.

* A Working Definition

Perhaps one of the best definitions of virtual reality is that it is a "surrogate environment created by communications and computing systems." [1] Coined in 1989 by Jaron Lanier, president of VPL Research, Inc., a VR manufacturing company, the term denotes a simulated environment into which a user "enters," moves around and interacts with objects. Because true VR is three dimensional, one's peripheral vision sees not the "real" world, but the simulated one. You are "virtually there," hence the term.

A VR system is composed of both sophisticated hardware and advanced software. The elaborate, high-end systems enable users to become completely immersed in a 3D, computer-generated world that fulfills the sight, sound and movement sensory requirements of human beings. Such systems utilize high-powered workstations like those from Sun Microsystems or Silicon Graphics, data gloves or full-body "data suits," 3D TV screens for each eye and surround-sound audio. Low-budget examples employ an Amiga or DOS computer, a Mattel PowerGlove and a helmet for 3D visuals.

Some believe VR will kill student creativity; I feel it will challenge and excite them beyond all known perceptions. After all, educators discovered long ago that the interactive appeal of software programs involves students for hours. VR takes that appeal and exponentially expands it beyond most imaginations. It offers new dimensions in classroom learning with 3D graphics, surround sound, and full sensory/tactile feedback. Once students experience interactive programs that place them, literally, in the action--even allow them to cause the action--they'll be even more bored with passive technology.

* VR Forerunners

There have been precursors to virtual reality. Nintendo-type video games are what first comes to mind. Although they simply brought the video arcade into the living room, they demonstrated without question the ability of interactive "software" to capture young (and older) people's attention. The crossover to education is obvious. Indeed, in 1990 the Nintendo company invested $3 million in furthering the research of Seymour Papert at MIT's Media Lab to help make their games "more educational."

In a way more pertinent to educators, the value of the sense of "being there" was recognized by Dr. Robert Ballard, who coined the term "telepresence" to describe his use of technology to create a simulated presence at a remote site. Ballard, a world-renowned marine geologist, utilized small ROVs (remote-controlled vehicles) to find and explore the R.M.S. Titanic. That discovery brought him a flood of letters from schoolchildren. Ballard realized this sense of discovery excited kids and was one of the missing ingredients in traditional academic curricula.

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