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Virtual Distance Learning Classroom Lets Students Congregate Online In Virtual Reality

October 17, 2012 | Telepresence Options
From The Independent Florida Alligator, Michael Scott Davidson

Angelos Barmpoutis doesn't want distance to keep students from sharing a classroom.

That's why the UF Digital Worlds Institute research and technology coordinator is developing the Virtual Distance Learning Classroom, a digital system that will allow students to congregate online in virtual reality classrooms from the comfort of their couches.

Unveiled in November at SC11, a supercomputing conference in Seattle, the system creates 3-D avatars using the infrared depth sensor in Microsoft's Kinect sensor.

"We call it computer vision," Barmpoutis said. "It's a system of algorithms that sees you in a 3-D space."

Barmpoutis likened the process to the fictitious body-scanning technology portrayed in the "Terminator" series. Currently, the Virtual Distance Learning Classroom can measure a user's body measurements in real-world units like inches and feet.

"It's like putting eyes in a computer," he said. "Back then it sounded like science fiction, but this is what the project does."

Once scanned into the system, students will be able to join other avatars in an online classroom, which could look like anything from a traditional learning space to a life-size model of a Grecian theater. Distance units are the same in the virtual classroom and the real world, so taking a step forward on camera translates to a step of the same size online. Avatars can also interact with virtual objects.

Barmpoutis said the Virtual Distance Learning Classroom had some physical barriers, such as network connections, with large classroom sizes. Currently, the system can stream about 50 to 100 participants interacting at once.

But just because a student might not be shown during the entire class doesn't mean they can't intermittently participate, Barmpoutis said.

"You can have thousands of students watching the instructor but not participating," he said. In this scenario, a student would appear upon raising his or her hand.

For Michelle Roca, a 19-year-old sophomore accounting major, waiting to be seen wouldn't be a problem. She said the virtual classroom would be more efficient than the current format of online video lectures.

"There would be more student-teacher interaction," she said. "I know a lot of people don't want to go to office hours."

Barmpoutis said the Virtual Distance Learning Classroom is still in its development stage, but he hopes to release a functional prototype for some classrooms by the end of Spring semester.

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