Studying for the Virtual Revolution
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Studying for the Virtual Revolution

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Birmingham University pioneered Immersive technologies for well over a decade, and now teaches students the skills they need to work at the cutting edge of VR.

Regular readers of Tech Trends won’t be surprised to find out that VR, AR, MR, XR (this last one stands for Extended Reality, and yes, that’s a thing) and the whole virtual experiences alphabet soup are going to be the future of work, entertainment, computing, the economy, and pretty much everything.

So when we got the invitation to visit The University of Birmingham’s Human Interface Technologies (HIT) lab we jumped a the chance. Not only were we keen to find out what cool stuff they were up to – quite a lot, at it turns out – but also get a sense of how students considering their career options these days can actually gain the qualifications they need to work in VR.

Graduates lucky enough to study here will enjoy amazing opportunities in VR Click To Tweet

Under the charismatic Professor Bob Stone, the HIT team has been at the cutting edge of Virtual Reality and telepresence/ telerobotic technologies since it opened in 2003, but their success is built on nearly thirty years of work in simulation, robotics and Human Factors for applications in aerospace, defence and healthcare.

Those looking to pursue a career in VR often gravitate towards computer-focused HE courses, but these are often quite broad in their scope, so many of the pioneers now working in the industry such as designers and modellers often come to VR and AR through Arts and Media backgrounds such as VFX, which makes sense considering what a highly visual medium this is.

The Human Interface Technologies department at Birmingham University pioneers VR Tech Click To Tweet

Alice Bonasio VR Consultancy MR Tom Atkinson Tech Trends Review AR Mixed Virtual Augmented Reality Birmingham university hit bob stone human factors interface technologies

Although there are many world-class research centres around the world which focus on immersive technologies – such as the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, which coincidentally was founded by Professor Jeremy Bailenson in the same year as HIT was born in Birmingham – university courses that teach a focused and practical skillset that enables students to work in VR are quite rare, with some notable exceptions such as Full Sail University which we visited in Orlando earlier this year.

Even more rare are courses which support this learning with industry partnerships and hands-on experience, which is what HIT has been offering its students under the leadership of Professor Bob Stone.

University courses teaching a practical skillset enabling students to work in VR are still rare Click To Tweet

Alice Bonasio VR Consultancy MR Tom Atkinson Tech Trends Review AR Mixed Virtual Augmented Reality Birmingham university hit bob stone human factors interface technologies

Professor Stone holds a Chair in Interactive Multimedia Systems within the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences and has been pioneering the R&D into interactive media and robotic technologies at the University while his systems and technologies have also been used around the world by the likes of BAAE and British Ministry of Defence. Oh, and he is an honorary Cossack, so quite an interesting chap!

Many of their projects are developed in partnership with external companies and organisations Click To Tweet

As Bob talked us through his thirty years of experience working on VR technologies, two things stood out to me: how practical their work is – addressing real-world problems and involving field research – and how many of their projects are developed in active partnership with a range of external companies and organisations. Their track record in successful industry collaborations and community linked research and development projects is very impressive to say the least, I had a hard time picking a few examples to mention here, but these certainly caught my eye:

Alice Bonasio VR Consultancy MR Tom Atkinson Tech Trends Review AR Mixed Virtual Augmented Reality Birmingham university hit bob stone human factors interface technologies

 

Subsafe

This is a VR training tool used by the Royal Navy to gain their submarine qualification, an experimental interactive 3D spatial awareness training tool designed to eventually replace legacy systems being used by Royal Navy submarine qualification (SMQ) instructors.

Navigating the decks and compartments in a “first-person” mouse-and-keyboard game style, SMQ trainees had access to all decks forward of the control room, comprising over 30 compartments and 500 different objects – including fire extinguishers, hose units, high-pressure air valves, and emergency breathing system masks.

After a year of experimental trials with the RN’s Submarine School, data revealed that the use of SubSafe in classroom training significantly improved the final “walkthrough” examination scores of trainees onboard an actual submarine.

Subsafe proved so successful, in fact that it sparked a series of spin-off projects commissioned by other future vessel and naval system developers, from submarine abandonment and rescue to early deck layout concepts for future surface combatants.

Alice Bonasio VR Consultancy MR Tom Atkinson Tech Trends Review AR Mixed Virtual Augmented Reality Birmingham university hit bob stone human factors interface technologies

Virtual Wembury

The HIT Team also worked with medical professionals and patients at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham to determine whether VR could help patients recover from major surgery

They spent three years developing a detailed recreation of the Devon coastal path known as ‘Virtual Wembury’ which allowed recovering patients to enjoy a cycle ride through those idyllic landscapes right from their hospital beds. Professor Stone was born and bred in that area, so drew on his own experience to recreate the picturesque Devon environment in virtual form.

Feedback from patients has been very positive, and there’s a chance that this will inspire other hospitals around the country to roll out similar initiatives to incorporate virtual reality into their rehabilitation programmes.

