October 1, 2005 Psychologists Janis Cannon-Bowers and Alicia Sanchez are part of the team that created virtual reality field trips -- not just for fun, but to help children learn. Employing some of the latest knowledge from human-factors engineering, the virtual technology combines real actors and real places, with animations, movies and games.
ORLANDO, Fla.--A trip to the beach, a walk in the woods, a hike in the mountains -- sound extreme for your child's field trip? Not anymore, virtual reality field trips are now making these types of trips possible.
Lack of money, time and a lot more tests are taking away many schools' ability to take their students on field trips, but now new technology may let them explore the world without leaving the classroom. Students are ready to go, but many field trips are being stopped in their tracks. Now, virtual field trip takes students to places they may never get to go, while never going outdoors.
Psychologists Janis Cannon-Bowers and Alicia Sanchez are part of the team that created virtual reality field trips. Alicia Sanchez, a research scientist at the University of Central Florida, in Orlando, Fla., says, "We did this because we knew that there was a problem locally and nationally with reading and education, and we thought that we could find a very cool, high-tech way to solve that problem."
The virtual technology combines real actors, real places, with animations, movies and games. Students learn new words and are introduced to new environments. They get a 360-degree view of the scene and can look right, left, up, down, forward, and behind them. That's because when each trip is developed, 72 images are taken of each scene. Computer software stitches the images together. The result is a scene that surrounds them.
Sanchez says, "We thought that that was important because we know that a lot of the children who have problems reading are usually of a lower socio-economic status, and they probably don't go camping." The technology is based on books the children are already studying, hopefully giving the kids extra incentive to read. Cannon-Bowers says, "We want to show that this kind of approach actually improves reading."
The virtual reality field trip combines education specialists with psychologists and media specialists. They hope to make it Web-based so it's easily accessible to all schools.
BACKGROUND: How can students travel to exotic places and experience realistic, interactive environments without physically leaving the classroom? Virtual field trips use state-of-the-art computer simulation technology to create immersive, multisensory interactive experiences with real-world environments.
WHAT IS VIRTUAL REALITY: The term "virtual reality" is often confusing because it is used in so many different ways. It is often used to describe interactive software programs -- on or off the Web -- in which the user responds to visual and auditory cures as he or she navigates a three-dimensional environment on a graphics monitor. But originally, it referred to immersive virtual environments, in which the user would be immersed in an artificial, three-dimensional computer-generated world, involving not just sight and sound, but touch as well through so-called "haptic" devices. Touch is vital to direct and guide human movement, and the use of haptics in virtual environments simulates how objects and actions feel to the user through biofeedback processes. This is critical for performing virtual surgery as part of medical training, for example.
HOW IT WORKS: The virtual environment itself is brought to life through computer programs. Data gloves, joy sticks, hand-held wands, head-mounted stereo displays and other input devices help the user navigate that world and interact with virtual objects, all of which must be linked together with the rest of the system to produce a fully immersive experience.
ABOUT BIOFEEDBACK: The term "biofeedback" was coined in the 1960s to describe laboratory methods then being used to train subjects to alter their brain activity, blood pressure, heart rate, or other bodily functions that would not normally be controlled voluntarily. One of the most common biofeedback machines picks up electrical signals in the muscles and translates them into a flashing light bulb, or a signal from a beeper. This real-time feedback can help a patient improve his or her performance.
Editor's Note: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.