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Bridging the Gap between Students and Laboratory Experiments

Abstract. After having finished studies, graduates need to apply their knowledge to a new environment. In order to professionally prepare students for new situations, virtual reality (VR) simulators can be utilized. During our research, such a simulator is applied in order to enable the visit of remote laboratories, which are designed through advanced computer graphics in order to create simulated representations of real world environments. That way, it is our aim to facilitate the access to practical engineering laboratories.

Our goal is to enable a secure visit of elusive or dangerous places for students of technical studies. The first step towards the virtualization of engineering environments, e.g. a nuclear power plant, consists in the development of demonstrators. In the present paper, we describe the elaboration of an industry relevant demonstrator for the advanced teaching of engineering students. Within our approach, we use a virtual reality simulator that is called the Virtual Theatre.

Keywords: Virtual Reality, Virtual Theatre, Remote Laboratories, Immersion.

1 Introduction

In terms of modern teaching methods within engineering classes, various different approaches can be utilized to impart knowledge to students. There are traditional teaching techniques, which are still suitable for most of the knowledge transfer. These methods are carried out by the use of written texts or the spoken word. However, due to the increasing number of study paths as well as the specialization of particularly technical oriented classes, there is a need for the integration of new media into the curriculum of most students [1]. Thus, the visualization of educational content in order to explain theory more concrete and tangible has gained in importance. Not least because of the progress in computer science and graphical visualization, the capabilities of visualizing objects of interest within an artificially designed context have grown to an exhaustive amount. However, not only the visualization techniques have emerged, the way of distributing knowledge through teaching media has also grown. One major improvement in reaching students independently to their location are E-Learning Platforms [2]. These technical possibilities of sharing and representing contents open up new opportunities in teaching and learning for students.

Thus, in nearly all courses of studies, new media have gained a high significance in the past decade. These new media are continuously replacing conventional media or in other words traditional, static teaching approaches using books and lecture notes. The new media are mostly based on methods of digital visualization [3], e.g. presentation applications like PowerPoint [4]. This switch from the traditional lecture speech to graphical representations have been performed, because this form of presentation enables focusing on the main points of educational content using illustrative representations and pictorial summaries [5]. Despite the positive [6], but also critical discussion about an overwhelming usage of PowerPoint [79] as primary teaching tool [10], the usage of presentation software in the classroom has grown constantly [11].

Applications like PowerPoint may be a far reaching advancement for most courses within university. However, even these IT-based teaching supports are limited to a certain kind of knowledge transfer. Especially practically oriented study paths like engineering courses have an urgent need for interaction possibilities. In these highly technical focused studies, the teaching personnel are facing more and more obstacles in imparting their knowledge tangible. Due to the advanced and complex technology level of the relevant applications [12], progressive methods have to be applied to fulfill the desired teaching goals. In order to make the problem based learning methodologies available [13], novel visualization techniques have to be carried out.

Studies of astronautics or nuclear research can serve as an incisive example for the need of innovative visualization capabilities. During astronomy studies, the teaching personnel will face insurmountable obstacles, if they want to impart practical knowledge about aerospace travelling to the students using theoretical approaches. In order to gain deep, experienced knowledge about real situations an astronaut has to face, realistic scenarios have to be carried out. This can for instance be performed by setting up expensive real-world demonstrators that facilitate practical experiences within aerospace travelling events, e.g. by making use of actual acceleration.

However, there is also a need for a visual representation of the situation. In order to fulfill the requirements of a holistic experience, these visualization techniques need to perform an immersive representation of the virtual world scenario. In this connection, the term immersion is defined according to Murray [14] as follow: Immersion is a metaphorical term derived from the physical experience of being submerged in water. We seek the same feeling from a psychologically immersive experience that we do from a plunge in the ocean or swimming pool: the sensation of being surrounded by a completely other reality, as different as water is from air that takes over all of our attention, our whole perceptual apparatus.

It is obvious that experience can only be impressive enough to impart experienced knowledge, if the simulation of a virtual situation has an immersive effect on the perception of the user. Our latest research on creating virtual world scenarios has shown that immersion has got a high impact on the learning behavior of students [15]. Following the idea of facilitating the study circumstances for students of astronautics, our first demonstrator was carried out in terms of a Mars scenario [16]. Using novel visualization techniques in connection with realistic physics engines, we have carried out a realistic representation of a plateau located on the red planet.

In our next research phase, we want to go further to increase the interaction capabilities with the virtual environment the user is experiencing. In terms of the Mars representation, there were already few interaction possibilities like triggering of object movements or the navigation of vehicles [16]. However, this sort of interaction is based on rather artificial commands than on natural movements with realistic consequences in the representation of the virtual world scenario.

Hence, in the present paper, we want to introduce a more grounded scenario, which is based on the aforementioned idea of enabling the visit of elusive or dangerous places like an atomic plant. Accordingly, our first step in realizing an overall scenario of a detailed environment like a power plant consists in the development of single laboratory environments. In this context, our aim is to focus especially on the interaction capabilities within this demonstrator.

This target is pursued by carrying out a virtual prototype of an actual laboratory environment, which can be accessed virtually and in real-time by a user in a virtual reality simulator. The realization of these demonstrators is also known as the creation of remote laboratories. In the present paper, we describe the development, optimization and testing of such a remote laboratory. After a brief introduction into the stateof-the-art of this comparatively new research field in chapter 2, our special Virtual Reality simulator, which is used to simulate virtual environments in an immersive way, is described in chapter 3. In chapter 4, the technical design of the remote laboratory including its information and communication infrastructure is presented. In the Conclusion and Outlook, the next steps in realizing the overall goal of a virtual representation of an engineering environment like an atomic plant are pointed out.

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