3D Online Learning Environments for Emergency Preparedness and Homeland Security TrainingJames G Jones
Department of Technology and Cognition, College of Education
University of North Texas, Denton, Texas, USA
Created Realities Group
Abstract: This paper presents information concerning the use of 3D Internet-based multi-user technologies, such as 3D online learning environments, for the creation of cost-effective, massive interactive training sessions and simulations. This approach can provide a cost-effective means to provide large-scale training, using multi-user interaction in situated learning. The availability of relatively low-cost desktop virtual reality systems makes this technology feasible for wider use. Possibilities might include large-scale inter-agency training, simulations of situations not easily presented through live in-person training, and other training and simulations that require repetition and engagement in order to master activities. The University of North Texas is currently using a 3D online learning environment designed by Created Realities Group to enhance online course delivery. This same system can be expanded to provide affordable situational training.
IntroductionThe potential for terrorist attacks and other security risks in recent years has challenged the high-tech industry to create innovative and cost-effective solutions to provide training that can help prepare those who must deal with these threats (SGI, 2004). The issue that faces civilian communities is how to provide cost-effective and scalable solutions that can help to prepare employees to meet these challenges. The military has long understood how to leverage technology for effective preparation through training and real-time analysis; however, civilian institutions are faced with growing demands for training with fewer resources to invest in technology. One solution is to deploy desktop 3D online learning environments for training and education.
The same technology that allows an immersive experience presented in a game context can be harnessed to present situated learning environments focused on emergency preparedness and homeland security training. 3D online learning environments can provide engaged and immersive situated learning that adjusts to the needs of different civilian institutions. An online environment might train a single task or involve hundreds of participants from different cities and departments working to resolve/train complex situations. The importance of simulation for training emergency response personnel has been emphasized by both the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (Doyle, 2004) and the Canadian National Research Council (NRC, 2002). Both recommend the development of threat-based simulation models in conjunction with state and local officials.
3D online learning environments are a subset of virtual reality concepts developed in the early 1990s. These PC-based virtual environments provide a cost-effective and scalable method of distributing training to single users or across multiple institutions. PC-based systems provide an attractive advantage in that they offer lower maintenance cost, low-risk upgrade paths and the flexibility to control the price point when choosing feature sets for applications. These features combine to yield a lower cost of ownership (Armed Forces International, 2002). The higher cost associated with external interfaces (data gloves, head-mounted displays, etc) is not necessary for most levels of situated learning. Research has shown that the additional cost of equipment does not translate into a richer experience for the participant for most applications (Morningstar & Farmer, 1990). What research has shown "is that a cyberspace is defined more by the interactions among the actors [participants] within it than by the technology with which it is implemented (Morningstar & Farmer, 1990)." High-end virtual reality systems will still be required for the most demanding tasks, but PC-based scalable systems will outnumber them by an order of magnitude (Armed Forces International, 2002).
Before 2000, the barrier to deploying this technology was the high cost of 3D graphics cards that required personal computers with above average performance. Since 2000, 3D graphics adapters have moved from expensive specialty purchases to being an item that comes bundled with the laptop or desktop computer and personal computer performance is no longer an issue. In 2001, more than 70% of PCs with Microsoft Windows OS shipped supported a 3D video graphics adapter (Jon Peddie Associates, 2001). In 2004, 95% of University of North Texas students participating in CRG 3D online learning environment have the necessary level of graphics adapter and computer required to run the software successfully (Jones, Morales, & Knezek, 2004). With the move from PCI/AGP motherboard to PCI Express (PCI-SIG, 2004) in the next two years, it is likely that 3D graphics adapters will soon become available on 100% of new computers. This allows institutions with budgets that are continually scrutinized to deploy a solution that uses the standard office computer found on every employee's desk.
