The potential of Virtual Reality for educational purposes is fully being discovered at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). After seven million dollars of profound research during four years of hard work, Professor Helene Hoffman came up with the Anatomic VisualiseR, a revolutionary means to create new procedures of learning for medical students within a Virtual Environment. She offered the ITIS'98 audience a vivid account on the tremendous advantages but also on the enormous technical challenges, brought up by this authentic training approach.
"Real time" interactivity is the magic word when thinking about Virtual Reality (VR). It holds no less a promise than the realisation of a highly dynamic form of simulation through intuitive interactions with the computer. Precisely because you experience a true sense of presence, the virtual environment constitutes a very personalised way of learning, which can be very motivating for the student. Through the spatial and psychomotorial engagement, he or she receives surprisingly authentic training opportunities in a risk-free situation.
Up to this point however, the educational effectiveness of VR didactics has been limited to empirical pilot studies. Tests examining the VR learning experience of children showed mostly positive results. Adult learners have not that frequently been included in evaluation procedures so the differences between adult and child VR teaching methods still remain unclear. In the specific field of medical training and education, the Hoffman research team has been faced with huge technical difficulties. The Anatomic VisualiseR has been based on Visible Human Project (VHP) data. Unfortunately, the VHP material is still immature and incomplete. According to the taxonomy, developed by Dr. Richard Satava, it should equally include physiological characteristics, microscopic anatomy, and biochemical processes.
Yet, virtual anatomy lessons augment the traditional opportunities, just because they allow to exemplify the conceptual, mostly abstract learning environments. New visualisation tools, such as endoscopy, are able to broaden the student's medical outlook and strongly reduce the dependency of dissection. The Anatomic VisualiseR presents case-based and didactic lesson formats with links to associated curricular materials. The system probably will be introduced in the School of Medicine classrooms in the autumn of 1998.
The UCSD team also has performed some research on 3D perception to figure out what people exactly are looking at in a virtual environment. The purpose is to provide uniform visual experiences, independent of individual differences. In addition, the human model on which the student is working, should be more or less "normal". Currently, this is not always the case in the Visible Human Dataset. Meanwhile, VR based simulators display a growing complexity and sophistication and are catalysed by technological advances. In the future, they might optimise outcomes in medical teaching and possibly decrease the training costs.
The VR training and learning system can be used both locally and remotely, in a distributed manner on a global level. Yet, Professor Hoffman insists that the real contact between a student and his teacher as a steady guide is of crucial importance, even and particularly in a virtual environment. Educational objectives always should precede pure technological expertise. We remind you that the Virtual Medical Worlds Magazine has reported in its March issue on the Anatomic VisualiseR as well as on visual depth perception in Virtual Environments. The work of the Hoffman research team is presented at the UCSD School of Medicine web site.