The future of Immersive Education: Q & A with Neil McDonnell
Neil is a member of Edify’s Advisory Board and the Lord Kelvin-Adam Smith Fellow in Virtual and Augmented Reality at the University of Glasgow. The medal was awarded in recognition of Neil’s outstanding contributions to virtual reality research, including helping to launch Project Mobius, a wide-ranging study of VR in university education settings, and in creating a ‘VR for Zoom’ platform.
We caught up with Neil to discuss his research in Virtual and Augmented Reality...
Edify: What was your first experience with virtual reality? And how do you think it shaped your research today?
Neil: My first experience of virtual reality involved a trip to a field in Iceland. I didn’t take a flight to get there, though – in fact, I didn’t leave my office at Soluis Group, where I was working at the time. Instead, I put on an HTC Vive headset, which is an extraordinary way to experience VR for the first time.
What really stood out was the sense of peace that came over me when I felt like I departed from our bustling office into that field in Iceland. It was remarkable. The realism and the clarity, everything was gobsmacking. What became clear then was that this technology would have a transformative effect on people, and how seriously they’ll take virtual reality.
When you consider something like the Nintendo Mii, it’s hard to take that seriously – it’s very cartoonish. But when you’re embodied in a virtual space and doing things in that space, you can see just how convincing it is.
Subsequently, my research in Philosophy has looked at when we should and shouldn’t take virtual reality seriously, how valuable virtual experiences are, and whether they’re genuinely real or not. I have my own views on all this, but these are questions that are going to start impacting on fields like the law – I’ve written a little on that.
One of the key questions I try to answer is what you can learn from VR? How valuable are the learning experiences that you can have there? I think that they’re very valuable indeed!
Edify: Tell us about your lightbulb moment with VR and education.
Neil: My lightbulb moment came with an experience called The Blue, which puts you in a shipwreck at the bottom of the sea. It takes a few moments to come to terms with the fact that you can breathe in and out even though you feel very vividly as though you’re underwater. But a short time after that, you end up looking at a full-scale blue whale right in the eye. It can drift up to you very calmly, very serenely.
And what is remarkable is the sense of scale you get, the sheer enormity in front of you. It trumps everything I’ve ever been told about how big a whale can be. It trumps everything I was told about how many buses it was the size of, that it’s 30 metres or 80 feet. I’ve been told these nuggets of information before, but I captured them like semantic chunks in my head: I understand what they mean, but never really got a sense of the scale.
But when I was in this virtual reality experience, I realised that the language I wanted to use was that of experience: I saw the whale, I understood its scale by the perspective I had of it. The experience made me realise I had come to properly understand something that I had only kind of known before, and that VR was clearly something that had tremendous educational potential.
Edify: How did Project Mobius come about?
Neil: Project Mobius started as a business case I was drafting at the University of Glasgow because I realised that, as a major research and teaching institution, the University should investigate the educational potential of virtual reality and how to implement it well. It started with me asking colleagues at the University to tell me what they would want VR for, ignoring all of the practical implications like equipment, coding, 3D modelling. Basically, in a perfect world, and if all your wishes came true, what would you use VR for in your teaching.
The ideas they came forward with were fantastic. So, we did some work on those ideas to package them into a set of ten experiences. After that, we set about trying to find out how to turn this project into reality. It was really important to find a commercial partner here. We connected with Sublime at that time, which is now Edify, and we went into collaboration with a project that would establish when and how virtual reality teaching was most effective.
When does it work? When does it not work? What’s good about it? What doesn’t quite fit? Sublime’s lead on that was really important because they’re a commercial enterprise in the long run, but Glasgow needed to be a part of that because we know about the teaching side of the project. So that was a really, really useful and fruitful collaboration.
Edify: What was your contribution in turning Project Mobius into Edify?
Neil: One of the main things we wanted to achieve with Project Mobius was not to just make our ten initial apps as though they were individual islands. What we wanted to do was to attack the ten problems at once. This was quite an undertaking but it allowed us to spot the commonalities between them, the threads that run through them in terms of how users interact with the VR experiences, the things that work, and try to derive from those ten the sense of what an overall platform looks like.
By doing this we could get a sense about the common denominators we could pull out and turn into a VR teaching platform. That was the goal, I guess, and by a certain distance through the project we had realised some of those. Certainly, when the pandemic hit, that meant we had to change a lot of how we were operating Project Mobius.
Built into the plan of Project Mobius from the start was the idea that we would take these ten disparate and separate apps and draw out a common denominator from them. And then we would build a platform that was extendable. So, you could take the platform as a base and add more things, more objects, more experiences onto it which would follow the rules of what worked from the original apps. The idea was that we could use them as the exemplar for a general platform.
Across the course of Project Mobius, we took in challenges like the pandemic, but towards the end of the project, we realised that what we really needed from the project was the ability for teachers to design their own content. I guess my role with this was as part of the feedback mechanism with the University, with the teachers who used it.
They would often ask questions such as ‘Could it do this?’ or ‘Could I do this with it?’. Also, colleagues who weren’t part of the original project came to ask similar questions – that’s the point where you realise that people need to be able to make their own content and be in control of the experience with bespoke lessons.
That’s really what I see as the heart of the Edify platform today. And I guess my role in that has been to be part of the funnel of information coming back out of the University, identifying the things that academics and teachers are going to need.
Edify: What was your favourite project to work on, and what did you learn from it?
Neil: I think my favourite project to work of was a sub-project of Project Mobius, and a response to the pandemic. The pandemic had stopped students from being able to use VR headsets in our labs.
