New Dimensions

By Drew Menard, June 12, 2019

Virtual and augmented reality enhance the learning environment

Technology is often a catalyst for progress and can dramatically change how we live our lives day to day. As Liberty University seeks to produce world-changers, it makes sense that the latest technology is embedded in its academic culture, including the cutting-edge tools of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR).

VR (think headsets that can transport us to an entirely different world) and AR (think Pokémon Go, where we can still see the world as it currently appears, but we add to or “augment” the view with a digital creation) are becoming useful tools in many fields. Throughout the university, academic programs are experimenting with, researching, and even implementing VR and AR into their coursework. Students are training on devices that allow them to test their skills in a virtual, simulated environment so they can understand the many different scenarios they may encounter on the job. Some are using their artistic talents to create worlds that no one has seen before.

Incorporating this latest technology in the classroom is, in reality, preparing students to better take on the real world.


Aeronautics student Michael Kopp flies an aircraft in virtual reality. (Photo by Andrew Snyder)

When it comes to training students for careers with little margin for error, such as a pilot, VR technology has the ability to mitigate risk while offering realistic experiences even before students climb into a real cockpit. At Liberty University School of Aeronautics, students are already honing their skills in simulators, where they can practice instrumentation, pre-checks, and maneuvers over and over as they build confidence for flying real aircraft. Liberty is one of only a handful of institutions nationwide to have earned Federal Aviation Administration National Simulator Program certification. The school currently uses a number of high-fidelity simulation devices. Now, aviation students are supplementing that training with VR.

“In sims, you always know you are not in an airplane,” explained Kevin Martin, simulation manager and associate director of flight training. “Virtual reality really takes flight simulation to the next level by fully immersing the individual into whatever they are working on.”

Wearing a Vive headset with X-Plane 11 VR software, students sit at the controls in a custom flight chair designed by Liberty’s simulator department and can constantly look around to keep their situational awareness, Martin said. “Being able to move your head freely and still see everything is absolutely incredible.”

As VR flight simulation is further tested, Martin believes that students will soon be able to log the hours as qualified training hours, just as they can log simulator hours now.

“As a university whose vision is to impact the world for Christ as the preeminent aerospace education institution, we believe we should be leading the way in incorporating this VR technology into our training,” said Steven Brinly, aerospace technology chair. “As we’ve seen this technology continue to develop, we are seeing lots of potential applications in the areas of aviation administration, maintenance, and UAS (unmanned aerial systems).”

In aviation administration, students are using VR to learn their way around airports. Airports are complex ecosystems, and those managing them need to understand their intricacies.

“Through virtual reality, the professor can walk the students through the layout of the airport and all of the different things they would be inspecting in airport operations,” Brinly said. “He can simulate what it looks like in all different kinds of conditions, such as at night with lots of fog.” He noted that with VR, students can explore areas that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to visit at a real airport, such as high-security sites. The VR training is also less costly than traveling to multiple airports; students even have a chance to explore international operations.

“The VR experience is exciting and engaging for the students,” added Aaron Wilson, associate professor of aviation. “The technology allows them to have an interactive experience. If conducted in the real world, it would be costly and awkward with a medium to large class. With VR, students were able to see ramp operations, inspect runways, observe various airport facilities, and experience the airport environment in a variety of weather conditions.”


Dr. Leslie A. Hammer, assistant professor of anatomy, instructs student-doctors Timothy Eckert and Samantha Scarola on using the HoloLens to perform an ultrasound. (Photo by Jessie Rogers)

Airplane passengers trust that their pilots have received all the training they need. Similarly, patients expect their physicians to step into an exam room with their skill sets fully calibrated. That is why simulation is a vital part of the Liberty University College of Osteopathic Medicine curriculum.

“We use a lot of manikins and task trainers to teach medicine, as well as simulated patients (trained actors) to immerse students in simulated clinical situations,” said Dr. Laura Potter, medical director for LUCOM’s Center for Standardized Patients & Simulation. “This is the time for them to learn how to be observant, how to make sense of a clinical scenario. It’s a safe place to learn so they don’t make an error when it is a person they are working with.”