3D Online Learning EnvironmentsComputer games have been combining 3D graphics and collaboration tools since the 1980s (Holmevik & Haynes, 2000; Morningstar & Farmer, 1990). The current generation of 3D graphical online environments for entertainment began in 1999 with the release of Everquest, developed by Verant (Sony, 2002). Today, 3D environments are more commonly seen in computer games, where they are called MMOGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Game), MMOPWs (Massively Multiplayer Online Persistent World), or MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) (Kent, 2003). In education, they are termed 3D MOOs (Multiuser Object Orientated), MUVEs (Multiuser Virtual Environments), or 3D online learning environments. The commonality among these different approaches is each creates a context/scaffolding for interaction using 3D presentations to engage and/or immerse the student into a situation for learning (situated learning) or entertainment. The MIT Media Lab in the early 1980s demonstrated that using an alternate context to build a framework for interaction and learning can provide new and powerful methods of learning. Bruckman showed in her research that virtual meeting spaces/environments have significant potential for training, learning, and collaboration (Bruckman, 1992). Roussos, Moher, Vasilakis, and Barnes (Roussos, Moher, Vasilakis, & Barnes, 1999), Whitelock, Brna, and Holland (Whitelock, Brna, & Holland, 1996), Winn (Winn, 1993), and Grove (Grove, 1996) have found that virtual reality technology offers unique capabilities that are able to provide significant and positive support for education.
When an environment is built and displayed correctly, the user intuitively understands the space as displayed and should feel as though they are walking the halls of a building, engaged with other users in discussions, or immersed in a training situation. The user moves through and interacts with the environment using the keyboard and mouse. As the user moves, the computer generates new graphics in real-time to give the user feedback on their position in the environment. This gives the user a feel of motion and change of location in the space. By placing objects in a contextual 3D framework, users have known reference points and it creates a framework for communications and interactions. Students at remote sites assume control of a representation of themselves, also called an avatar, in a shared created environment such as a school building, park, or any other space. The virtual-space is segmented into conversation areas (portals) so that learners can move their avatars to areas for small group or private discussions. A screen-shot from the environment being used at the University of North Texas for distributed education is shown in Figure 1.
The Created Realities group system being used at the University of North Texas can display a simple campus environment as shown in Figure 1 and can also scale to support large data visualization sets such as the entire planet Mars. For example, Figure 2 shows a screen shot of the summit of Olympus Mons displayed by the Created Realities Group system based on NASA's Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA). MOLA collected elevation data (heights) of the surface of Mars as part of the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS). Students in distributed locations are able to login and move around and discuss what they are seeing of the face of Mars (Created Realities Group, 2002). Another commercial example of displaying larger geographic information is the Keyhole software shown in Figure 3. The software combines high-resolution satellite and aerial imagery, elevation data, GPS coordinates, and overlays information about cities and businesses over a 3D streaming map (keyhole, 2004).
Figure 1. University of North Texas 3D Online Learning Environment.
Figure 2. Mars 3D environment generated in real-time based on NASA MOLA data. Olympus Mons, Top Cone (MARS_19.0_227.0). (Created Realities Group, 2002)
Figure 3. Image from Keyhole2 Pro. (keyhole, 2004)
Advantages of 3D Online Learning Environments in TrainingThere are several advantages to providing training with 3D online learning environments. These include situated learning, multi-modal interactions, visualization of complex data and information, and the ability to support problem solving and understanding complex systems.
Situated learning centers on the concept of moving a newcomer to an expert level within a sociocultural structure of practices. With 3D online learning environments users incorporate modeling and mentoring to solve problems similar to those in real world contexts. 3D online learning environments also provide a vehicle for situated learning, allowing students to do activities created in the virtual environment (MUVEES Project, 2003). The 3D approach shows the potential to provide transferability from performing tasks in the virtual environment to performing the same tasks and interactions in the real world. Situated learning is one of the strongest advantages of this technology. As an example, researchers at Washington State University are working with California-based EON Reality Inc. in the development of a First Responders' Simulation and Training (FIRST) Center at Washington State University. The FIRST Center provides a virtual environment in which first responders will conduct realistic "hands-on" training in various aspects of homeland security at a fraction of the alternative real-life training cost. This is possible because of the ability to transfer skills trained within the simulated learning experience to real-life activities. (Jayaram, Jayaram, & Hilding, 2003)
A 3D online learning environment can easily support multiple modes of interactions at the same time. The modes are only limited by the bandwidth available, technology for display, and the capabilities of the student. The modes available in the system that University of North Texas uses are text, audio, overheads, whiteboard, etc. Students and instructors use different modes depending on their needs. Students who are uncomfortable speaking can use the text-based chat for voicing their questions in a course. The instructor can use the audio chat mode in order to provide more information than they can easily type. Multi-modal interactions allow the system to utilize more than one mode over time to ensure that students with different learning styles are effectively reached. In training simulations, additional modes can be added beyond the use of audio (hearing and speaking) and text (seeing). Haptic interaction, also known as touch or force-feedback, is still new but is becoming more available in both cost and usability (Multimodal Interaction Group, 2004). It was first developed so that users could feel objects in virtual environments. Minsky gives this description of haptic technology: "Force display technology works by using mechanical actuators to apply forces to the user. By simulating the physics of the user's virtual world, we can compute these forces in real-time, and then send them to the actuators so that the user feels them" (Blattner & Dannenburg, 1992). Simple haptic interfaces include console game controllers that vibrate and steering wheels that provide feedback when your virtual car goes off the road. More advanced devices like PHANTOM from SensAble shown in Figure 4 (SensAble Technologies, 2004), CirculaFloor a locomotion interface using a group of movable floor plates shown in Figure 5 (Iwata, Yano, Fukushima, & Noma, 2004), or an untethered force feedback interface that uses air jets shown in Figure 6 (Iwata et al., 2004) shows current and future haptic technologies.
