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Here’s how you can take a class in virtual reality

Some classes in NTU are getting a jetpack boost into the digital future with virtual and augmented reality experiences for students
by Chrystal Chan
Photos: Amin Shah

All aboard the virtual car

This class pays heed to the adage that “you learn best by doing”. Donning virtual reality (VR) head sets, students lay their hands on what look like car engines and start twisting and turning the parts.

In less than 10 minutes, they’ve each assembled the engine for a race car. Next, they put the newly-installed engine to the test to see if their race car can beat the clock. Who is going to crash and burn two seconds in because they didn’t put the right parts together?

Final-year Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering students get real in such immersive and interactive tutorials at the The Hive’s VR-enabled flipped classroom once or twice each semester. Divided into groups, they take turns wearing a VR headset to complete tasks such as assembling the car engine or operating heavy machinery. The rest of the students, wearing 3D glasses, can clearly see what their peers are doing.

The group then debates the pros and cons of using VR at work and how else it can be applied in Industry 4.0. Assoc Prof Cai Yiyu, who teaches the class, explains the beauty of using VR in his teaching. “Students may not get much of a chance to work directly with industrial equipment as it can be too expensive or too dangerous for novices to handle. It’s also hard to access such equipment as complex machinery may be required to lift the heavy parts. VR simulation solves all these problems.”

Anatomy inside and out

There’s a new tool in the doctor’s toolkit, and it’s hyper-realistic, making it easier to master the human anatomy.

Using an augmented reality (AR) app lets first- and second-year medical students learning anatomy examine life-sized organs like the heart in vivid detail to crystallise learning. They can isolate different parts of the heart (right), such as the veins and the arteries, with a few taps. Zooming in on a particular part brings up a short description and its microscopic structure.

Asst Prof Reddy Mogali, Head of Anatomy at the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, says this is one of several state-of-the-art ways doctors-in-training at NTU learn about the human body. “We have a virtual anatomy table that allows students to rotate and dissect a simulated patient, and also plastinated human bodies and 3D-printed organs that they can hold. But these are restricted to the classroom. With AR models on an app, students can continue learning anywhere, anytime,” he says. Asst Prof Mogali’s team is now hard at work adding more virtual organs to the database.

Gaming in class

“Look ma, as an aerospace engineering student, I can explore the intergalactic space without having to prep myself for flight!”

Is this what you’ll be telling Mum soon?

One learning space that offers virtually endless possibilities is NTU’s new Centre for Augmented and Virtual Reality, set up with US-based EON Reality, a leader in virtual reality software.

All lessons in the 652sqm space are multisensory. So forget static flat screens or standing up only to present your views during a group discussion. Your learning tool could be the omnidirectional treadmill that the protagonist in the 2018 sci-fi flick Ready Player One used to access the virtual world – except that yours looks sleeker. After strapping themselves into the VR walker, students can move freely in the virtual environment, unrestricted by physical walls, so history majors can experience 18th century Europe and visit a tavern after dropping off their wares at the market, for instance.

There’s more. A holographic screen helps engineering students get up close and personal with a giant internal combustion engine floating in mid-air. The VR immersion cube puts students in a high-security manufacturing plant that they might not otherwise gain access to in the real world, and they even get to fiddle with the machinery.

Such unconventional lessons, for 30 to 40 learners at a time, are necessary in the digital age, says Prof Seah Hock Soon, the director of the centre, which also facilitates the game design course run by NTU’s computer science and engineering school.

“In one class assignment, students explore the aesthetics of game art and game design, then use the facilities here to come up with a game prototype. Industry experts help assess their creations in terms of gameplay, art design, skills and commercialisation potential,” he says.

“NTU students will be helping to shape the evolution of 3D and 4D, not just in gaming but every aspect of our lives, so they need to experience and be conversant with these worlds now,” he adds.