Virtual reality comes to the classroom

01:43, Jan 31 2009
VIRTUALLY THERE: HitLab director Mark Billinghurst with an earlier project that helped people interact with 3D data. He has a government grant to develop the technology for the classroom.

Students will be able to peek inside chemical reactions and explore three-dimensional models of ear canals in virtual technology being developed at Canterbury University.

The university has received $1.77 million from the Government's Encouraging and Supporting Innovation Fund for a three-year project designing virtual work environments to give students practical experience.

Canterbury University HitLab director Mark Billinghurst, who is leading the project, said New Zealand is lagging behind in virtual technology.

"There's not much government investment in the area, so this will allow us to catch up with some of the teaching and technology trends internationally."

The first students to benefit from the virtual worlds will be those studying chemical engineering, audiology and health sciences.

Audiology students would work with virtual human subjects to test different rates of hearing impairments that could be difficult to find in the general population, he said.


Students could even be virtually shrunk and find themselves walking inside a 3D model of an ear canal with sound waves floating through the air.

"With chemical engineering plants, it's hard for students to go there and see what's happening, and even if they do it's mostly processes inside large vats," Billinghurst said.

"You can use computer graphs and immersive photography to give people a view of what it looks like in a plant and simulate the processes and chemical reactions inside those vats."

The university is working with the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology to create a virtual work environment for nurses in training.

With virtual technology, they could practise their bedside manner and diagnostic skills without leaving the campus.

"This fills a gap in traditional education. There's a lot of book learning, but when people start jobs they don't necessarily have that hands-on experience," Billinghurst said.

The technology could eventually be used to train people in many professions, such as the police, he said.


The Press