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Virtual Reality: Knowledge Without  Bounds Yet So In-Touch

As the country continues to strive towards enhancing manufacturing  under the big 4 agenda, it is imperative that we leverage on emerging technologies to not only make the industries efficient but to also facilitate education in STEM programs. One of the technologies that offers great prospects in promoting STEM education is Virtual Reality (VR).

Back in the 90s, Virtual Reality was a concept that harbored its fair share of novelties  amongst the “techie” community. What was only a vague concept in the 1960s by the likes of Ivan  Sutherland and Mort Heilig was now coming to the mainstream masses. Granted, its main use case  then was as entertainment, especially gaming. Despite the hype within the mainstream space,  researchers were still learning the ropes, exploring what the technology had to offer. Two decades  in and VR has its place in various circles of our society from Education, Entertainment, Medicine,  Manufacturing etc. VR is characterized by synthetic environments, stereoscopic views, head tracked displays, hand/body tracking and binaural sound; it aims to offer a virtual and immersive  experience that typifies the physical/real world in terms of sensory components.

Today, a question that lingers in our minds is, how can we take advantage of this technology that  seems to offer so great a promise. Our interest is in Industrial Automation (Mechatronic) Systems  and more so, technical training and education of the same. The only way to justify the worthiness  of such a technology is by identifying its value propositions which are tied to the issues that are  inherent in the current systems that the technology aims to provide a solution for. It goes without  saying that engineering demands a hands-on approach; this entails interaction with machines,  visualization of outputs, tuning of parameters among other activities. A universal issue that comes  to mind is the accessibility of the physical machine. There are at least two nuances for such a case.  First, in developing countries, an institution may lack physical machines that can be used by their  students. Second, the number of machines available may be few relative to the number of students  that have to use it; resultant from such is a case where a student can only spectate their  colleagues that are within reach of a machine during a practical exercise.

One remedy lies in the idea that VR allows for the creation of whole virtual environments which  are capable of hosting 3-dimensional objects as well as simulating real-world physics.  Furthermore, having concurrency for multiple parties carrying out practical exercises is possible  thereby eliminating “spectators”. Being able to work in an immersive environment with “virtual machines” can eliminate the need to procure new machines whose cost can be rather staggering  for an Institution of Higher Learning while maintaining accessibility to all students.

Besides the universal issue of Accessibility, VR can also be used to enhance learning activities.  Researchers from the University of Northampton conducted an experiment to evaluate the use of  VR in teaching. Their results suggested that VR offers an advantage when it comes to delivering  knowledge on concept, principles and/or methodology compared to the use of PowerPoint  presentation slides. One of their conclusions then was that VR is an ideal tool in the context of  blended learning in an institution of higher learning. That said, how about a segue into Digital  Twin(DT); similar to how VR can enhance learning, VR can also enhance Cyber-Physical systems  and more importantly Digital Twins. A DT can be simply defined as a digital replica of a physical  entity that runs in synchrony with the physical entity. DTs can be considered as an upgrade to  SCADA systems offering more room for technical analysis and intuition. Given that Digital Twins  are dependent on high volumes of data, the immersion offered by VR enhances the consumption  and interpretation of these data. Furthermore, operations of machines in the field become easier  and far more intuitive, to say the least since the body motions that would have been undertaken in  the field are the same in the virtual environment regardless of the operation being performed.

With all the aforementioned ideas, it is imperative that their consolidation be made to realize a  Virtual Laboratory that will facilitate holistic learning and training on Mechatronic Systems.  Fortunately, in the Virtual Machine Control (VMC) Lab at Dedan Kimathi University of Technology (DeKUT), these ideologies have been a part and parcel of our endeavors for over three (3) years  now. We envision a learning environment that is not constrained by the physical yet excels in  delivering high quality and world-class training when it comes to Industrial Automation. In 2019,  Digital Twin was a prelude to our work on Virtual Reality; we explored its application in  Geothermal Drilling Operations and subsequently went on to explore Digital Triplet for Control  of an Elevator Security System in 2020. So far, our research has resulted in a firm foundation for the design and development of a Virtual Laboratory that will not only provide access to training  equipment for all regardless of their location but also enhance the learning process. This is not  science fiction but rather a revolution that is inevitable in our institutions of higher learning.

Prof. Jean Bosco BYIRINGIRO (PhD, Reg.Eng.)
Email: jean.bosco@dkut.ac.ke
Founding Director, Virtual Machine Control Lab