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Virtual reality: brains

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Virtual reality (VR) might seem like just fun and games, but it’s also being applied in some surprising areas of education and training. In a room that’s set up as a hospital suite at Deakin University in Burwood, eager midwifery students are learning what it’s like to help a labouring woman through contractions thanks to VR technology.

Associate Professor Helen Forbes is the Associate Head of Deakin University’s School of Nursing and Midwifery. She’s worked with Deakin’s School of Engineering and School of IT to develop ‘Trinity’ a virtual pregnant woman.

Standing beside a bed, wearing an Oculus Rift headset, students place their hands on Trinity. She is fitted with a haptic device, which allows the user to feel Trinity and see their hand movements in the virtual world. Trinity has simulated contractions that feel remarkably real to someone touching the virtual stomach, giving the students a true sense of what midwives need to look for and manage during the birth process. The simulation comes complete with distractions including nervous expectant fathers and thunderstorms.

Assoc. Prof. Forbes points out that when your classroom is a hospital, where there are so many variables, every midwife in training can struggle with practical lessons. ‘It’s hard for students to get a consistent, similar experience. It depends on the day of the week that they go to the hospital and the people they come in contact with,’ she says.

But Trinity enables students to develop their clinical decision-making in a controlled environment, in a scenario that’s not life or death. Students can learn what the factors are in the decisions they make under pressure and how to interact with medical staff and patients in a high-pressure environment, before they step into a ward for the first time. ‘We know that nurses at the bedside get interrupted – they’re constantly distracted by the patients or fellow staff members. With this technology we can find ways to help them deal with that,’ she adds.

VR can also be used to enhance the education experience by taking the classroom to anyone, no matter their location. In 2015 Deakin University invited prospective students on board flight DX-3K, an immersive virtual reality tour  of its Burwood, Geelong and Warrnambool campuses in minutes.

This is the sort of technology that really excites Tom Shugg, cofounder of My Education Group. His company provides school students in Australia, New Zealand and Iceland with a virtual tour of parts of China using video conferencing tools. Tour guides show students around Beijing markets, the Great Wall or Forbidden City in real time. But he says this is just the beginning of what’s possible. ‘There is a strong appetite for the visceral education,’ he says. His team is keen to integrate VR into the offering, so that not only can students see and talk to a tour guide, they can get into the culture, history and landscapes without leaving the classroom.

VR is becoming increasingly valuable in the police force, too. In the 2014–2015 South Australian State Budget, police received funds for sophisticated virtual crime fighting equipment. The commitment includes $150,000 for a VR driving simulator to train police for emergencies and $380,000 for a firearms training simulator, which allows the force to test real responses to manufactured, high-risk situations in a safe environment.

Deakin University’s VR expert, Dr Ben Horan. VR will be at the heart of education and training in a number of sectors very soon. Dr Horan says that the appeal is being able to ‘create situations and scenarios that exist in real life.’ From medicine to occupational health and safety, and education people will be learning in virtual worlds before applying knowledge on the job, and going in to their work with an edge, knowing they’ve been able to practice over and over in a pseudo workplace first.

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Associate Professor Helen Forbes
Associate Professor Helen Forbes

Associate Professor, School of Nursing and Midwifery, Deakin University
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