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Taking a different view: VR and sim in the classroom

John Mould, commercial development manager for ST Engineering Antycip, outlines how immersive display technologies are transforming the way we learn

At ST Engineering Antycip, we have in recent years seen an increase in the adoption of simulator technology, as learning institutions recognise the importance of having the tools to allow participants to safely conduct experimentation. Our partner Merlin Flight Simulation, for example, has deployed its flight software, Excalibur, and physical flight simulator cockpits in many different schools and educational institutions, including Swansea University, the University of East London, Manchester University and the University of Dayton in the United States. Such simulators allow students to realise their own flight dynamics and aircraft designs with the ability to actually experience a flight first hand. No longer are students stuck before a computer display trying to test their theories; with this type of technology at their disposal, they can become a test pilot to explore the reality of what they are working on.

In the realm of virtual reality, many universities have acquired funding to enable them to have tailored-to-suit facilities such as VR CAVEs and VR power walls integrated into their buildings, providing a focal point for a particular area of study or to act as a vehicle that can support and switch between multiple disciplines. Recently, the University of Caen in Normandy took delivery of the largest VR CAVE in the French university community, with a projection surface of 118 sqm. This four-sided CAVE is combined with a 3m x 2.5m treadmill which makes it possible to work on the university’s various research projects related to neurodegenerative diseases and disabling pathologies, including Alzheimer’s disease and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. ST Engineering Antycip uniquely adapted the CAVE floor so that it could house the treadmill beneath its surface, enabling the university to electrically raise the system when necessary while still retaining the ability to operate as a normal CAVE when the treadmill is not in use, resulting in a versatile
display solution.

VR is also enabling educational establishments to better cater for remote learning and teaching, having learnt lessons from the pandemic, when students and staff could not physically enter their own educational spaces. Software such as TechViz, with its Cloud&Viz platform, has opened a gateway to remote learning by allowing students to remotely participate and join in with a virtual experience utilising only their laptop or a simple immersive device. Streaming such VR applications enables teaching professionals to meet their students in a virtual world and to see each other as a virtual avatar; and, most importantly, to give individuals the ability to collaborate together regardless of geography.

Part of my job at ST Engineering Antycip is opening the eyes of educational clients to the art of the possible. For example, we are engaged with many clients who already appreciate the traditional benefits of having an interactive, virtual reality-capable display system to work with their existing software tools, but they may not be aware of how projection technology has evolved to enable advanced collaboration, giving a unique sense of presence in the virtual content to each individual. 

The Digital Innovation Facility at Liverpool University was the first in the UK to embrace the capabilities offered by stereoscopic-capable ‘multi-view’ displays head on, procuring a custom-made VR power wall system that enables them to have three native 4K-resolution dynamic eyepoints simultaneously delivered to three active participants in a virtual world. This client has even developed their own Unreal Engine-based applications to use in this cutting-edge projection environment, creating applications that, for example, allow you to drive one of three avatars around an industrial complex design, with each connected party able to use the same visual display real estate but receiving their own unique view, as you would in reality. Sharing that world with others drives decision-making processes more rapidly to conclusion and allows users to comprehend the impact of the generated content from multiple viewpoints.

Direct-view LED is a display capability that many will have already experienced if they have travelled the world (it is used for a lot of daylight-capable digital signage applications), but what it brings to the world of simulation and VR is new. Now we have displays which can operate under the variability of real-world lighting conditions, with a longevity that could see their investment operate for more than a decade, without consumables such as lamps to replace over time and with reduced maintenance. These direct-view LED arrays have a negligible depth to consider compared to projected displays and remove any limitations for use cases that would traditionally have to be designed to minimise shadowing of the display from a vehicle or multiple users. The frame rates of the more specialist options now support real-time rendering of up to 240 fps and latency suitable for simulation purposes; they can even be curved around a vehicle in the loop or an audience for more immersion in the visual content. 3D stereo depth is possible, and the capability of multi-view stereo from such displays is enabling a new wave of VR configurations. What is also possible is the emerging use case for virtual FX studios, whereby universities running multimedia-based courses can offer students facilities akin to those used for movie production and visual effects in that industry today.

The move away from traditional lamp-based technologies promised by the growth of direct-view LED mirrors a wider shift within the sector towards solid-state hardware.

In terms of display solutions, we are phasing out the sales of the older technologies in favour of systems that can operate with illumination engines using laser or LED, meaning that the longevity and cost of ownership are significantly reduced over the years of service; with the added benefits that maintenance and interventions are also seeing a major reduction in both time and cost. This means the displays are addressing the availability and constant image quality that the teaching professionals desire, but satisfying the support organisations that work with them behind the scenes at their educational venues.

While the technologies discussed in this article are primarily of interest to better-funded higher education establishments, the industry has driven down the cost for VR (with head-mounted display devices becoming palatable for consumers), which of course opens up the possibilities for schools to offer such devices for their students.

What is undeniable is that immersive education is engaging and memorable for students of all ages. We learn and comprehend a lot of the world around us through a visual medium, and this is the area that our technologies focus upon. Some of the successes that universities have had when adopting virtual environment solutions should therefore be shared by institutions at all levels.