Inside The Headset: Can VR Replace Real-Life Education?

Words by Katie Puckett

Using virtual reality to teach medical students

At Deakin University in Victoria, engineering students can “walk” inside virtual buildings and other environments to see potential design flaws and touch and feel the components — long before the creation of a physical prototype. The VR CAVE is the first of its kind in the world, with audio systems including a 27-point surround-sound loudspeaker system designed by WSP and MultiTek Solutions. It is a completely immersive environment, with high-resolution 3D vision and haptics technology to simulate touch.

Other Deakin students can also use technologies developed in the VR lab. Wearing an Oculus Rift headset, midwifery students can experience a simulated delivery with “Verity”, a life-size model of a pregnant woman. They can feel her stomach, measure the strength of contractions during labour and deal with distractions such as nervous expectant fathers.

Performing a virtual operation

But how would you feel about going under the knife if your surgeon had never held a real one before? At Flinders University in South Australia, trainee surgeons learn how to perform operations in the same way. “You can put on a pair of virtual reality glasses, pick up a haptic scalpel, and perform a virtual operation,” says John Holm at SocioDesign. “The scalpel will mimic the feeling of cutting through layers of tissue.”

Could that really substitute for the real thing? It might have to be, he says. “Thirty years ago, medical students spent a lot of time in an anatomy lab. Some institutions have reduced that to about 12 hours of anatomy a year in your first three years, shared between a group of five. That’s a very thin experience versus a virtual reality one where you can have as much of it as you like.”

We will also use VR to engage with teachers or peers on other campuses. And in time, we may no longer be interacting with another person at all, but with a sophisticated algorithm, that uses our replies to tailor our learning. Will we be able to tell the difference?

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