AECT Handbook of Research

Table of Contents

15. Virtual Realities

15.1 Introduction
15.2 Historical Background
15.3 Different Kinds of Virtual Reality
15.4 Introduction to Virtual Reality Applications in Education Training
15.5 Establishing a Research Agenda for Virtual Realities in Education and Training
15.6 Theoretical Perspectives on Virtual Realities
15.7 Design Models and Metaphors
15.8 Virtual Realities Research and Development
15.9 Implications
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Virtual reality appears to offer educational potentials in the following areas: (1) data gathering and visualization, (2) project planning and design, (3) the design of interactive training systems, (4) virtual field trips, and (5) the design of experiential learning environments. Virtual reality also offers many possibilities as a tool for nontraditional learners, including the physically disabled and those undergoing rehabilitation who must learn (or relearn) communication and psychomotor skills (Pausch, Vogtle, & Conway, 1991; Pausch, & Williams, 1991; Knapp, & Lusted, 1992; Warner & Jacobson, 1992; Delaney, 1993; Trimble, 1993; Murphy, 1994; Sklaroff, 1994). Virtual reality offers professional applications in many disciplines --- robotics, medicine, scientific visualization, aviation, business, architectural and interior design, city planning, product design, law enforcement, entertainment, the visual arts, music, and dance --- and concommitantly, virtual reality offers potentials as a training tool linked to these professional applications (Goodlett, 1990; Jacobson, 1992; Hyde & Loftin, 1993; Hughes, 1993; Donelson, 1994; Dunkley, 1994). For example, just as virtual reality is used as a tool by surgeons, it can be used by medical students training to become surgeons.

Originally designed as a visualization tool to help scientists, virtual reality has been taken up by artists as well. VR offers great potential as a creative tool and a medium of expression in the arts. Creative virtual reality applications have been developed for the audio and visual arts. An exhibit of virtual reality art was held at the Soho Guggenheim Museum in 1993 and artistic applications of VR are regularly shown at the Banff Center for the Arts in Canada (Stenger, 1991; Frankel, 1994; Laurel, 1994; Teixeira, 1994a; Teixeira, 1994b). This trend is expanding (Krueger, 1991; Treviranus, 1993; Brill, 1995; Cooper, 1995). Virtual reality has been applied to the theater, including a venerable puppet theater in France (Coats, 1994). And virtual reality has a role to play in filmmaking, including project planning and special effects (Smith, 1993). This has important implications for education, as demonstrated by Bricken and Byrne's (1993) research (described later in this chapter) as well as other projects.

One of VR's most powerful capabilities in relation to education is as a data gathering and feedback tool on human performance (Hamilton, 1992; Greenleaf, 1994; Lampton, Knerr, Goldberg, Bliss, Moshell, & Blau, 1994; McLellan, 1994b). Greenleaf Medical has developed a modified version of the VPL DataGlove™ that can be used for performance data gathering for sports, medicine and rehabilitation. For example, Greenleaf Medical developed an application for the Boston Red Sox that records, analyzes and visually models hand and arm movements when a fast ball is thrown by one of the team pitchers, such as Roger Clemens. Musician Yo Yo Ma uses a virtual reality application called a "hyperinstrument," developed by MIT Media Lab researcher Tod Machover, that records the movement of his bow and bow hand (Markoff, 1991). In addition to listening to the audio recordings, Yo Yo Ma can examine data concerning differences in his bowing during several performances of the same piece of music to determine what works best and thus how to improve his performance. NEC has created a prototype of a virtual reality ski training system that monitors and responds to the stress/relaxation rate indicated by the skier's blood flow to adjust the difficulty of the virtual terrain within the training system (Lerman, 1993; VR Monitor, 1993). Flight simulators can "replay" a flight or battletank wargame so that there can be no disagreement about what actually happened during a simulation exercise.

