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  • Virtual Reality Goes to College

Photonics Spectra
Dec 1996
Ruth A. Mendonsa

The business of educating students at all levels of learning is growing more complicated as the world grows more complex. Today's students learn not only with traditional lectures and reading assignments but also with lab projects, video and interactive multimedia. Educational researchers have found that the most effective learning mechanism involves hands-on experience.

Teaching chemical engineering students who have never seen the inside of a chemical plant about packed-bed reactor processing is a good example of the complexity facing professors of chemical engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The instructors wanted to give their students some hands-on experience in controlling a chemical reaction chamber without risking an explosion on campus. They also wanted to help the students visualize the function of a catalyst at the molecular level.

Chemical engineering lecturer John T. Bell and Professor H. Scott Fogler tackled their teaching goals by developing virtual-reality educational software that they dubbed VICHER (virtual chemical reaction module). Virtual reality allows the students to view 3-D objects from all possible viewpoints. One of the benefits of virtual reality is that it provides unlimited access to locations that are inaccessible in the real world because of constraints that include, among other things, danger. With VICHER, students can not only examine chemical-processing equipment and safety systems, but they can explore the nearby environment and access other safety-related information such as material-safety data sheets.

For the software's safety module, photos were taken at a nearby chemical plant and used in two ways. First, they were used as references when constructing the virtual facilities, and then they were scanned into the module's "help" system. With this approach, students can see the general layout of equipment in virtual reality and then pull up a separate window to see what it looks like in the real world.

For their virtual journey, the engineering students donned head-mounted displays called VPC i-glasses! from Virtual i-O in Seattle. The 8-oz headset can be connected to PCs, laptop computers, TVs, VCRs, laser disc players and video-game systems. It creates the effect of a large virtual screen in front of the viewer, displaying 2- and 3-D images in an immersive, full-color environment. When connected to a PC, the glasses provide computer users with head-tracking capabilities that enable them to maneuver in computer-simulated environments.

Taking courses certainly sounds more interesting than it used to be. It almost makes one want to strap on the bookbag and go back to school.

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