Social distancing meant that you couldn’t get many people into the spaces, and you certainly didn’t want to take something off your head and put it on someone else’s in the middle of the pandemic. So, we realised quite early on in the project that not everyone we wanted to benefit from virtual reality had access to a headset, and we had to think of different ways to make Project Mobius accessible.
I guess I took a great deal of satisfaction from that project, and certainly I think we found a mitigation strategy that works really well. We call it VR by proxy. This is where users can get a window into a VR world.
Someone can be in VR doing their thing – killing a patient and starting again, blowing up a galaxy or holding an atom in their hand. What the user of VR can do is not face the causal consequences of their actions. But if the user of VR can control the feed and send it out to something like Zoom or Teams then any number of other people can get the benefit of VR.
Not all of it, but a sizable chunk of the benefits without having to have a VR headset on. So, they’re not in the VR environment in the same way that the teacher is, but they are getting VR by proxy. And the process of evolving what that looked like and thinking through the controls the teacher would need, making sure that they are not too hard to control or challenging to keep on top of was particularly satisfying. So I guess that’s my favourite part.
Edify: What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome?
Neil: The biggest challenge we faced was that people aren’t already familiar with virtual reality systems. They don’t really know what to do with their hands and the controls and suchlike. We realised that some of the illustrations we had of the Project Mobius apps were not intuitive to new users, and that some students didn’t know how to interact in virtual reality. What that does is shows you that there is a UX challenge.
We had to think through how the first-time user would put on their headset, what they would think they should do with their hands, and try to intuit what they would make of our controls. We had to battle the expectations of our user to make it as obvious and non-challenging as we could to an audience who aren’t into tech or games.
We had to make something accessible to the full gamut of academic staff who would come and control and direct VR learning, and would have to be comfortable using the Mobius apps in order to teach.
So the UX and UI challenge of VR is already difficult before you get started and dealing with a demographic as broad and varied as ours was a challenge. I’m really proud of how Edify succeeded on that. Part of this success is based on feedback from the users and the University. But credit’s also due to the designers at Edify who made a fantastically intuitive platform.
Edify: What future do you see for Virtual and Extended Reality in the education sector more broadly?
Neil: I think Virtual Reality and, further down the road, Mixed and Augmented Reality, once we have mature versions of those technologies, are going to transform a huge amount of our day-to-day lives. The biggest plank of that, I think, will be Augmented Reality, which will allow us to bring virtual entities into the world.
And what I think these technologies are going to do is transform how we do anything that involves three-dimensional learning and anything that can be virtual. The scale of the transformation will be quite hard to get your head around.
We’re so used to having a screen on which you view things, but we can virtualise the screen so that you don’t need the screen. You start realising that maybe you don’t need physical cadavers when you’re training in medical school. Maybe you don’t need physical lab equipment for certain things.
Maybe you don’t need all those expensive tools when you’re training as an apprentice, or maybe you don’t need to fly everybody to an oil rig to look at health and safety in situ, for example. You will virtualise these things when the virtualisation is good enough, and that’s the trajectory we’re on at the moment. Some of the things that we can virtualise are already good enough: in fact, they’re fantastic.
We can create virtualised 3D models of proteins that you can manipulate with your hands, or we can virtualise the inside of a stomach or the heart. We can virtualise a physics lab setup in a high school or a university. We can virtualise a lot of things very, very effectively, but some of the more challenging ones will come later down the line. And when it’s the case that they’re good enough, we will prefer the virtual version that comes with less carbon cost.
It will be easier to run repetitious training and practice. You can kill the patient and start again, as I like to say, and you can’t do that in the real world! So, the benefits of that virtualisation, of simulation in general will be there. You need the simulation and the virtualisation to be good enough, and that’s a sliding scale over time.
At the moment, we can do some things very, very well and some things – typically, anything involving human interaction – are more challenging. We’re hoping to get through those challenges over time to the point where much of our lives can be virtualised. The way I like to think about it is that it’s going to be a new three-dimensional medium.
Whenever there’s something three-dimensional, that’s not something that can be represented on a two-dimensional plane. People are drawing a flat thing when there’s a three-dimensional challenge, whether that’s how a boiler works or manufacturing or sculpting. Then Virtual and Augmented Reality are going to be the obvious platforms to conduct those simulations.
What impact do you think receiving the RSE medal will have on your future work?
Neil: I think the Royal Society medal has two primary benefits for my future work. The first thing is that it legitimises something a bit unusual. My job sits at the intersection of the pedagogical and operational requirements needed to make virtual reality education happen, and the long-term implications of virtual reality. That means I need to think about how many VR headsets you get in the same space, but also about the causal structure of what happens in virtual experiences. That’s two unusual things to pull together, frankly.
So, what the award does is that it legitimises that combination of philosophy on the one hand and engineering and computer science on the other. That’s nice for me personally, but it also opens paths for future projects for PhD students to come and occupy something in a legitimised crossover space.
The second thing is that it will give confidence to people who want to assess whether I should do anything – from potential PhD students, from management at universities, and most importantly from funders. I think funders are the ones who will be most keen to see something that situates me in a crossover space. The endorsement by the Royal Society says that I’m not just someone who is trying in this space, but that I’m someone succeeding in it. And that’s hugely gratifying.
I think it's worth remarking that the tagline of the Royal Society is really important here. The tagline says, ‘Knowledge Made Useful.’ And I think that's precisely what they've recognized in the work that I've done. And I'm thrilled with that. I find it really gratifying.
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