In considering the educational potentials of virtual reality, it is interesting to note that the legendary virtual reality pioneer, Jaron Lanier, one of the developers of the DataGlove™, originally set out to explore educational applications of virtual reality. Unfortunately this initiative was ahead of its time; it could not be developed into a cost-effective and commercially viable product. Lanier explains;

I had in mind an ambitious scheme to make a really low-cost system for schools, immediately. We tried to put together something that might be described as a Commodore 64 with a cheap glove on it and a sort of cylindrical software environment (quoted in Ditlea, 1993, p. 10).

Subsequently, during the mid-1980s, Lanier teamed up with scientists at the NASA Ames Lab on the research and development project where immersive virtual reality first came together.

Another virtual reality pioneer, Warren Robinett, designed the educational software program Rocky's Boots (see 12.3)(Learning Company, 1983) during the early 1980s. This highly regarded program, which provides learners with a 2-D "virtual world" where they can explore the basic concepts of electronics, was developed before virtual reality came into focus; it serves as a model for experiential virtual reality learning environments.

Newby (1993, p.11) points out that:

Education is perhaps the area of VR which has some of the greatest potential for improvement through the application of advanced technology. The lack of funding to place VR systems (or, in many cases, more modest educational technology) in public K-12 schools is the major impediment in this area. There are almost no articles in the literature describing research and potential applications in progress which fall clearly in the domain of education in K-12 or college.

Nonetheless, a few secondary schools have started to use virtual reality technology, including the Academy for the Advancement of Science and Technology in Hackensack, New Jersey, the West Denton High School in Newcastle-on-Tyne in Great Britain, and Kelly Walsh High School in Natrona County, Wyoming. Gay (1994a) describes how immersive virtual reality was implemented in Natrona County "on a school budget" using public domain software and other resources. And there have been experimental programs where children are introduced to virtual reality technology, such as the programs by Bricken and Byrne (1993) and Merickel (1992) which are described later in this chapter.

East Carolina University, in Greenville, North Carolina, has established a Virtual Reality and Education Lab (VREL), which has as its goals, "to identify suitable applications of virtual reality in education, evaluate virtual reality software and hardware, examine the impact of virtual reality on education, and disseminate this information as broadly as possible. (Auld & Pantelidis, 1994, p. 29)" Researchers at VREL have focused intensively on assembling and sharing information. For example, VREL regularly releases an updated bibliography concerning VR and education via the internet. Veronica Pantelidis, Co-Director of VREL, has prepared several reports, including: North Carolina Competency-Based Curriculum Objectives and Virtual Reality (1993), Virtus VR and Virtus WalkThrough Uses in the Classroom, and Virtual Reality: 10 Questions and Answers. Related to this, there are currently two internet listservs concerning VR and education: (subscribe cbnvee your name) and (subscribe VirtEd your name). In addition, there are several published reference guides to virtual reality, including Information Sources for Virtual Reality: A Research Guide, by Robert Carande (1993), Virtual Reality: A selected bibliography, by Hilary McLellan (1992), and Virtual Reality: An international directory of research projects, Edited by Jeremy Thonpson (1993).

Many museums are adopting virtual reality for displays as well as educational programs (Lantz, 1992; Britton, 1994; O'Donnell, 1994; Greschler, 1994; Wagner, 1994; Wisne, 1994; Brill, 1994b; Brill, 1994c; Brill, 1995). The Boston Computer Museum carried out a research project, funded by NSF, to study learners in an experiential learning environment (Gay, 1994b; Greschler, 1994). This research will be discussed in section 8.4 of this chapter. And other museum projects are providing useful information concerning effective design and implementation of educational VR applications, such as the social dimension of the Virtual Hoops application discussed earlier. Kellogg, Carroll, and Richards (1991) present a brilliant scenario of "A Natural History Museum Cyberspace" describing how interactive VR museum displays can be designed to support learning. Carl Loeffler of Carnegie Mellon University directs a project featuring the Networked Virtual Art Museum, an art museum which joins telecommunications and virtual reality (Loeffler, 1993; Brill, 1994a: Jacobson, 1994b; Holden, 1992).

