BYU grad student uses mixed reality to improve education


BYU graduate student Jordan Ellsworth said he believes mixed reality, or the merging of real and virtual worlds, should be more prevalent in education. “It’s important to understand things in a three-dimensional way,” he said.

Jordan Ellsworth shows off a VR app that he made using a program called Unity. His app is simple and teaches what some of the main parts of a car do as users grab and pull them out using Oculus controllers. (Jordan Ellsworth)

Ellsworth graduated in mechanical engineering and his master’s thesis is focused on using mixed reality in engineering education. Ellsworth said engineering education seems like the best place to apply virtual reality and augmented reality to help students both see and feel how things are interacting.

Virtual reality is a computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with using special equipment.

“For instance,” Ellsworth said, “I can’t perform a medical procedure on somebody without serious consequences if I do it wrong, but if I’m doing it in virtual reality or augmented reality and I make a mistake, I can get feedback, and I’m not harming anyone.” He also said virtual reality can help when testing the structural integrity of a building.

Ellsworth said there’s no computer program that can replicate the a virtual reality experience. Ellsworth explained that virtual reality simulations would allow students to stand next to a structure they’ve built, walk around it, and become more invested in solving any structural issues it may have. “It’s valuable to bring work and science and engineering into the real world,” he said.

Jordan Ellsworth wears an Oculus VR headset to simulate being in a garage with a model of a car. (Jordan Ellsworth)

Ellsworth is working on creating an immersive 3D experience for his master’s project that will teach an engineering principle that is hard to visualize, such as stress, moments or other forces on objects. “I want to hopefully inspire people to look to this technology as an educational tool in the future,” Ellsworth said.

While education is the goal, Ellsworth acknowledged that virtual reality gaming could be a helpful way to teach students. He said people may not be too interested in an educational simulation, but if that simulation is turned into a game, more people would want to try it.

“Gaming brings people together in a powerful way,” he said. “VR gaming is especially unique because not only are you going on adventures and doing things that you wouldn’t do in the normal world, but you get to experience a different place.” He explained that the technology for virtual reality gaming is getting better and the equipment is becoming more affordable.

“I think in the next few years virtual reality is going to explode,” he said, “And I think it’s going to be a great technology, and people are going to find applications that no one’s really imagined for it.”

Hunter Goodall, owner of Provo’s Virtual Experience, agrees. “Virtual reality gaming can have so many educational benefits,” he said. “I’ve started looking into educational and healthcare simulators like surgery simulators that we can start adding to our store so that people can learn about it.”

Goodall also said his store recently added a space game that allows players to be an astronaut. One of the objects of the game is to climb out of a shuttle in space and fix a satellite. “There’s some really cool things that you can learn from virtual reality, and I’m excited to start exploring those aspects and incorporating some of those things in my store,” Goodall said.

Goodall purchased Virtual Experience earlier this year with the intention to keep the experience of virtual reality gaming fun, family-friendly and now, educational. Goodall said that when guests come into the store and try out virtual reality for the first time, they are blown away by their experience.

A family enjoys their game at Virtual Experience in Provo. (Hunter Goodall)

“My mother-in-law came in and we put her on one of our games,” he said. “And before she tried it, she watched others play and said, ‘Oh whatever, this is just another video game.’ So I told her to put on the headset, and she put it on and was shocked. It’s incredible how powerful the brain is to turn that virtual world into reality. It’s just wild.”

The world of mixed reality is growing as the technology keeps improving, and people like Ellsworth and Goodall believe people will begin to see more opportunities to learn and experience the world through a virtual reality headset.

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