The LiU VR lab, a unique resource for engineering students

Using VR to make lab work as realistic as possible is popular with future engineers at LiU. They learn more rapidly and find everything easier to understand – and later find that industry is eager to employ people who have combined an engineering degree with visual programming.

Two men infront of a simulation computor. Jörg Schminder and David Beuger in the VR lab. Karin Midner

Wearing a VR headset and holding two control units, I leave the world for a while and enter virtual reality. I see a desk, whiteboard and several components of a gas turbine. The whiteboard describes what I am to do – build a gas turbine.

In the real world, Jörg Schminder and David Beuger are sitting at a computer in the VR lab, guiding me. They work in the Department of Management and Engineering at LiU and, since I don’t know anything about gas turbines, I need them to tell me what to do. En bild på hur en VR-simulerad gasturbin ser ut.A gas turbine in VR.

“Yes, that’s right. You’ve put the components together properly,” says Jörg Schminder. “Now put your head into the gas turbine and look at the interior.”
I take a step forward and lean forwards into the turbine. My brain is telling me to stop, but common sense prevails and I look inside. It’s an amazing feeling to look into something you can see and experience, without being able to touch it.

“The students are positive to lab work in VR”, says Jörg Schminder. “We have used this VR software for some years, and it’s easier for students to learn and understand when they ‘really’ get to build something, rather than just reading about it.”

As close to reality as possible

Virtual reality is a way of experiencing information in the same way as reality. The images Jörg Schminder is testing VR with David Beuger. Photo credit Karin Midneron the screen are in true scale, and have a presence in depth that reinforces the feeling that what you see is real. The screen inside a VR headset detects the direction in which the user is looking, and shows what “exists” in that direction.

VR has many fields of use. Most people have seen it used in gaming, but it is also used in, for example, Cognitive behavioural therapy, education, urban development, visualisation in medical care, documentation of crime scenes, and during exercises to determine priorities in major accidents.

The LiU VR lab has four VR workstations. The lab has been built up by Jörg and David as a research project to investigate how VR can be used for teaching. It is partially Jörg and David is conecting one of the VR boxes. Photo credit Karin Midner financed with funds from the Faculty of Science and Engineering earmarked for the development of new teaching methods.

“You see, I thought: ‘I don’t have a real gas turbine to use in the student labs. Such a machine costs a lot to purchase and maintain, and there are issues of student safety that are not easy to solve. How can I improve the learning and understanding of the students?’. And it’s then I had had the idea to create a simulated gas turbine using VR”, Jörg Schminder explains.

“VR is a great resource in lab work: the students like it and would like to see more of it in the courses. They learn how to use the technology quickly, and are fascinated by how well it functions in teaching”, David Beuger adds. “The LiU VR lab is a unique resource – as far as we know there’s nothing like it at any other Swedish university.”

Attractive in the labour market

The atmosphere in the lab is usually hectic. Several student projects use the lab during the spring term, and it is used in the course on gas turbine engines (TMMV12) during the autumn term.

And there’s more to it than just education. The VR lab and the expertise that the students gain here have created rings on the water. A demand has arisen in industry for technical engineers who can create visualisations and construct programs for VR. One example is the Epiroc company in Örebro, which builds rock-drilling equipment. It is host to an ongoing student project in which the students are developing a VR-based training rig. This is to provide technical personnel with the knowledge they need to assemble equipment. Collaboration is also under way with Siemens and Saab to create interactive assembly instructions, and a method to enable flight training in a virtual cockpit.

“Creating visualisations is advanced work. You have to understand how VR software is created and how to build models in CAD. Not only that – you must also see how the technology you are visualising is constructed and how the VR application will be used when it’s complete”, says David. “Some of our students who have worked with this type of programming are now employed developing, for example, VR simulations for new production facilities. This expertise is extremely attractive on the labour market at the moment.”

VR technology – a boost for teaching methods

The VR lab has already been used by more than 300 students, both for lab exercises and project work. The students are generally positive. Most find that it is relatively intuitive to work and carry out development in VR, and most students have not experienced any serious problems focussing in the virtual world. (Ref to Jör Schmiders paper). One of the rooms in the VR lab, it has three VR stations.

“This is a remarkably positive result”, says Jörg Schminder. “You have to remember that 75% of the students have never worn a VR headset before they arrive at my laboratory.”
The journey of the VR lab, however, has just started, and further advances are planned, both technical and educational.

“The technology is changing rapidly and we must keep up. VR equipment is becoming available with better image quality, lower price, and new tracking systems. It will not be necessary in the future to use external sensors, and this will make it possible to use VR lab in normal classrooms or at home. This opens the possibility of distance education”, says David Beuger.

“There’s a lot to think about when creating VR software if the teaching is to work well. It’s important to create a learning environment and a design that motivate the participants, while at the same time not distracting from the task at hand”, says Jörg Schminder.

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