Paul Woodward
15th February 2016 at 15:01

Subject Genius, Paul Woodward, Virtuanology

No need to check if you clicked on the right section and yes, virtuanology is a neologism but I just couldn’t resist. This is indeed the design and technology section, but marks my words; virtual reality is going to be very much the future of design. Okay, maybe that is a little dramatic but I was inspired to write this week’s blog from reading several prominent articles about how 2016 will be the year of virtual reality…for gaming. It reminded me that, in the past, the same technology had been championed as the future for design.

A little short of 23 years ago I submitted my degree dissertation, much to the chagrin of my tutor, on the subject of virtual reality as a design tool. You can imagine how that went down in a traditional furniture design department but I already had the CAD bug and this was new and exciting. I was easily smitten by such futuristic technology, enough to risk my degree on it. The blocky graphics and nausea inducing frame rate failed to capture any true sense of reality and ultimately the technology disappeared, but luckily for me I had already graduated by then. For VR to work it has to be totally immersive and believable but back in the 90’s, from the bulky headsets to poor interfaces, it simply wasn’t.

But did it ever go away? Perhaps a better question would be did it ever really arrive?

Rudimentary CAD software existed well before VR appeared (as early as the 1960’s fact fans) but has evolved considerably and is simply a ‘non-immersive’ form of virtual reality. The objects you see on screen look real with their reflective surfaces and realistic shadows but they are just a collection of pixels on a 2D screen giving that impression of depth and realism. Check out the accompanying illustration to see just that effect. It’s the same with 3D gaming, especially when playing from a first person perspective. However, in time you become immersed in the game and start to play through the characters actions and see the game world through their eyes. Now here we are in 2016 and virtual reality is suddenly back; fuelled by the desire for true immersion in gaming. PC’s and game consoles are now powerful enough to produce real time photorealistic graphics with a frame rate that exceeds that which the human eye can process; its fully immersive HD virtual reality and this summer its coming to games consoles as well as the science labs. It will be the next Nintendo Wii but offering true interactive gameplay with a level of audio-visual immersion never seen before. However, for a few hundred pounds you can already invest in this technology for your PC and even your smartphone and it’s entirely possible to model an object, walk around and interact with it before sending it to be printed…full size…in 3D!

Of course, like all fads, it will lose its novelty. Smeared lenses and grubby cushion pads will dampen the experience and the need to constantly charge your headset will soon become a chore. Once technology has proven it can work it will no longer be new, exciting….or fun. It will be relegated to the same drawer where computer peripherals go to die but for now its new and shiny….and possibly a lot of fun.

Where it will go? Who knows? Will it make it in to the classroom? Undoubtedly, just as 3D printers have even though they are still more of a novelty than a serious manufacturing tool. Like VR they have the potential to revolutionise how we create objects but VR works best with environments so it is likely to find its niche in exploring larger scale objects such as work spaces and buildings. Having said that, the possibilities for its use are quite intriguing.

Imagine photorealistic walkthroughs of buildings yet to be built, interaction with objects and a sense of immersion that, on paper at least, should be almost indistinguishable from real life.  It could be used for improving ergonomics in spaces that are difficult to occupy in real life or allow us to interact with objects in ways we simply can’t in real space. Imagine dissecting a car engine from the inside out without the object disappearing off the edge of the screen when zoomed in with the added ability to suspend a part in space while you inspect it in more detail. What about the ability to be shrunk down and walk through a computer chip checking for faults. It’s been the stuff of science fiction for years but it’s now here and it will be interesting to see how successful its second coming will be.

For the average classroom teacher trying to manage a diminishing budget it will likely be seen as just a gadget that potentially offers a more immersive CAD experience than a computer monitor. Few subjects are likely to benefit from it but for those seeking out new and inventive ways of encouraging students to engage with their design work, it could yet prove to be a useful tool in the teacher’s arsenal. I can already imagine a few lessons where immersing a student in a virtual world while their peers look on might be an enlightening educational experience…and fun! Now if I could just avoid the temptation to leave them there…

Bear in mind that I have focused only (and briefly) on the potential for VR as a design tool in the classroom. Its potential use in many other areas of education and entertainment is yet to be explored!

To close, a quote from the book Alice through the Looking Glass (Lewis Carroll, 1871) in respect to the late Alan Rickman (see if you can work that one out) which, despite being written well over 100 years before VR was invented, already explored the attraction of stepping into an alternate reality?

‘In another moment Alice was through the glass and had jumped lightly down into the looking-glass room. The very first thing she did was to look whether there was a fire in the fireplace, and she was quite pleased to find that there was a real one, blazing away as brightly as the one she had left behind.’


Paul Woodward has been a teacher of DT for 22 years in a range of schools with stints as HOD and Head of Faculty, qualified to MA level and an examiner and moderator of Resistant Materials for the AQA.