Employee with virtual reality glasses on. A screen behind her shows the virtual environment: a cottage in the Alps.

A new kind of interaction enabled by virtual reality: “More presence than in the classroom”

The teaching staff were offered workshops in virtual reality in December. A VR environment enables genuine interaction even if there are hundreds of kilometres between the people in real life.

A VR environment allows you to have a communal experience without leaving your home. Led by Sovelto Oyj, a company offering training services, the workshop aimed to show the teaching staff what kind of an experience virtual reality is and, thereby, get them thinking about what it could offer to teaching.

Now held for the first time at the University of Oulu, the workshops accommodated six groups of eight people. The training places were filled in less than 24 hours.

A man is holding VR glasses in a conference room full of people.

Anssi Rusanen shows how to adjust VR glasses. The Oculus Quest glasses are wireless.

 

Presence despite distance

A special feature of the virtual environment used in the workshop is the fact that several people can enter the same space. Each of them can take part in the meeting from the desired location. They can discuss with the other participants and even virtually shake hands with them.

“The environment has been created such that it doesn’t really occur to you that you are not actually in the same room with the other participants,” says Sovelto Oyj’s trainer Anssi Rusanen.

The soundscape is amazingly realistic thanks to the 3D sound. You can hear the other participants speaking in different directions and at different volumes depending on how your avatar is located in relation to the others. When a user standing behind you in the virtual world speaks, it feels like someone was really behind you.

“When you meet for the first time in real life, you feel funny as you already know the other person even though you have not seen them before,” Rusanen says.

In virtual reality, there are no distractions like mobile phones or e-mails. Thanks to this, the interaction is more intensive than in many other teaching situations.

“Virtual reality makes you participate in a different way. There is even more presence than in the classroom,” Rusanen says.

Unlike in many video conferences, you will immediately notice if someone leaves the virtual world. When a participant takes off their glasses, their avatar bows its head.

Three people are wearing VR glasses and handles. They do not seem to notice each other.

People learned to use the glasses together. After learning the ropes, the participants spread out across the campus.

 

Virtual reality purposefully

The purpose of virtual reality is to add value to the training. A good idea is to use other channels for the theoretical part and make use of virtual reality in group exercises.

“Instead of giving PowerPoint lectures, you should think about things you can do in the VR environment that are not possible in real life,” Rusanen notes.

Even though the virtual environment can be anything from a spacecraft to the Mariana Trench, the graphics should be selected according to the intended application. The environment must not steal the attention from the training but must support the content instead. For example, VR glasses can be used to move from one environment to another when the subject changes, so the change of environment may help participants understand the structures.

“The spaces can be multiplied for various groups. The contents created will remain in the space, so each group can return to the same situation later,” Antti Rusanen says.

“Physicality strengthens the neural pathways and promotes learning,” says Antti Peltonen, who is responsible for designing IT support services for education.

According to recommendations, VR glasses should not be worn for more than half an hour at a time. Using them too long without interruption may induce nausea. Even if you take breaks, a full day of training in the virtual world would be too tiring in its intensiveness.

“Just like when using videos for teaching, the contents must also be condensed to the essentials in virtual reality,” says adult education planner Topias Uusitalo.

Suurista ikkunoista näkyy upea Alppimaisema.

Screen capture from the virtual environment. Participants could choose between human and robot avatars. The participants tested how to build a "moped".

 

Not quite ready for deployment

The participants regarded the training as a very interesting and positive experience. The realistic soundscape was praised in particular. You could also forget the physical environment surprisingly quickly. There was no danger of bumping into walls when moving into the VR world, as the user specifies the limits within which they can safely move.

“Virtual reality takes you closer to the genuine experience. It provides an enormous number of opportunities for online courses. However, the virtual environment should be easily modifiable for various subjects,” Uusitalo says.

Despite the varied usage opportunities, using VR in real teaching situations is still a bit difficult to imagine. Possible applications mentioned in the discussion after the training included group formation exercises, architect education and mine simulations.

“We should invent something new that we may not even know how to invent yet,” laughs Topias Uusitalo.

Rusanen agrees. When you are used to the real environment, your imagination is not immediately on a par with the opportunities of virtual worlds: “We are leaning forward and studying all the possible applications of virtual reality.”

So far, VR environments have been used in Finland in, for example, designing shopping centres and first aid training and to support companies during challenging maintenance work. Many educational institutes have also been interested.

The unit of IT support services for teaching is planning to purchase VR glasses for its use. The idea is to start testing virtual reality at the University of Oulu in the future.

“But we are not quite there yet. First, we must think about the contents and gain a better understanding of the subject. The expensive technology is also still a problem,” Antti Peltonen says.

Last updated: 3.1.2020