This article presents Virtual Radiopharmacy Laboratory (VR LAB), a virtual laboratory accessible through the Internet. VR LAB is designed and implemented in the framework of the VirRAD European project. This laboratory represents a 3D simulation of a radio-pharmacy laboratory, where learners, represented by 3D avatars, can experiment on radio-pharmacy equipment by carrying out specific learning scenarios. This article describes the functionality provided by this laboratory, the motivation factors which led to its formation, the technological decisions that were made for the optimization of the system, as well as the envisioned steps to be carried out.
The wide expansion of the World Wide Web (WWW or Web) and the Internet has formed all the necessary preconditions for adopting this powerful means for purposes such as delivery of e-learning content, collaboration, and distance learning both in the industrial and the educational field. This trend has been proven beneficial for small communities of people, working in highly specialized areas and facing communication and collaboration difficulties due to spatial limitations (Laister & Koubek, 2001). The community of Radiopharmacy stands as an example for this kind of specialized communities.
In the technological field, Virtual Reality (VR) technology has been widely proposed and recognized as a major technological advance for supporting life-long education to individuals along with a flexible workforce. One of the unique capabilities of the VR technology is the successful translation of abstract concepts into visualized events and the interaction of students with them, that in real life could be limited due to distance, time, and safety factors (Youngblut, 1998). Furthermore, by exploiting 3D multi-user virtual environments, the user can interact with other users of the virtual environment, thus achieving a great sense of realism. Therefore, VR technology could have a high potential for supporting not only Resource-Based Learning (RBL) but also collaborative e-learning processes. However, current user interfaces fail to enable the user to be fully creative. In most cases the emphasis is given on the technology rather than on the fact that these interfaces should be designed for the content to be easily accessed. For example, in general, voice or gestures from the user are not used (Earnshaw, 2001).
In recent years, communities and educational collaborative virtual environments, in general, drew academic and research attention and a great number of educational institutions and organizations focused on the development of virtual collaboration environments. Among these efforts, a distributed virtual reality environment for simulation-based learning is C-VISions (Chee & Hooi, 2002). C-VISions is a research project, which focuses on the implementation of a multi-user 3D environment for educational purposes. For the learning process to be realized, users are represented by avatars in a 3D environment. Furthermore, the system provides collaboration and communication tools such as enhanced text chat and a global audio chat system. Another example of a virtual environment for educational purposes is The Virtual Labs Series--http://www.hhmi.org/biointeractive/vlabs/ produced by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. This work is a collection of virtual laboratory exercises, fully interactive, created for the diffusion of biomedical know-how, with 3D modeled laboratory equipment covering different modern biological topics. The Virtual Lab Series begins to address the need to educate the public at large about the rapidly emerging fields of bioinformatics, genomics, and applied Internet-based research.
It must be mentioned that these environments focus either on the technical implementation and representation of the 3D world as C-VISions, or on the standard operation process as the Virtual Lab Series. Consequently, research has not yet presented an integrated educational 3D environment, which could provide a powerful 3D world with enhanced communication tools (avatars' gestures, voice, and text chat) and intelligent learner modeling functionality along with the ability to focus on the training procedure. …