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.'
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
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,