Newby (1993, p.11) points out

...that VR for education, even if developed and proven successful, must await further commitment of funds before it can see widespread use. This situation is common to all countries where VR research is being undertaken with the possible exception of Japan, which has followed through on an initiative to provide technological infrastructure to students.

So far most educational applications of virtual reality have been developed for professional training in highly technical fields such as medical education, astronaut training, military training (Merril, 1993; Merril, 1995; Eckhouse, 1993). In particular, military training has been an important focus for the development of virtual reality training systems since VR-based training is safer and more cost-effective than other approaches to military training (Fritz, 1991; Amburn, 1992; Gambicki & Rousseau, 1993; Hamit, 1993; Sterling, 1993; Stytz, 1993; Dovey, 1994; Stytz, 1994). It is important to note that the cost of VR technologies, while still expensive, has substantially gone down in price over the last few years. And options at the lower end of the cost scale such as garage VR and desktop VR are expanding. Also, at least one virtual reality software program, Sense8's WorldToolKit, can be ported between different computer systems.

NASA has developed a number of virtual environment R&D projects, including the Hubble Telescope Rescue Mission training project, the Space Station Coupola training project, the shared virtual environment where astronauts can practice reconnoitering outside the space shuttle for joint training, human factors, engineering design (Dede, Loftin, & Salzman, 1994; Loftin, 1993). And NASA researcher Bowen Loftin has developed the Virtual Physics Lab where learners can explore conditions such as changes in gravity (Loftin, Engleberg, & Beneditti 1993a; Loftin, Engleberg, & Beneditti 1993b; Loftin, Engleberg, & Beneditti 1993c). Loftin et al (1993a) report that at NASA there is a serious lag time between the hardware delivery and training since it takes time to come to terms with the complex new technological systems that characterize the space program. Virtual reality can make it possible to reduce the time lag between receiving equipment and implementing training by making possible virtual prototypes or models of the equipment for training purposes. Bowen Loftin, Christopher Dede, and other researchers are working on further initiatives concerning VR and education at the Johnson Space Center (Dede, 1990; Dede, 1992; Dede, 1993; Dede, Loftin, & Salzman, 1994).

In terms of medical training, several companies have introduced surgical simulators(see 17.4) that feature virtual reality, including both visual and tactile feedback (Satava, 1992; Stix, 1992; Satava, 1993; Hon, 1993; Marcus, 1994; Merril, 1993; Brennan, 1994; Burrow, 1994; Hon, 1994; McGovern, 1994; Merril, 1994; Merril, Roy, Merril, & Raju, 1994; Rosen, 1994; Spritzer, 1994; Taubes; 1994b; Weghorst, 1994; Merril, 1995). Merril (1993, p.35) explains:

Anatomy is 3-dimensional and processes in the body are dynamic; these aspects do not lend themselves to capture with two dimensional imaging. Now computer technology has finally caught up with our needs to examine and capture and explain the complex goings-on in the body. The simulator must also have knowledge of how each instrument interacts with the tissues. A scalpel will cut tissue when a certain amount of pressure is applied; however, a blunt instrument may not --- this fact must be simulated. In addition the tissues must know where their boundaries are when they are intersecting each other.

Virtual reality simulators are beginning to offer a powerful dynamic virtual model of the human body that can be used to improve medical education (Taubes, 1994b).

Related to this, virtual reality is under exploration as a therapeutic tool. For example, Lamson (1994) reports that the Kaiser-Permanente Medical Group in California is using virtual reality as tool with patients who are afraid of heights. And Oliver and Rothman (1993) have explored the use of virtual reality with emotionally disturbed children. Knox, Schacht, & Turner (1993) report on a proposed VR application for treating test anxiety in college students. A virtual reality application in dentistry has been developed for similar purposes: virtual reality serves as a "dental distractor," distracting and entertaining the patient while the dentist is working on the patient's teeth.

Updated August 3, 2001
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