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Why more Hong Kong students will soon swap iPads for VR headsets

One area virtual reality has truly shone is in entertainment. In Hong Kong, malls have set up VR zones for shoppers to play games, and a VR tour of local crime scenes in old districts has recently been rolled out by a local youth group in time for Halloween.

Now, the immersive technology is about to be put into good use in education and training, thanks to a handful of commercial enterprises and public institutions.

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VR Educate is a company that helps clients set up VR labs and source VR content from overseas before customising the materials for Hong Kong students. They also offer their own headsets.

So far there are 21 subjects in their VR library. Under Nature VR, there is a program that takes users to the top of the snow-capped peak of Mont Blanc in the Alps, where they can peep over the edge under a clear blue sky.

Art in VR features an imaginary trip that takes users inside the Vincent van Gogh painting The Night Cafe to check out the treasure in the basement and the starry night outside. With sensor controls, they can move objects around in the 360-degree environment.

Erwin Huang, president of the Hong Kong Information Technology Federation and consultant to VR Educate, says it is a good time to introduce VR to the education sector now, given that 1,000 Hong Kong primary and secondary schools are expected to have full Wi-fi coverage next year.

“All the VR content has 4K resolution. But depending on the speed of the school’s Wi-fi network, it can be tuned down to HD.”

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He says the cost of setting up a VR lab is less than HK$100,000. Schools have to pay a one-off fee to get the equipment, which includes 20 headsets. Subscribing to the VR content costs US$1 per year per student. “The government provides schools with IT grants regularly to update their infrastructure. Last round, the grants were used to buy iPads and tablets. This time, the money can be used for VR.”

Lanny Huang, Erwin’s younger sister and the chairman of VR Educate, says the adoption of VR in classrooms can encourage students to think outside the box.

“VR is widely used in the US and Australia,” she says. “The use of VR can increase the attention span of students.”

Erwin points out that the international content has to be localised: “The voice-over will be in Chinese instead of the original language. We will also develop a curriculum for local teachers to help them use VR in classrooms. VR is certain to go mainstream in future, with people buying goggles for use at home. We want to let the students know that the goggles should be used for education as well as entertainment.”

At the department of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering at the University of Hong Kong, associate professor Henry Lau Ying-kei has led a project that has recently been adopted by Cathay Pacific and the Hong Kong Police Force.

A demonstration lab at the department illustrates how Cathay Pacific uses a VR immersive system to train cargo ramp operators. Inside a big cube – known as “the cave” – a trainee wears a pair of 3D glasses with an antenna and has to move virtual cargo around using a (physical) control panel. Like at VR Educate, the headsets are their own design.

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While most VR systems come with head-mounted goggles, the HKU VR system uses 3D glasses which allow the trainee to be physically aware of their surroundings, Lau says.

“In ordinary VR systems the image is the same as one’s vision, like the user is transported to another world, with his actual physical existence in the real world blocked out,” he explains.

“In such an experience, the user cannot see and sense himself and the others around him. The Cathay Pacific system comes with a control panel that controls the operation of the side door of a plane for loading cargo. So the trainee can have the VR experience inside the cave but also needs to interact with his actual physical surroundings.”

The system received HK$7 million in funding from the Information and Technology Commission last year. Lau says the system can be adapted to serve different functions.

“The police use it to train policemen to collect evidence at a crime scene,” says Lau. “The images projected onto the panels are actual crime scenes from the police database.”

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The Vocational Training Council has also adopted the HKU system to train students in plant room maintenance. Other examples of uses include the simulation of logistics chain operations.

The setting up of a cave costs about HK$1 million. Due to the cost, such a system would not be used for low-cost training like for bus drivers, Lau adds.

“The system lends itself to the training of cargo ramp operators as using an actual plane for training is too costly,” he says. “The simulated cargo can also be changed to fit different training needs. For example, the system can simulate an elephant being the cargo.”

Lau says they started developing the system in 2003.

“With the cost of the VR software and hardware dropping, the technology is going mainstream now,” he says.

Lau adds that now is a good time to promote the technology. In the next academic year, his department will launch a new course called VR technology for systems engineering and students will have the opportunity to learn about how to design VR systems for training.

“The university has also launched a general studies course this year for non-science students to explore virtual reality from the perspective of humanities,” he says.