Virtual reality is expected to be a big hit in education in the future and also promises to make waves in the world of business down the track.
It is destined to become a “powerful force” in the classroom, says Carol Moffatt, a former school principal and leading New Zealand educationalist. She predicts it will be a commonplace teaching tool a few years hence.
And she is not alone in believing that the full potential of virtual reality, to date considered an expensive plaything, is going to be unleashed in the future.
There are signs that what the computer-driven of the in-your-face three-dimensional multimedia virtual reality technology offers is starting to be taken seriously by business.
“Virtual reality is a multi-sensory stimulation to learning really,” says Moffatt, the Ministry of Education’s project manager of IT strategy for schools.
She expects it to become a key learning tool when it is much cheaper to buy and operate than it is now, generates more dynamic imagery and provides the user with more sensory inputs.
She envisions that in the future a student could, for instance, use virtual reality to study life in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea and actually experience what it’s like to be there. It has the potential to give the student a profound understanding of the subject that goes beyond simply providing him, or her, with knowledge, says Moffat.
She also believes it will give students a better understanding of tough and complex subjects like mathematics because they will be able to get involved in what is being demonstrated.
Moffatt acknowledges making the technology itself a reality in schools is dependent on the availability of low-cost ultra high-power data processing and huge amounts of cheap bandwidth.
But she is confident those issues will be resolved and virtual reality will be commonplace in all schools well within a fifteen year span and could, perhaps, be in use within five years. “I’m very careful not to say it’s going to be a computer we’re going to using, she says while freely admitting she doesn’t know what its “shape” will be when it really arrives.
But Moffatt is certain the technology will provide what she calls “multi-ways” of learning because it is able to stimulate most, if not all, of a person’s senses.
In her opinion it will provide many paths that can be followed. Among other things, she expects it to is enable teachers to tailor learning to the personal needs of their students. “We’re just beginning to see the sort of possibilities.”
Teachers will become even more important than in the past, she says. “ An inspired teacher will be able to inspire students to even greater levels.”
The future in business
The Warehouse’s Auckland-based chief information officer, Neville Brown, believes virtual reality is already starting to emerge in the real world of business.
In his opinion it's coming in being heralded with the introduction of three-dimensional views of houses for sale being advertised on real estate websites at the present time.
“You don’t have to visit before you make your selection about what you want to see," says Brown. “They’re a sort of transitional phase of virtual reality systems,” he says, and predicts more three-dimensional-type packages will emerge in the internet space as it further develops.
The Warehouse could use the technology to discover how people shop at the company’s stores and determine where they come from to visit the stores. “You can map all that stuff with nice colourful tool sets,” he says.
He sees the emergence of voice-activated computers as a breakthrough in information technology that could be expected in the future.
It would eliminate the need for keyboards, he says, and greatly widen access to computing. “Lots of people use keyboards but they’re still a barrier and it still means we don’t use all the functionality of the devices that we have,” says Brown.
And he envisions voice control and virtual reality being combined in a way that allowed computer users to control images on the computer screen with hand gestures. “You could point at an object on a computer screen and move it, or instruct it, and alter what it looks like and things like that,” he says.
But he recalls that voice systems have already been on the way for eights years and warns that the gestation period for what he calls “ concept technologies” can be a long one.
It takes time to make them robust real-life applications, he says, but predicts that efficient voice activated computer technology could be available within five to 10 years.
Meanwhile, he says robotics advancing dramatically in the shorter term that would, for instance, allow companies like The Warehouse to automate shelf-stacking in their stores.
Shelf replenishment is a labour-intensive operation at present, says Brown. In the shorter term, his company is also looking at the mobility provided by wireless-based pocket PCs, and the like, which he considers to be still relatively immature. “The interest thing to us is to have the people who are walking the shop floor to actually have access to a lot more information about the current state of the business at their finger tips, he says.
And the supply chain is really a key part of the company’s business, says Brown. The aim is to increase collaboration with all the parties in its supply chain. He says the next wave of internet-based technology is expected to dramatically reduce the cost of connection between the enterprise and its suppliers.