Figure 4. SensAble PHANTOM
Figure 5. CirculaFloor
Figure 6. Force Feedback Air Jets
Visualization of Complex Data and Information
3D interface allows for the creation of space that allows users to view and interact with complex data and information. One example of this is the Visual Security Operations Console (VSOC) being developed by Boeing (Boeing, 2004). VSOC uses photo-realistic 3D visualization to provide complete situational awareness from a PC-based console for monitoring physical security alarm systems. A 3D visual interface allows for different information sources (CCTV cameras, digital video recording systems, intrusion and motion sensors, alarm and access control systems) to be integrated into a common presentation. In the area of training, VSOC can train security officers by providing virtual facility tours and creating familiarization and training efficiency. 3D visualization of complex data is most commonly seen in scientific research. Studying physical phenomena, such as atmosphere, the ocean, hydrodynamics, electromagnetics, structural response, and environmental cleanup, frequently requires the study of their true 3D characteristics at increasing resolutions in order to understand the tens of gigabytes of data being generated from today's supercomputers (Crawfis & Perra, 1995).
Problem Solving, Understanding Complex Systems
3D environments have shown to be excellent vehicles for the exploration of complex systems. Games like Sim City, Railroad Tycoon, and Dues Ex: Invisible War allow participants to explore complex systems and at the same time be faced with problem-solving issues during their exploration. By allowing the participants to save their work, they can then explore alternate outcomes. When an outcome is less than desirable, the participant can then return to a previous state and may explore additional alternate outcomes (Gee, 2004, May; Spector, 2004, May). In simulations, users are participating in an abstract form of a realistic situation (see Situated Learning) that can relate back to learning objectives. Through simulation, an environment can impart significant learning in an area that is very difficult to teach using other learning designs. Furthermore, a game can be an effective way to teach empathy. Students have the opportunity with some gaming environments to take on various roles and therefore have a better insight and understanding of each prospective from varying viewpoints (Franklin Learning Systems, n.d.). Researchers at the University of Missouri-Rolla (UMR) are working to develop a program that allows emergency personnel more versatility in their training regimes. The team is focused on developing a system to train first-responders how to react to weapons of mass destruction such as biological weapons or chemical agents. "In physical [live] drills, you can only train for a certain scenario at a time," Leu said. "But in virtual realities you can expand one scenario to include any number of variables." (Malik, 2003) Depending on the level of realism, the participant can be dealing with any number of levels of complexity to the overall learning outcome. The UMR project is deploying fully immersive techniques to bring as much realism as possible. Participants will wear headgear with goggles and ear pieces, and wear all of the equipment they would normally bring to an emergency situation during an immersive training program. The wireless goggles display stereo images across a user's range of view, while computers track the movements of each trainee and include it in the simulation. Sensors attached to the trainee allow interaction with digital surroundings (Malik, 2003; UMR, 2003). It will be interesting to review this research when complete to see the effectiveness of the fully immersive approach.
ConclusionThis paper has focused on the advantages and potentials for the use of 3D online learning environments for emergency preparedness and homeland security training. Examples of how such 3D virtual systems are being implemented have been provided. There remains one last barrier to wide-scale adoption and that is the cost of content creation. With specific focus on known training scenarios this cost can be shared between larger civilian institutions. As graphics tools and hardware continue to increase in popularity and the associated prices drop, the cost for development of these training simulations will be more acceptable to resource-strapped civilian institutions. Dr. Jones' focus the past two years has been on using a 3D online learning environment for synchronous course delivery at UNT. Now that this use is successful, Created Realities Group and the University of North Texas has begun to work with interested parties to define training scenarios that would fit well into a multi-user 3D interactive system.
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