Distance Learning

Penn State Develops Virtual Reality for Distance Education

Engineering students at Penn State have developed an immersive virtual reality (IVR) system with the potential to provide distance education students with an immersive, tactile classroom experience.

The system uses the Oculus Rift IVR headset developed by Oculus VR, a haptic glove and interactive 3-D simulations. The students developed the haptic glove, which is still in its prototype phase and lets the person wearing it manipulate and interact with virtual objects. With the help of Unity3D software, they also developed the 3-D simulations, which include a giant game of Jenga and an activity that starts with pieces of a coffee maker scattered on a table and lets people assemble the virtual appliance.

According to Conrad Tucker, assistant professor of engineering design and industrial engineering at Penn State and the project's supervisor, the system offers a great opportunity to improve the online learning experience for distance education students.

"Online learning gives us huge opportunities in higher education. You can connect with more diverse people across greater distances, for example," said Tucker in a prepared statement. "But online courses also limit you in some ways — there's little immersive or tactile interaction, and sometimes it's hard for students to engage with the material. IVR systems are a potential solution to that problem."

Tucker has recently completed a study that compares student performance of a task in the IVR environment with their performance of the same task in a non-immersive computer program using a keyboard and mouse. His study found that students could complete the task in the IVR environment in less than half the time than in the non-immersive online environment. According to Tucker, one of the reasons for the difference in performance is that "IVR systems give you a much more natural experience."

Tucker said he sees the potential for IVR to improve the educational experience for all students, including those in a brick-and-mortar classroom, because they can use the IVR system to travel to distant locations or even back in time.

The paper about the study will be published in the upcoming ASME 2015 International Design Engineering Technical Conferences & Computers and Information in Engineering Conference.

The project is funded by a Center for Online Innovation in Learning (COIL) Research Initiation Grant (RIG).

About the Author

Leila Meyer is a technology writer based in British Columbia. She can be reached at leilameyer@gmail.com.

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