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Bridging reality and virtuality in teaching technology


The effectiveness of these systems seems to be very dependent on the teaching methods of the establishments where they were tested. The way in which students are encouraged to carry out autonomous experiments is, for example, crucial to the method's success.


How can students be prepared for the complexities of different technologies? The 'twin objects' developed in the context of the Brevie project now enable them to manipulate reality while evaluating the quality and functioning of their work on screen. This minor teaching revolution, which combines practical experience and abstract representation, has been developed thanks to cooperation between teachers, psychologists and computer experts from across Europe.

How can the structure and functioning of the various components of a compressed air circuit be
explained to students? The problem may be complex. While pneumatic systems are in some cases a comparatively simple assembly of tubes, cylinders and pistons, they may also entail

structures involving dozens of parts the effects of which cannot easily be predicted. This is particularly the case with automation in the motor industry, the food-processing industry, aerospace and microelectronics (where compressed air circuits are preferred to hydraulic circuits, which can give off impurities).

To explain these subtleties, teachers are making increasing use of computer simulation programs which make it possible to construct imaginary circuits. It is then possible to make virtual cross-sections, and visualise air pressure in the tubes and the direction of air flows in the system.

However, this solution is not a panacea. Wilhelm Bruns, a professor at Artec and the coordinator of the Brevie (Bridging Reality and Virtuality with a Graspable User Interface) project has this to say on the subject: 'Simulation, just like traditional teaching, demands a great deal of abstraction and does not allow students to familiarise themselves with material reality. 'The direct handling of objects is a fundamental aspect of the learning process at any age. It is necessary to understanding and helps in developing the mental representations required to master complex technical systems.'

Real + virtual = twin objects

How can students be taught to make a link between experience of real structures and their virtual equivalents? Computer experts, teachers, and researchers in the field of education and learning psychology sciences from various European countries have come together to see how this objective can be achieved. These highly multidisciplinary teams have developed a system whereby students can move between reality and virtuality. Known as the Universal Graspable User Interface (UGUI), this system enables the computer, by means of a camera and/or data gloves, to recognise a student building a pneumatic circuit. The circuit is then reconstituted in real time by the computer.

'In this way students discover the results of their work on screen in terms of construction and geometrical rigour, but also and especially in terms of its functioning,' continues Professor Bruns. 'They can visualise the movement of air flows inside the circuit they have created, identify any malfunctions and make the necessary changes. They can also carry out experiments on this model. We have called this real construction and its virtual counterpart Twin-Objects.'

Beyond students

A prototype of this educational environment was developed, and tested in Portuguese, Dutch, British and German establishments. The aim was to evaluate its ease of use in different educational environments in order to make improvements. This resulted in a second prototype which has been tested at ETH Zurich's Institute for Work Psychology.

The effectiveness of these systems seems to be very dependent on the teaching methods of the establishments where they were tested. The way in which students are encouraged to carry out autonomous experiments is, for example, crucial to the method's success.

The researchers are continuing their work in the context of the 'Distributed Environment for Real and Virtual Learning' project which is also supported by the European Union and is intended to incorporate other types of learning (in particular those involving practical experience of hybrid processes, such as systems combining mechanics, electronics, electrical engineering and computer science).

'The applications of this learning environment are not, however, limited to teaching,' concludes Professor Bruns. 'This system can also serve as a communications aid for specialised technicians and engineers. This would enable technical problems to be solved remotely, for example.'

Brevie (Bridging reality and virtuality with a graspable user interface).

Joint Programme Educational Multimedia (Information Technologies, Telematics Applications, Leonardo da Vinci)


Wilhelm Bruns
Universität Bremen Forschungszentrum Arbeit Umwelt Technik (Artec), Brème, Allemagne.
Fax : ++49 421 218 4449
Web site

- Universität Bremen Forschungszentrum Arbeit Umwelt Technik (Artec), Bremen, Germany (coordinator)
-Schulzentrum Im Holter Feld, Bremen, Germany.
-Festo Didactic GmbH & Co. KG, Esslingen, Germany
-Superscape plc, Hampshire, United Kingdom
-Stockport College, Stockport Cheshire, United Kingdom
-Virtual Presence Ltd, London, United Kingdom
-Friese Poort Drachten, Drachten, Netherlands
-Escola Superior de Tecnologia e Gestao IPL, Leiria , Portugal
-Institute for Work Psychology (ETH), Zurich, Switzerland

The twin objects - the student's construction and its virtual equivalent - make it possible to discover on screen the quality of the construction, its geometrical rigour and functioning.