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Experience is the most effective teacher we have. Having someone do something or experience it first-hand is usually the best way to get a lesson to stick. Unfortunately, there are many experiences that are just too rare, expensive, or dangerous to be used for educational purposes. In fact, our modern education system has never really been too keen on hands-on learning unless it is completely needed; we learn vicariously through textbooks, lectures, and (if we’re lucky) videos of live demonstrations.
VR can change that approach significantly. It provides us with a way to give students something almost exactly like a first-hand experience without the cost or danger that would usually be involved. This can be done in obvious fields such as pilot training, but even more “mundane” professions can now benefit from VR training simulations. After all, as the cost of making and consuming VR goes down the educational possibilities become more diverse.
I really believe that VR (and AR!) has the potential to transform the way we learn, and here I want to highlight some of the incredible VR simulations that are already helping people learn new skills. Some of these are high-end simulators that cost a lot of money and need special hardware. Others will run on consumer VR hardware and even mobile VR systems.
The world of consumer-grade educational titles is still a little short on variety, but it’s only a matter of time until developers start to latch on to the potential. For now, these are the VR educational sims I think are the most impressive.
Mondly – Gear VR
I like dabbling in various languages for fun, which is why I’m such a big fan of the mobile language app Duolingo. I’ve done old-school language tapes, online courses, videos – everything really. These have all been great, but one thing I’ve always missed is the ability to converse with another speaker, and the context that goes with it. Language is about a lot more than just learning vocabulary and grammar. Communication has many layers; no matter how good your language course is, you’re going to need that human interaction in order to make it really work. Duolingo now has a chatbot for some languages which lets you get a little of that back and forth practice.
But even then, the most they’ll promise is 65 percent fluency, which is why I was so excited when I discovered Mondly in the Gear VR’s Oculus store. It’s a language learning program set in VR that puts you in familiar situations. Booking into a hotel, having a chat with someone on a train, taking a taxi – that sort of thing.
The graphics are actually pretty good for a mobile title and I really get a mild sense of presence. You pick your target language and then the situation for which you want to practice. For example, if you choose the hotel scenario then you have to speak with the hotel clerk. And you really do have to speak. The software uses your phone’s onboard microphone to recognize what you have to say. You get a limited number of responses, but each one is translated right in front of you.
Mondly is not a total language learning solution yet, since it lacks any sort of pedagogical structure that equates to a focused course. As a practice tool and experience-building system, however, it shows a lot of promise and it’s worth a lot more than the five bucks I paid for it.
I did run into some bugs, such as stuttering on my Galaxy S6 and the occasional failure of the voice recognition system, but the actual concept is rock-solid.
The medical profession has made use of simulation for what seems like forever. From anatomical models to operating on cadavers or animals, it’s usually a good idea to learn the trade in a safe environment. This is one profession in which “on the job training” is probably a bad idea.
VR has played a big role in this for years. Expensive VR surgery simulators have helped hone the skills of modern surgeons to a sharp edge. Ironically, the use of teleoperated surgical robots such as the Da Vinci system is not becoming ever more common, which means that actual surgery is starting to feel more like a computer sim itself.
The RCSI, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, has sponsored the development of this medical training simulator. The graphics are a little basic, but that’s the way it is when it comes to some of these clinical simulation applications. The scenario is that you are an EMT and have to help deal with an injured patient who has come in after a car accident. You need to make several decisions in order to save the patient’s life. The app is not meant for regular Joes like you and me, but for medical trainees. So don’t expect it to be fun or easy. It is, however, a great glimpse into the potential for consumer VR to help professional people get better at their jobs. The sim doesn’t ask you do do anything that would require the use of a controller or motion capture, but it still puts you in a realistic life-or-death situation.
Did you know that professional crane operators are some of the best paid people in the world? I was shocked to learn that little fact after watching a documentary on the Discovery Channel some years ago. The people who operate those sophisticated cranes on major docks or in construction projects have to go through very rigorous training to safely operate this incredible heavy machinery. There is no room for error, and in an emergency situation you have to keep as cool as any astronaut or pilot.
ITI VR has made it a lot easier and more affordable to train future crane operators with VR. Traditional crane simulators have used screens in much the same way as traditional flight sims. In other words, the “windows” of the simulator’s cabin are screens, and that’s how you learn. The problem is that this isn’t very realistic; 2D images are of limited use in a job where spatial awareness and depth perception are incredibly important.
By using a VR HMD it’s possible to recreate a crane cab much more cheaply than building a mockup in a traditional sim. It also means you just need some joysticks, a VR laptop, and an HMD to set up a training station anywhere. ITI isn’t just using off-the-shelf hardware, though. There are many interchangeable joystick pods that are specific to cranes. In addition, they also offer a motion base on the operator chair to make it really feel like the real thing.
The main limitation to the proliferation of good VR education and training sims comes down to developer resources. Someone has to fund these apps, and in general it’s more profitable to make video games or entertainment software than it is to create training apps that can be a little niche. So it really is up to the respective industries that need to train more people in a better way to fund the creation of these applications.