Over the last two centuries, the world has gone through a great boom in learning. Curriculum has changed and it now includes a growing understanding of the world. The rise of the Internet has brought new ways of self-education to the masses, for example through TED, Wikipedia and YouTube. The content is improving but the form of learning remains unchanged and obsolete. We group students according to their age, have them physically attend school 5 times a week, and can merely hope that the teachers are qualified. The topic is becoming even more pressing in the current, pandemic situation which has impacted education and school attendance. Can education be taken to another level through virtual reality?
The Slovak organization Moving Medical Media, in cooperation with the Faculty of Informatics and Information Technologies (FIIT) of the Slovak University of Technology in Bratislava came up with the project Coven, which creates collaborative virtual environments enabling staff and students from around the world to solve selected problems together in a shared virtual world. In addition, it is an example of a successful cooperation between a university and a business, which is very important in the realm of education and research.
This unique technological solution was used as a prototype by the Faculty of Informatics and Information Technologies in teaching the block-based programming remotely. However, it can also be used across industries – in education, business or even medicine. VR simulations can be used effectively in high-risk sectors such as training of nuclear power plant employees, or teaching complex surgical operations without directly jeopardizing the patient.
Coven or an enclave of witches
Coven was started by a company Moving Medical Media, which specializes in using modern visual applications for scientific storytelling. It stands behind numerous successful projects, including a stereoscopic 3D project Diabetes Mellitus for Jessenius Faculty of Medicine of Comenius University in Martin, an educational game teaching waste separation in virtual reality, or an interactive scientific library. This time, in cooperation with the Faculty of Informatics and Information Technologies, they created collaborative virtual environments that enable remote teaching, training and meetings.
Its name, Coven, is an acronym from the phrase COllaborative Virtual ENvironments. This acronym creates a word in English, the meaning of which varies in different sources but one of the common meanings is “the gathering of witches in order to perform various rituals together” and thus also a certain form of collaboration. The root of the word coventum comes from Latin and in translation means “a meeting”. Therefore some avatars wear witch hats in this virtual environment.
How the project Coven came to life
The project was created within the subject “Team project” in which MMM as a business partner designed a topic for eight students in the field and participated in finding the solution. The aim of the project was to create a collaborative environment that would allow workers and students from all over the world to solve selected problems together in a shared virtual world. The resulting product aimed to use different network architectures, to have easy integration and to create realistic avatars that would model the look, facial expressions and lip movement.
Uniqueness of Coven
Other projects in this area usually take form of a tool for remote presentations in virtual reality that allows you to share your own content such as PowerPoint slides or in some cases 3D models. Coven, on the other hand, not only creates the environment for presentations but also the content itself, making the otherwise static environment an interactive part of the presentation.
“For example, a user can reach into a canvas where they see a standard 2D presentation and extract a 3D model of a component from an image and further break it down with participants or watch a simulation of its functionality.” explains Ing. Juraj Vincúr from the Faculty of Informatics and Information Technologies. During the presentation, the lecturer can also teleport the participants into the training room where they can put the acquired knowledge into practice, or he can accompany them inside the 360-degree video recordings. These technological solutions emphasize the effectiveness of collaboration, the interactivity of the content and the degree of user immersion.
Collaborative environments in VR are supported by all leading VR headsets (HTC Vive, WMR, Oculus), including affordable unbound solutions such as Oculus Go. Their upside is also cross-platform support (Android, Windows). They offer the possibility of easy integration into existing projects using the Unity engine; in the case of basic scenarios without the need for additional programming. A big advantage is the use of avatars with simulated facial expressions and lipsync technology in order to convey a more natural way of communication. These environments also support advanced and more intuitive ways of interaction based on speech recognition (also in Slovak) or capturing the hands by a camera system.
Coven’s VR solution named CUBELY was used as a prototype by the Faculty of Informatics and Information Technology and is designed for remote teaching of the basic principles of block-based programming.
Future plans include applying collaborative VR environments in various sectors, such as education, business or medicine. VR simulations can be used effectively in high-risk sectors – for example for the training of nuclear power plant employees, in teaching complex surgical operations, or in the immersive product promotion.
Author: Zuzana Mytna