Home converges and work diverges
The Auckland-based director of ACNielsen eRatings.com’s Pacific panels operations, Rick Burns, sees home electronics like the family computer and TV converging.
He envisages it all be embodied in “a machine”, the interface of which will get more and more like what he calls “actual virtual reality” perhaps providing the sensation of touch and smell.
It’s entertainment, says Burns, who manages people taking part in his company’s internet usage research programmes in New Zealand and Australia.
“If you could do that the porn sites would be laughing,” he says. “Put this suit on, guys, and you’ve got virtually anything.”
But what people would be comfortable with in the workplace is tricky to predict, says Burns. He’s not even sure how much people will even get into the speech recognition stuff.
He wonders, for instance, if converting the spoken word to data that is automatically processed into written text, will be acceptable in offices.
“What I’m saying is when you’re thinking about trying to write something you’re either comfortable with pencil or paper maybe, or a keyboard, but it’s a hand and eye thing,” he says.
A writer using speech technology may feel too far removed from what he, or she, is intent on doing and Burns thinks human beings have to contend with “some inbuilt species-stuff on that level”.
Not everything do-able is done because of human nature, he suggests. And he doesn’t expect his, or other people’s jobs, ever to get easier with the advances in technology the future. He sees work as something that is becoming different over time.
His children him ask does work get easier or harder as you get older? “My answer is no,” says Burns, “ it just gets weirder.”
What he really hopes to see in time to come is efficient ways of preventing plagues of computer viruses and worms from spreading swiftly and relatively unchecked around the world.
“Nobody would care about what’s happening on the web if everyone it too afraid to use it,” he says. If people are too afraid to give their credit card numbers to make a purchase there’s not such thing as e-commerce.
What he expects to see in the future is the creation of vastly more secure systems. As far as he is concerned it should have the highest priority.
The technology treadmill
Auckland-based managing director of Ullrich Aluminium Gilbert Ullrich is looking forward to breakthroughs in speech and language translation technologies.
Already firmly established in New Zealand and Australia, the company wants to further expand its business in non-English speaking countries and Ulrich believes voice technology could help it to do that.
His company is finding email increasingly more and more usefully when doing business with companies in developing countries and expects it to be further developed.
He has found that emails get through even when telephone and fax systems do not work very well in countries that do not have a sophisticated telecommunications infrastructure.
He also expects to see the day when all of his company’s paper work, documentation and electronic communications, can be stored on one database. He is weary of wasting time fruitlessly searching filing cabinets for records that he needs to run his business.
Ullrich regards his company to be on a sort of technological treadmill. All companies in the aluminium industry have to keep abreast of improvements in technology to be competitive. There’s no alternative.
“The barrier, it’s going up higher and higher, and I don’t know how high it’s going to be but you’ve got to hang in there and be fully devoted to it, if not, you’ll lose ground,” he says.
His company is in the process of installing a new information system at the present time.
Auckland physician Dr Anton Wiles, a pioneer in the introduction of computing in general practice in New Zealand, predicts there will be huge advances in technology in medicine.
Some are already on the way. Recently, a robot controlled by surgeons in New York removed a gall bladder from a woman patient in Strasbourg, France, via a high speed telephone line.
But, Wiles, a former chairman of the New Zealand Medical Association, doesn’t expect the Ellerslie Medical Centre where he works to use that level of technology even in the very distant future.
What general practitioners expect to see in the short to medium term is much more streamlining of the interaction between themselves and other health providers over safe and secure networks.
There is a great need for the various groups to easily provide one and another with data about the same patients. “We’re not talking about real high tech stuff here,” he says.
The groups are sharing information but it is not been done on the scale or level of efficiency he, and other health providers, anticipated six or seven years ago.
He admits that part of the reason for the tardiness is the medical profession has been reluctant to go too far with new things. Doctors worry about the security of patient records and don’t like using the Internet because of that.
The biggest advances in computers in medicine so far have been in information management and patient management in particular, he says.
He expects big advances in the use of information technology in the diagnosis of illness but he’s holding his breathing waiting for it to happen.
“I personally have doubts as to whether a computer can take over everything that I can do but I think it could probably do a lot more than I believe it can,” says Wiles.