Using shared VR to understand how novices become experts

How Brighton Uni’s Centre for Sports and Exercise Science and Medicine successfully uses an immersive environment to replicate real-life scenarios

Today, one of the big themes in education technology is virtual reality (VR). Universities everywhere are considering how VR could help to improve learning and understanding, as well as the role it could play in research. One player is the Sports and Exercise Science and Medicine group (SESAME) at the University of Brighton, which claims to have created a “complete immersive environment”.

Back in 2014, the University invested in a large semi-circular immersive display system from UK-based shared VR specialists Igloo Vision. This is now established as a valuable teaching aid, embedded in the undergraduate curriculum and also used across several different research projects.

Dr Nicholas Smeeton, Principal Lecturer in Sports and Exercise Psychology, originally specified the system and continues to oversee its day-to-day use. His particular interest is in the underlying mechanisms of human learning and performance in sport and exercise. And, to understand how people become experts, he needs to simulate sports environments to investigate the way they behave.

A classic example could be a goalkeeper preparing to receive a penalty kick. What do they look out for? How do they scrutinise the body shape of the penalty taker? And how do top-flight goalkeepers gather the knowledge and experience that enable them to act with such apparent ease and spontaneity when a kick is taken?

A similar scenario could be a tennis player who is about to receive a serve. Or, in a team situation, a group of defenders responding to a fast-moving attack in a football match. To understand these mechanisms and thought patterns it is necessary to replicate real-life scenarios. Yet there are few technological tools that do this effectively.

“Despite its apparent complexity, it is relatively straightforward to learn and use.” 

“A traditional flat screen is not true-to-life,” says Dr Smeeton. “It doesn’t fill your field of view very well and, as a result, the way an experienced sports person scans the scene around them can’t be replicated, even if it’s a very large flat screen.

“We did think about using VR headsets, but there are too many potential issues. For example, as a sports person, you need to see your own body. You also need to be able to move freely. And, often, you need to see your teammates, and arrive at a collective decision. You can’t do this properly when you are wearing a headset.”

The solution was a 210° wrap-around display system. Because this provides a natural horizon, those all-important eye movements remain true-to-life. And,because people are immersed inside the scenario they can get a real sense of ‘presence’ – in effect, their mind can be tricked into believing it is somewhere else.

More usually, Igloo Vision provides fully enclosed 360° systems with a diameter of at least six metres. Because, floor space at the Brighton labs is at a premium, a bespoke 210° screen was created that can be easily stored then quickly erected whenever needed. The projection and audio system are permanently fixed.

Three high-resolution projectors display the imagery, which is warped and blended across the curved screen by the Igloo Vision media player. Crucially, this integrates with the other technologies used by Dr Smeeton and his colleagues, such as treadmills, wireless accelerometers, sensors, and an array of MATLAB-based simulation tools and programs.

‘Universities everywhere are considering how VR could help to improve learning and understanding, as well as the role it could play in research.’

“Despite its apparent complexity, it is relatively straightforward to learn and use,” continues Dr Smeeton. “All you need is the type of technical skills you would normally find in a laboratory environment, and our students and researchers find it relatively easy to devise and set-up their own experiments.”

Initially, the biggest challenge was to create a library of content. In the case of Brighton University, this consists of a range of 360° videos of typical sporting situations, including: the penalty kick; the tennis serve; the defender’s eye-view of a football attack; and, for running and cycling scenarios, a range of street scenes. Using off-the-shelf components, the team created their own tripods and camera-mounting mechanisms and, bit-by-bit, started to build up an archive of scenarios.

The system now plays an important role in the SESAME lab, alongside a range of other sports science tools and facilities. For example, it is linked to undergraduate teaching for second and third years students, and also used by a number of dissertation students and post graduates. In addition, Dr Smeeton and his colleagues have found several other uses for the system, such as presentations, video conferencing and Skype calls. Having a large, immersive screen of this type also helps researchers to interrogate and visualise large data sets.

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