PhD: Exploring Mixed Reality in Distributed Collaborative Learning Environment

BReal Lab

Viva Details:
Thesis Details:
 Link to Science Fiction Prototyping

The research vision was motivated by a Science-Fiction Prototype (SFP) called “Tales from a pod” which took a speculative look at how artificial intelligence and mixed-reality technology might be combined to change the nature of education by the year 2048. The centerpiece of the story was a high-tech environment called an ‘Educational Pod’ (ePod), which the following extract from the SFP describes:

“ePods were effectively small cocoons; something like a comfortable armchair enclosed within a sound-proof egg-like structure packed with sophisticated but largely invisible technology that included immersive mixed reality and sophisticated AI.  When participating in a movie (the industry had long dropped the word ‘watching’ which describing these new immersive movies) the immersive reality technology aimed to make the participant feel as though they were truly part of a fictional physical world.”

From the above description it can be seen that the user was given the feeling of being transported to another reality; a virtual world that took the form of a shared learning space (eg a laboratory or  classroom) occupied by other remote student, teachers and artificially intelligent agents, organised in a way that made them all feel like they were in the same physical space.  The SFP not only contained a story but also included fake marketing material such as the advertisement and product specification shown below.

Tales From a Pod Flyer

This speculative vision of the future, and the question of how much of this vision might be possible to realise in the near-term motivated the research that eventually became this PhD. As part of this this PhD we worked with  a small British SME company called Immersive Displays Ltd, that manufacture virtual reality environments (eg flight simulators), to create a simplified version of the ePod, that took the form of a semi-spherical screen attached to a student desk that is shown below .

In this research, the ePod became what we called ‘The BReal Lab’ which, instead of being a totally enclosed cocoon, was a semi-spherical virtual-reality screen attached to a student desk. The work explored how large numbers of such desks, based in different parts of the world, could be used to interconnect geographically dispersed online learners within a shared virtual reality learning environment. This environment allow geographically dispersed students to collaborate on building a mix of virtual and physical engineering products such as Internet of Things gadgets (with the various components being developed and operated in different parts of the world!). In this way the work overcame earlier limitations of online eLearning in which online students were restricted to watching video recordings, or performing simulations using software interfaces and similar solutions that restrict the possibility of interaction with real equipment and collaboration with other learners.

The BReal Lab (in the picture at the top of this page) has been successfully tested with collaborative sessions of dispersed learners drawn from a pool of 52 undergraduate and postgraduate students residing in Essex University (UK), Anglia Ruskin University (UK), Leon Institute of Technology (Mexico), San Diego State University (USA), Shijiazhuang University (China), Shanghai Open University (China), Khalifa University of Science, Technology and Research (UAE) and Monash University (Malaysia) during March to May 2015. International teams of students were able to work together in the virtual world, using different sensors and actuators on an intelligent home prototype, building and programming system,  immediately seeing the effect of their actions on the physical equipment, synchronising the different realities so they all coordinate as one. In some cases, students were able to follow and participate in the learning activity using only virtual objects as the absence of physical devices did not interfere with the execution of the trial. Preliminary results showed a positive learner’s acceptance towards the use of the BReal Lab in collaborative laboratory activities, opening up new opportunities for international collaboration and development,  providing real benefit for distance learners and beckoning changes in the very nature of higher education.

This project was a collaboration between the University of Essex, UK and King Abdulaziz University, KSA as part of the Scale Up project, a 5-year (2010-2015) whose purpose was to investigate the scaling up of intelligent environments.

News Items:
  1. Blending realities to create a truly global workforce; in Phys.org™, USA
  2. 虚拟工程实验室将促进真正的劳动力全球化 (Virtual engineering laboratory will promote genuine global workforce); in 陕ICP (Shaanxi ICP), China
References:
  1. A. Peña-Rios, V. Callaghan, M. Gardner, and M. J. Alhaddad, “Using mixed-reality to  develop  smart environments” Proc. 10th International Conference on Intelligent Environments, Shanghai, 2014.
  2. A. Peña-Rios, V. Callaghan, M. Gardner, and M. J. Alhaddad, “Remote mixed reality collaborative laboratory activities: Learning activities within the InterReality portal” Proc. IEEE/WIC/ACM Int. Conf. Web Intell. Intell. Agent Technol. Work. WI-IAT 2012, Macau, 2012.