'Teaching Tool of the Future' Mu's Adaptation of Virtual Reality to Education Allows Students to Go on Explorations in the Classroom

By Bill Allen Post-Dispatch Science | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), August 12, 1996 | Go to article overview

'Teaching Tool of the Future' Mu's Adaptation of Virtual Reality to Education Allows Students to Go on Explorations in the Classroom


Bill Allen Post-Dispatch Science, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


A colorful heart the size of a picture window slowly pumps on the giant screen in front of the classroom. Viewed through stereoscopic glasses, it appears to be three-dimensional, and almost real.

Little red and blue balls fly in and out through various valves and tubes. Like microscopic people in a science-fiction movie, we fly along behind one of the balls. It floats like a butterfly in search of a flower, sweeping through heart chambers with jagged red walls and pillars that resemble those in a Missouri cave.

The balls are blood cells, some laden with oxygen on their way out into the body and some on their way to the lungs to pick up more. We leave the first ball behind and follow another out through a valve.

"You can stop and go anywhere you want," says Ali Hussam, a computer expert at the University of Missouri at Columbia. At the controls of a computer in the university's Memorial Union, Hussam guided some visitors through MU's new virtual reality classroom.

This is the Virtual Environment Instructional Laboratory. Professors in the humanities and sciences are working with Hussam to develop virtual worlds that students can enter and explore, whether singly or as a class of 50.

Hussam has watched how scientists at Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Illinois use virtual reality to conduct research. He and his MU colleagues are adapting it for education.

Beginning this fall, medical students will enter this classroom to study the virtual heart - healthy and defective. Anthropology students will excavate a prehistoric village in Peru. Later in the year, English students may be able to take a "walk" down the streets of Harlem in New York City, observing the neighborhood's culture circa 1930.

"My ultimate dream is to have a human being experience an environment in the virtual world and have it be as real as the real world," said Hussam, who leads the MU effort as director of the Digital Media Research and Development Center.

As professors use the virtual classroom to teach, other researchers will study the effectiveness of virtual reality as a learning tool. As such, the classroom will become a laboratory of sorts for how to apply virtual reality to education at all levels.

"We want to bring this technology right down the alley to students," he said.

Throbbing Hearts

A smaller companion classroom is still under construction. It will allow four students sitting in a passenger pod to experience earthquake, flight and other simulations. But the 50-seat main classroom is ready for use.

Students studying anatomy, anthropology, engineering, physiology and other subjects will don special viewing glasses and take one of the 50 seats in front of the wall-size, three-dimensional screen. The screen, curved and coated with platinum, delivers images so sharp and clear that many of them seem almost real. Some simulations use the room's powerful surround-sound system.

Hussam and his computer gurus are working with Dr. Zuhdi Lababidi, director of pediatric cardiology at the MU School of Medicine, to develop the virtual heart. Their goal is to construct a realistic heart visualization that will allow physicians and students to view the human heart in action in ways not otherwise possible. …

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