 

Cutlass robot

Many Armed Forces EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) instructors feel that current classroom training does not equip trainees with adequate skills and system awareness to help them appreciate the capabilities and limitations of the vehicles they are about to operate.

The HIT team’s challenge in this case was to develop an affordable solution to train operatives in the Cutlass. This is an extremely advanced bomb disposal remote unite operated with a 9-axis manipulator and six separate joysticks, each controlling a different function and movement of the manipulator, depending on which control mode has been selected.

They did this by not only creating a highly realistic virtual urban street scene and house interior, but also a physical replica of the cutlass console containing accurate physics-based representations and locations of the key components, including the manipulator mode selection areas on a touch screen.

Alice Bonasio VR Consultancy MR Tom Atkinson Tech Trends Review AR Mixed Virtual Augmented Reality Birmingham university hit bob stone human factors interface technologies

 

The Mayflower

Bob and his team also worked with groups in Plymouth, Dartmouth, Southampton and Worcester using Augmented Reality (AR) to deliver a range of innovative digital experiences including a detailed graphical recreation of the iconic Mayflower ship.

The 3D model is still a work in progress, but it will eventually include animated passengers, crew and cargo. They are also working on developing a range of believable effects relating to such features as the movement of sails and flags, the ship’s bow wave and wake, and the visual blurring necessary to create credible sense of changes in depth and distance over the route of the virtual ship, which will be superimposed onto the real-world scene, he explains.

Chinook Training Room 

Alice Bonasio VR Consultancy MR Tom Atkinson Tech Trends Review AR Mixed Virtual Augmented Reality Birmingham university hit bob stone human factors interface technologies

From all the awesome things that Bob showed me, however, my favourite was probably the Chinook helicopter Mixed Reality simulator, which brings together VR with an inflatable enclosure conceived to help to support the future training of the UK Armed Forces’ Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT). In battlefield incidents that require emergency medicine, treatment is often administered in the back of the helicopter.

The system is used to track the user’s hands with infrared markers mounted on lightweight gloves Click To Tweet

Using an Augmented Reality head-mounted display, trainees are able to experience interacting with a body that has both visual and haptic elements. The position of head mounted display is tracked in real time, and in six degrees of freedom, using an OptiTrack V120 optical/infrared motion capture system. This same system is used to track the end user’s hands, using small infrared markers mounted on lightweight gloves.

Alice Bonasio VR Consultancy MR Tom Atkinson Tech Trends Review AR Mixed Virtual Augmented Reality Birmingham university hit bob stone human factors interface technologies

Yorkshire-based company TraumaFX delivered the Simbodie, an incredibly detailed human male model capable of being configured to represent a wide range of injuries, complete with interchangeable lower leg components representing intact limbs and traumatic amputation, and repositionable bullet wounds and lacerations. A Leicestershire-based company, Imagine Inflatables, constructed a ‘Chinook’ enclosure capable of being inflated and deflated quickly for rapid deployment and portability.

The enclosure provides a constraining environment for simulator users Click To Tweet

Together with replica Minigun and M60 Machine Gun models, and in conjunction with the Simbodie, the enclosure provides a constraining environment for simulator users, creating a believable in-flight scenario. As well as using video to simulate the external view from the helicopter via the windows and rear ramp (captured by flying the HIT Team’s drones over Dartmoor). The scene has been integrated with realistic sound effects taken within an actual Chinook cabin, provided to the team by Boeing Defence UK.

Alice Bonasio VR Consultancy MR Tom Atkinson Tech Trends Review AR Mixed Virtual Augmented Reality Birmingham university hit bob stone human factors interface technologies

At the core of all this work is the idea of Human Centred Design – or ‘Human Factors’ as it is known. Designing the technology around the user and for the user. Not design for designs sake. Which is why it makes sense that the visit was organized by The Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (CIEHF) – a body whose goal is to put the human at the heart of good design and engineering.

After all, technology is supposed to improve our performance but I am sure many of you will recognise situations where tech has slowed you down and made life more complicated not less!

At the core of all this work is the idea of Human Centred Design Click To Tweet

Alice Bonasio VR Consultancy MR Tom Atkinson Tech Trends Review AR Mixed Virtual Augmented Reality Birmingham university hit bob stone human factors interface technologies

University of Birmingham College of Engineering and Physical Sciences students have an incredible opportunity to tap into the expertise of the HIT team and learn about the career possibilities Immersive Technology specific skills might offer them.

This is one of the most impressive and productive VR & AR focused education facilities I've seen Click To Tweet

I have to say that this is certainly one of the most impressive and productive VR & AR focused education facilities I have seen, and makes me wish I could go back in time and revisit some of my own education choices. But graduates lucky enough to study here will certainly enjoy some amazing opportunities to not only learn about VR, but also apply it in a variety of practical scenarios.

 

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