Overcome real-world challenges with virtual reality

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At Lethbridge College, Mike McCready and Austin Hatch are part of the team working on a prototype research model (pictured) that will help develop the final VR driving simulator.

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While many old-timers fondly recall spending time playing pong on green-screen computer monitors in the early ’70s, video games have come a long way since then. Virtual Reality (VR) is the must-have technology for any serious gamer today.

But while VR has taken gaming to levels that only existed in science fiction 50 years ago, the technology has far broader applications than just entertainment. For example, researchers at Lethbridge College in southern Alberta are developing VR solutions to address real-world challenges faced by a number of key sectors in the province, including agriculture, energy, architecture, healthcare, cultural heritage and emergency response.

The college’s Spatial Technologies Applied Research and Training (START) center works on VR and AR (augmented reality) applications to help businesses and the public sector save money, improve collaboration and improve security .

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(Unlike VR, which creates a completely artificial environment, AR overlays — or eliminates — images and information in a real-world environment, usually through a user’s wearable device or special glasses.)

One of START’s current projects is a program to use VR to train police officers on safe driving techniques when responding to emergency calls in situations such as high-speed driving.

Mike McCready, industry liaison and research advisor at START and an instructor in the college’s VR and AR certificate program, says that one of the best uses of VR training modules is to simulate situations in a 3-D virtual environment that exist in the environment can be very dangerous real world.

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“For example, police officers do driver training sessions on a cordoned-off route, where they practice manoeuvres, braking, turning and so on, but they can’t effectively practice decision-making – what to do when another driver ahead of them runs a red light, or a Pedestrian steps onto the road while speeding towards an emergency,” says Mr. McCready.” These types of situations are just too dangerous to practice in the real world, but they can be simulated in VR in a way that the officer has the opportunity to learn the right reaction.”

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Similarly, VR can be used to train Big Rig drivers before they hit the road. It could also be used to simulate maintenance or repairs at high-risk industrial facilities, so technicians understand what they need to do before they are faced with an actual breakdown or need for maintenance.

The application of VR outside of video games is not limited to training for dangerous situations. It can also be an important educational tool, says Mr. McCready, noting that the Lethbridge team created a VR experience for visitors to the world-famous dinosaur track site, Grand Cache, that allows them to interact with the site and for one Day to become a paleontologist.

“VR and AR technology is really just an evolution of what we see on the internet today,” says Mr. McCready. “The internet allows us to connect, communicate, do business and have fun. VR and AR allow us to do similar things but in a three-dimensional way.”

He notes that there are several studies showing how virtuality can change perceptions of issues ranging from the views of a particular population to issues like global warming or water pollution.

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“It’s really a powerful tool to connect us, but also to help inform and shape people’s opinions,” he adds.

Austin Hatch, a graduate of Lethbridge’s VR program, is currently working on a year-long NSERC-funded internship at START. After completing a two-year Diploma program in Multimedia Production at college, he thought about his next step and decided to enter the VR program.

“Having gone through the program and been immersed in the technology for about a year, it definitely seems like a big step forward when it comes to training people for different career scenarios,” says Mr. Hatch.

His role as an intern is essentially that of a junior developer applying what he learned in the VR course to the development of START projects.

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He jokes that START is like a developer’s playground: “We can play with all the new toys and do research-driven development just to see how far we can push this and make it work.”

Promotional feature produced by Randall Anthony Communications with Colleges and Institutes Canada. The Globe editors were not involved.