Figure 1.16: A flight simulator in use by the US Air Force (photo by Javier Garcia, U.S. Air Force). The user sits in a physical cockpit while being surrounded by displays that show the environment.

Figure 1.17: A tour of the Nimrud palace of Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II, a VR experience developed by Learning Sites Inc. and the University of Illinois in 2016.

In addition to teaching empathy, the first-person perspective could revolutionize many areas of education. In engineering, mathematics, and the sciences, VR offers the chance to visualize geometric relationships in difficult concepts or data that are hard to interpret. Furthermore, VR is naturally suited for practical training because skills developed in a realistic virtual environment may transfer naturally to the real environment. The motivation is particularly high if the real environment is costly to provide or poses health risks. One of the earliest and most common examples of training in VR is flight simulation (Figure 1.16). Other examples include firefighting, nuclear power plant safety, search-and-rescue, military operations, and medical procedures.

Beyond these common uses of VR, perhaps the greatest opportunities for VR education lie in the humanities, including history, anthropology, and foreign language acquisition. Consider the difference between reading a book on the Victorian era in England and being able to roam the streets of 19th-century London, in a simulation that has been painstakingly constructed by historians. We could even visit an ancient city that has been reconstructed from ruins (Figure 1.17). Fascinating possibilities exist for either touring physical museums through a VR interface or scanning and exhibiting artifacts directly in virtual museums. These examples fall under the heading of digital heritage.

Steven M LaValle 2020-01-06