A component of the training involves AR, using tools like the Microsoft HoloLens headset.

“You can have an instructor and up to eight students, all wearing a HoloLens, and the instructor can hold a probe on the simulator showing where that ultrasound beam is and how it cuts through an organ or tissue,” explained LUCOM’s Tim Hodge, simulation specialist.

While ultrasound has been a useful tool for physicians, understanding how to read images, even with a deep understanding of anatomy, can be tricky. AR is advancing this method.

“It is difficult, especially at the beginning, to learn to interpret a two-dimensional scan in a three-dimensional body,” Potter said. “But by wearing the HoloLens, the instructor can take an ultrasound image and separate out the musculoskeletal system from the organs, from the blood vessels, so that as students learn the anatomy, they also see how it actually looks in the body.”

“That ability to take systems, break them down individually or put it all together, superimposed above or within the body, allows for a discussion about anatomy or anything as widespread or granular as the instructor wants to be,” Hodge added. “We can focus in on narrow skills or we can focus on the big picture, depending on what we are trying to teach. We are very blessed to have the technology and the facilities that we do, where we can really take our students into that immersive activity and truly try to hone their skills.”

Liberty’s investment in cutting-edge technology is ensuring its future osteopathic physicians stand out as they enter their careers.

“We’ve found that a lot of our third years are ahead of their attending physicians using ultrasound,” Potter said.


In Liberty’s 3D Innovation Lab, students can paint in 3D using Tilt Brush and Vive headsets. (Photo by Joel Coleman)

Through virtual and augmented reality, artists are showcasing their creativity and designing new products.

“There are a lot of companies that create products in a virtual environment,” explained Todd Smith, chair of Liberty’s Department of Studio & Digital Arts. “I can interact with somebody from anywhere in that environment. Literally, I can be in here and somebody else can be in the same environment with me across the country, and we can create together. You can imagine what that could do for product development. Let’s say I design a car, or a computer, or a character, and I have a client in California — they can offer feedback or make tweaks with me here in Virginia.”

Not only do artists have opportunities to collaborate on design in virtual environments, but they also can directly design their own virtual spaces.

VR applications are also revolutionizing storytelling. Digital media students have had the opportunity to sit under a VR trailblazer, visiting professor Kam Diba, founder and president of the digital marketing company Reverge, to create immersive films using virtual reality.

In the arts department, students also utilize an innovation lab that includes 3D printers and body scanners that allow them to turn sculptures into digital characters, which become part of a virtual story. One MFA student took on a historical preservation project, creating 3D, digital designs from photographs of an old house that had been destroyed. She printed 3D replicas of house features, like a vintage strike plate behind a doorknob, so people can feel the detailed artwork.

Students are also using VR tools in the lab, including Vive headsets and the Tilt Brush, to paint and sculpt in virtual reality.

“They can create on their own, or five to 10 people who are all in different places can go into a virtual world and create together,” Smith said. “It’s three dimensional; they are actually drawing in 3D.”

SADA students and faculty are also experimenting with ways to use the technology to assist the physically or visually impaired.

By giving his students this “research sandbox” of cutting-edge tools, Smith said he is producing graduates who become “creators, but also innovators.”

“If we give our students this sandbox now, they are going into a world where they will be leaders,” Smith said. “They are not only leaders in problem-solving but they are also leaders in their skill sets; they know the technology, they have the aesthetic background, and they know how to apply it.”

With a forward-thinking mindset, Liberty faculty and administrators are not only meeting students where they are now, but launching them toward where they aim to be.

“Students have grown up in the technology age,” Martin said. “They are looking for that experience; that is what excites them. We are able to really engage the student with the technology. They are immersed in the environment — whether you are teaching history and you want to be on the battlefield at Normandy or, in our case, we are teaching weather and we’re teaching how a thunderstorm forms and you are inside of it. … Technology is the future. That’s where we’re taking our students.”

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