Virtual-Reality Lab Explores New Kinds of Immersive Learning


Photo by John T. Consoli, U. of Maryland

College Park, Md. — Standing in a virtual-reality lab at the University of Maryland here, Ramani Duraiswami passed around a standard pair of headphones.

Music played over them — but to the wearer, the source of the sound seemed to move around the room. As the music quieted down, it sounded as if it came from farther away. As it got louder on one side of the headset, it sounded as if it came from that side. “We’re able to perceive the world in all dimensions using our ears,” said Mr. Duraiswami, a computer-science professor and co-founder of the start-up company VisiSonics.

That can have implications in distance learning, he said. For students attending class via webcam or video lecture, the video is two-dimensional, and the audio doesn’t sound as it would if they were in a real classroom. Mr. Duraiswami thinks the virtual-reality technology could help the experience feel more immersive. “If all you’re seeing is a bunch of things in front of you, you’re not as immersed,” Mr. Duraiswami said. “You want the instructor to feel as if they’re right in front of you.”

Mr. Duraiswami showcased the technology last week at the university’s virtual-reality lab, called the Augmentarium. In other parts of the room, audience members waited their turn to try out virtual-reality headsets and 3-D glasses.

Virtual reality is getting big at the University of Maryland. Brendan Iribe, a co-founder of the virtual-reality company Oculus VR, attended for about a year, in 1996, and his $31-million donation last year was the largest in university history. The university built the lab in late 2014 with funding from the National Science Foundation. Now virtual-reality researchers are working on projects in health care, public safety, and education.

At the showcase, Mr. Duraiswami also let audience members try out a six-minute science-fiction demo called “Fixing Incus.” Strapping on a headset and headphones, you move your head to explore what looks like a spaceship. A few seconds into the demo, a voice seems to come from the right. “Hey, are you there?” says a character wearing a futuristic environmental suit. When you turn to the right, the headset tracks your motion, and you get a better view.

“This is a new way of communicating and learning that was until now just not possible,” said Amitabh Varshney, director of the university’s Institute for Advanced Computer Studies.

Mr. Varshney is researching how the human brain processes information in immersive environments, and how that’s different than on a computer monitor. In classrooms, he thinks virtual reality will help students immerse themselves in the subjects they’re learning about. One day, he said, architecture students could use the technology to walk through buildings they design.

“Instead of looking at just the equations,” he said, “you could explore.”

At the showcase, Mr. Varshney handed out 3-D glasses and turned on an immersive video of a surgical procedure. The projection filled the curved, wall-length screen, and Mr. Varshney pointed to the group of doctors crowding around the operating table.

“It’s very congested,” he said. For medical students watching the surgery in person, “there’s not a lot of opportunity … to experience what it’s like.”

Watching the surgery video, viewers just wore 3-D glasses, not virtual-reality headsets. They couldn’t control where they were looking by moving around, but that’s the researchers’ eventual goal.

Virtual-reality technology is still young, and headsets like Oculus Rift are cumbersome. So far they aren’t being used on a mass scale. But eventually the researchers hope their work will be used in hospitals, grocery stores, and classrooms. Mr. Varshney doesn’t know how long that will take. “Right now the head-mounted displays are very big and bulky,” he said, “but remember how cellphones evolved.”

Smartphones took about 20 years to become powerful, he said, and he expects virtual-reality technology will follow a similar timeline. But he could also see them evolving faster. “There’s a certain amount of emotional appeal — experiential appeal — that this has that smartphones don’t,” he said.

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