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Getting a ducks eye-view of life

Chris Davis samples the virtual world of wildlife at a nature reserve in Wigan

How do you encourage children to explore a highly valued and protected marshland nature reserve, without disrupting the wildlife or drowning? The answer lies in a virtual reality pilot project currently being tested by schools in and around Wigan.

The Wigan Education and Business Partnership was asked to create the system, which is found in a converted barn on Hope Carr Nature Reserve, enabling visitors to see more than would ever be possible through fieldwork alone.

The partnership wanted to convey a sense of unstructured exploration for which a virtual reality simulation was considered to be the ideal medium. Although designed for use through VR headsets, the program is equally usable via the computer screen alone, the direction of view and travel being controlled by either the mouse, the keyboard or a joystick.

That said, there can be no doubt that for the children I saw using the system, the headsets were the main attraction. Whoops of glee and exclamations of disorientation were the order of the day.

Needless to say, having such a headset in use in a normal working classroom would be a major distraction for those not wired for vision. Seeing a classmate cavorting and gyrating as they move their head and body to steer themselves through their exclusive virtual world is not the sort of sight fellow pupils can easily ignore. But in the barn, with its language-lab style booths, this is not a problem.

At first glance the scene portrayed is not particularly realistic. The landscape has the patchwork look of early flight simulations and the objects and wildlife, although well drawn, are of the computer-cartoon type rather than the photographic quality we are becoming used to since the advent of CD-Roms.

In the present version, there are disappointingly few wildlife events to observe. These are repeated at regular intervals rather than occuring randomly as one assumes they would in reality. So a skein of ducks, which flies across the reserve, does so fairly frequently, in identical numbers and formation. However the VR headset allows one of the most enthralling experiences on the program when you join the flight and weave in among the formation, much as the camera does in wildlife documentaries.

Similarly, diving into the water reveals a submarine world of fish and plant life, and all without the use of scuba gear. Reality loses out in one respect in this watery world, as the predatory pike pursues its prey but never quite catches it. So many children have complained about this that future versions may allow a more graphic illustration of the food chain in action.

When it became clear that packages like this could be more widely relevant than merely to schools actually visiting the reserve, the producers decided to create a series of associated worksheets and support materials. The early drafts of these look quite promising, posing simple questions requiring both observation during the VR experience, and reference to the associated information, which can be accessed from the simulation.

This is a bold and innovative attempt to apply virtual reality to the classroom and is undoubtedly absolutely perfect for visitors to the nature reserve. However, at present products such as Usborne's excellent Exploring Nature CD-Rom and Sherston's Viewpoints have more to offer the budding young naturalist, while 4mation's wonderful Guardians of the Greenwood offers a more open-ended and stimulating exploration of the world of ecology.

Further details from Wigan Education and Business Partnership, tel: 01942 705396 and Hope Carr Nature Reserve, tel: 01942 601114 EXTRA ENVIRONMENT TES JUNE 21 1996 V TEAM 'You're talking about a long-term policy. It's not instant, it's hard work and you've got to involve everybody'

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