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Is the Virtual World Working Better for Scientists?

Have you heard of a lab where no staff passes, qualifications, or lab coats are required? In fact, you can even wander around, prod equipment, or spill chemicals without any consequences.

It might sound unbelievable, but visiting Stephen Hilton’s digital laboratory can give you this experience through virtual reality (VR) headsets.

Overview of Virtual Reality:

  • Hilton’s digital lab aims at incorporating extended reality (XR), VR, augmented reality (AR), and mixed-reality technologies for safe learning and practice experiments even from home. This is helping to make the science more accessible.
  • The use of diverse avatars avoids language barriers by bridging the communication gap with the use of gestures and body language to communicate.
  • VR is helping students with fast-paced and evidence-based learning.
  • The use of virtual reality allows for more efficient chemical reactions for scientists without having to actually interact with harmful chemicals.
  • VR technologies can revolutionize scientific understanding of the human brain and own-body perceptions.
  • Virtual technologies have certain drawbacks or barriers that still need to be worked out. The VR software is hard to develop. Additionally, a lack of understanding around VR technologies continues to pose further barriers.

Making Science More Accessible

Hilton’s virtual lab runs in the School of Pharmacy at University College London. It aims to incorporate extended reality (XR), VR, augmented reality (AR), and mixed-reality technologies to monitor experiments and collaborate with international research partners. Furthermore, the lab is also used to conduct immersive training programmes for students and colleagues.

His virtual lab was built using the 3D design software Unreal Engine from US developer Epic Games. Hilton uses the Oculus Quest 2 headset, which allows him to have multiple headsets on the go at one time.

Moreover, human-like AI assistants offer guidance and support to users throughout.

Hilton believes that his lab is a scientific breakthrough. It enables an unlimited number of students to conduct experiments or safety assessments from the comfort of their homes or institutes.

The Use of Diverse Avatars Within the Virtual World

Hilton’s lab members successfully created a tool for virtual assistants to speak ten foreign languages. However, the concept of diverse avatars extends to the avoidance of spoken languages altogether. This is one way of making virtual training more accessible. XR relies on gestures and body language to communicate.

In 2018, De Beer taught at the Department of Mining Engineering at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. He utilized XR-based training tools to enable students to ‘visit’ mines, tunnels, and other potentially dangerous spaces remotely via a virtual classroom.

“Avatars don’t have to look or speak a certain way,” says De Beer.

Virtual Reality: Helping Medical Students Access Better Learning Opportunities

Simran Sharma, an obstetrics and gynaecology clinician at Cardiff University and the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff, UK, shared her early career challenges due to limited real-world practice exposure.

She explains, “The first time I ever came across a sepsis patient was as a qualified doctor, and that’s a common scenario for so many serious and rare conditions.

Using medical dummies is considered the gold standard for training, but the pandemic made in-person training impossible.

A research fellow at Cardiff University, as part of Project Sepsis, helped to develop a VR education tool. The virtual reality project helped students by showing them a series of simulations and demonstrating a series of symptoms and similar conditions.

It allowed students to interact via VR headsets.

“Virtual reality offers evidence-based training and serves as a powerful tool in healthcare, and its use is growing worldwide,” Sharma says.

Virtual Reality: Making Practical Work More Efficient for Scientists

In 2020, chemist Lee Cronin and his colleagues at the University of Glasgow, UK, designed a VR programme that allows him to control the robots in his lab remotely. These robots were able to synthesize organic molecules automatically. Therefore, it minimizes the interaction between harmful chemicals and humans, making it highly safe and efficient.

Certainly, virtual technology used in this way could be highly significant when dealing with dangerous scientific scenarios, including nuclear decommissioning and bomb-disposal research.

Virtual Reality Enables One to Visualize Them Inside an Alternative Reality

Neuroscientist Olaf Blanke’s research at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) reveals the intriguing aspects of VR technology. He suggests that VR technologies are revolutionizing scientific understanding of the human brain and own-body perceptions.

“VR is essentially a very smart mirror,” he says.

Furthermore, he insisted on how avatars enable us to have different perspectives by allowing us to have a visual self and self-consciousness. He added that virtual reality technology has the potential to replace conventional methods for studying memory and trauma.

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He has also been experimenting with VR to study out-of-body experiences. Blanke hopes that furthering understanding in this field will pave the way for new and more effective treatments for neurological disorders. However, there are still technological limitations.

Limitations to Virtual Reality Technology

It is not easy to achieve functional VR programs. As Hilton described, “Having developed our own 3D printing software and PC software for digital flow, we thought that we could easily make our own VR software, too. However, it proved harder than we had initially imagined.”

Additionally, VR technology depends on fast internet; however, there are numerous regions where the internet is still inaccessible. According to the United Nations, in 2021, there were still 2.9 billion people without Internet access.

A lack of understanding of VR technologies also remains a fundamental barrier to wider adoption.

The government, universities, and other centres for learning must take proactive measures to break cultural barriers to maximize the use of VR technology.

“A lot of our work is also about exposing people to the technology—getting them used to it—because there’s no question that they will have to work with it at some point in their career,” De Beers explains.

Is VR a new tool for scientists to pave the way for new leads and a better way of working? As Cronin believes, it is a lot more than that and certainly has the potential to change the nature of work.

Pour your thoughts below and let us know what you think of VR technology.

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