With immersive technology being increasingly adopted in education and innovation, SIT is ramping up its AR, VR and MR offerings in learning and applied research. The university is driving immersive projects where students, faculty and industry can deep dive into simulated realities.
When Computer Science students at the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) turned on their laptops to watch an online lecture on software configuration management, seeing their professor cycling on a road bike was probably the last thing they had expected.
The minute-and-a-half long video, shot on a 360-degree camera, showed Associate Professor Tan Chek Tien decked out in full cycling gear as he made his way to the lecture theatre in SIT@NYP Building, SIT’s satellite campus at Nanyang Polytechnic. “SIT is on your left, and I’m going to the lecture theatre to give this lecture… Let me just signal right to go on the road, safe cycling always,” he says to the camera.
A/Prof Tan taking students through a cycling ride in a 360 video (click through in video to explore 360 angle)
It was an unusual – but fun – way to start an online lecture. It was also the professor’s nod to a semester-long project the students had worked on. They had been exploring the use of virtual reality to educate cyclists on safe riding habits.
In the next 360-degree recording in the lecture theatre, the lecturer placed a red dinosaur plushie in the audience. In a pop quiz at the end of the lesson, A/Prof Tan gave bonus points to students who could answer who else was in the room with him for the lesson.
Planting Easter eggs while delivering lessons remotely – one of the many creative ways A/Prof Tan injected into his lessons to keep students engaged.
It took him more effort than usual to record these videos, but they were effective, yet fairly simple ways of using immersive technology to make online lectures more interesting for students.
“We know that sometimes students can disengage. So I put in Easter eggs for them to pick out, to gamify the lecture through immersive technology tools,” he said. “Students gave good feedback about the lessons.” For example, one student gave a nod to this “A+ professor”. “He is certainly different from the others. A/Prof Tan added gaming elements into the lessons and allowed us to have fun while developing the projects required for the modules,” the student said.
At SIT, immersive technology - a broad term that commonly refers to augmented, virtual, and mixed reality (AR, VR and MR) - is used to make teaching and learning experiences more engaging.
These include virtual reality headsets, 360-degree cameras, and smart glasses. These tech tools are also used to simulate real-world experiences for students, so they get to practice their skills in a safe and controlled environment before trying their hand at the real deal.
Applying real skills on virtual machines
In SIT’s Pharmaceutical Engineering programme, students are required to culture cells in a bioreactor machine as part of their lab work. But bioreactors are large and complex machines, and not all students were proficient enough to operate them.
There was also only one such unit in the school, donated by an industry partner. This meant that the students had limited opportunities to work on the bioreactor.
Virtual reality – by getting students to work on a simulation of a bioreactor – was one way to bridge this gap.
A VR simulation of a bioreactor for Pharmaceutical Engineering students.
In a Ministry of Education-funded project led by A/Prof Jeannie Lee, along with colleagues from the Pharmaceutical Engineering degree programme, A/Prof Tan began working to create a virtual copy of the bioreactor. This entailed several visits to the actual machine to ensure the copy was as accurate as possible – a time- and labour-intensive effort.
The first prototype was completed within two months. Once students put on specialised virtual reality goggles, they would be transported to a virtual world with a digital copy of the bioreactor. They could then practice culturing cells in the simulated environment.
“We had to recreate everything we see in a real bioreactor in the virtual twin,” said A/Prof Tan. “A big portion of the project was spent figuring out how we could make the students’ interactions with the simulated bioreactor as close to real life as possible.”
This meant ensuring that even simple details such as opening the door of the virtual bioreactor mimicked the real-world action.
Exploring the potential of immersive tech
It has been two years since this project began, and the virtual bioreactor has gone through several rounds of enhancements to improve user experience.
The virtual bioreactor project is one of several research endeavors in immersive technology that A/Prof Tan is deeply involved in.
For example, in another project funded by Land Transport Authority that he currently leads, A/Prof Tan is developing tools to help simplify the process of converting large-scale physical environments into 3D assets suitable for the performance and optical constraints in virtual reality devices. One aspect is exploring the use of LiDAR, which stands for light detection and ranging, to help create more realistic augmented and virtual reality 3D models.
SIT’s upcoming Centre for Immersification, where A/Prof Tan serves as the director, will be central to propelling efforts in immersive tech research and education. The centre, targeted to be ready by the third quarter of 2021, aims to deepen Singapore’s applied research in immersive technology, and develop solutions and tools that can be used not just in SIT, but also shared with the industry and the public.
VR/AR headsets will be made available for students to use at the upcoming Centre for Immersification, SIT@SP Building.
“We are creating a strong foothold in SIT to do research in the immersive technology space. We want to explore how we can make immersive technology more accessible to everyone,” he said.
The university is currently working on more than 10 applied research projects that focus on immersive technologies, in collaboration with various industry partners.
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