Virtual reality, VR, is a mixture of computers, multimedia and hypermedia, 3D technology, the web, robot technology, instrumentation, sensors and optics. VR is high tech and an increasingly popular user interface in an increasing number of applications. Åbo Akademi’s new Experience Lab in Vasa is equipped with the latest VR technology.
Text & photo: Ari Nykvist
VIRTUAL REALITY consists of a number of different technologies, which function together to give us an illusion of physically entering another world. And when VR technology is combined with meaningful and educational content, we can acquire new knowledge in a new, but also age-old, way of learning – that is, by experiencing the subject physically, through our senses and our brain.
Åbo Akademi’s new Experience Lab at MediaCity in Vasa, Finland, opened in the autumn of 2016. The lab’s equipment includes the latest VR technology, which provides stunning 3D experiences of, for example, moving around in the human bloodstream while learning how it functions.
“Using VR in learning is a rapidly growing trend. But the world of business is also increasingly using VR for communication and marketing. Socio-cultural learning generally is growing in importance,” says Annika Wiklund-Engblom, a lecturer in education at Åbo Akademi. She has used the present Experience Lab frequently in her work.
VR no longer just a ‘cool thing’
VR can be used for visualising information and knowledge and, what is more, in direct interaction with the user. It is therefore expected to assume an important and dominant position in tomorrow’s educational and experience industry. In the 2010s VR has advanced from mainly military environments and elite university laboratories to being one of the key elements in all professional development. For example, researchers and teachers, managers, instructors, trainers and therapists implement interactive, engrossing experiences in an increasingly realistic 3D environment.
One example of the socio-cultural dimension of VR, which has grown in importance in the 2010s, is the use of VR to increase the understanding of others and bridge cultural differences. For instance, Finnish pupils can visit and explore a village school in India and meet the pupils there online, and vice-versa.
“Particularly in the countryside, outside of larger urban areas, there is a growing need to use VR for visiting and studying the surrounding world in an easy, inexpensive and quick way. So this is a hugely useful aspect also for distance learning,” says Joachim Majors, one of three certified testers at the Experience Lab.
In order for VR to provide as authentic an experience as possible and be truly useful, VR as a digital instrument must become even more transparent and invisible than it is today, according to Joachim Högväg, another of the Experience Lab’s certified testers. And technology is advancing in that direction.
“Even now some users seem to totally forget the user interface when they move in a well-designed VR application. The interface, the fact that you are actually standing in our small VR room with a funny kind of diving mask on your head and a joystick in each hand, simply disappears, and you feel, register and respond to the virtual environment and what you see there in an entirely different way than when you watch a screen or read a book.”
According to Annika Wiklund-Engblom, VR is now much more than just a cool thing for the quickly growing game and entertainment industry.
“The gaming world’s way of interacting with users, both as individuals and as a cooperative group, is entering learning and educational development as a whole at a fast pace,” says Wiklund-Engblom.
Extensive interest in new digital research methods
The great interest in the new, experimental analysis methods offered by the Experience Lab has taken its staff by surprise. Sören Andersson, engineer, certified tester and technology manager at the Experience Lab, has worked on developing more reliable and sophisticated methods and software for experimental measurement, data collection, analysis and evaluation since the early 2000s.
“Previously, we usually turned to researchers asking whether they would find experimental methods useful as a supplement to more traditional measuring methods. Now, researchers themselves are increasingly contacting us in order to use EEG, eye movements, psycho-physiological measurements and VR in their research projects, for instance. Interest in our methods has grown considerably,” says Andersson.
With a team of staff that has worked for more than a decade with experimental methods and user experiences in particular, the Experience Lab is more advanced than most similar laboratories in Europe. Using skin conductance and eye movements for analysing how what is seen on a screen influences the viewer’s attention and interest is a new approach even for many commercial laboratories elsewhere in Europe, while the lab and its predecessor at Åbo Akademi have already been using such measuring methods for about ten years.
These are objective ways of collecting data on how a person actually experiences a digital product, which increase our understanding of what the user thinks of the product.
The alternative is to observe persons using a product and to interview them afterwards. However, users do not always answer truthfully as to what they think of a product. Biometric measuring also provides more data on whether a person is frustrated, for example, and does not have a positive experience of the digital product at all.
“We’re particularly good at subjective user experiences and at how these can be influenced and improved. This is our current competitive advantage. Focussing on the user is now more important than ever, as more and more services and devices are digitalised,” Andersson says.
He finds the services offered by the new lab to be perfectly timed – they match current trends and have great potential for further development, not least pertaining to the use of VR within a growing number of areas and disciplines.
VR and AR (Augmented Reality) are being used in a large number of applications. For example, the Experience Lab is currently experimenting with VR in various classroom situations. One highly prioritised application is to test various stories from a historical perspective, so that the user may experience a historical event in an entirely new way.
“VR in teaching can also be used to learn about a certain substance in biology or to move around inside the body and see how the blood circulation or cells in the body function. Or to communicate using a virtual classroom, with the teacher and pupils actually sitting in entirely different locations.
According to Sören Andersson, biometric analysis is currently advancing at a dynamic rate. Developing new measuring methods, improving user experiences, designing new innovative products and marketing both services and products in cooperation with technical experts and users are becoming the natural point of departure.
With over ten years of experience in the field, the Experience Lab has a close relationship with the main developers of eye movement measurement. Today, test subjects can wear special lightweight glasses with small wireless cameras attached, and afterwards it is possible to see how their gaze has moved or focussed on certain things in a classroom situation, for example. Andersson says that methods and services are developed in dialogue with scientists and research groups both within and outside of Åbo Akademi University.
“We are developing constantly and acquiring new, increasingly user friendly technology for the lab all the time. We’re planning several new things for 2017.”