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October 8, 2015

Sector Portrait: Research & Innovation

Virtual Reality Check at UCF

The University of Central Florida is conducting leading-edge experiments in simulation and training.


» It's a weekday morning at the University of Central Florida, inside a building that's part of the Institute for Simulation & Training. A puppeteer — clad in a black bodysuit outfitted with white, ball-like sensors — sits before a computer terminal. She moves her limbs, mimics a voice and takes on the persona of a disruptive student.

Her movements animate an avatar— a cartoon-like student — sitting in a virtual classroom on the screen. Tapping a key, the puppeteer becomes the persona of one disruptive student, then another.

Randall ShumakerOne simulator at UCF's Institute for Simulation & Training can give off smells such as burning flesh or vomit. "We want to extinguish the disgust before they have to do it for real," says Randall Shumaker, director of operations.
Hundreds of miles away, a teacher-in-training sits before another computer screen. From her end, she sees not the puppeteer, but rather only the misbehaving students. Her job: Keep them on task, as a professor at the prospective teacher's school monitors the training.

This new virtual approach to preparing teachers for real-life classroom challenges — now being used at 10 teaching colleges — is just one experiment under way at the UCF institute.

The three-building complex located in UCF's innovation/research park conducts experiments including military simulations, a visually accurate virtual walk-through of the 1964 World's Fair, and a driver training simulator for long-haul truckers. One exercise tests how much distraction the driver of an 18-wheeler can handle — construction on the road, a ringing cell phone, music blaring through an iPod.

The projects are commissioned by universities, private companies, government departments and the military.

Using sophisticated software and real- life controls, humans are placed, virtually, into scenarios meant to gauge reactions, teach teamwork or train for specific results.

"Some of the simulation has multiple applications," says Randall Shumaker, the institute's director. Emergency personnel, for example, use driving simulators designed to train truckers.

Initially, the institute conducted most of its simulation for various branches of the U.S. Department of Defense — the Marines, Army and Coast Guard, which also have a presence in the research park and in the institute's buildings. But in recent years, other uses for modeling and simulation have increased. Shumaker believes healthcare, education and medical simulation represent the most promising areas.

One carpeted room houses a tiny model city that resembles a town in Iraq, complete with mosques and a street bazaar. In a simulation where virtual or computer-generated elements are combined with real surroundings that are scaled down, truck drivers using remote control can collaborate with other vehicle operators and get the feel of navigating in an environment — with far fewer consequences.

Simulation experiments include a range of professionals, from psychologists to engineers, digital historians and anthropologists. Lori Walters, a historian, pulls out a blueprint mapping out what is becoming a precise, virtual re-creation of the 1964 New York World's Fair. She describes how with a $1.4-million grant from the National Science Foundation, the institute is developing 3-D pavilions that resemble those at the real fair. The project is geared to 9 to 13 year olds who will be able to navigate the fair's 648 acres and 140 pavilions with the click of a mouse. "We want them to take what they learn at one pavilion and apply it somewhere else at the fair," Walters says. The project is scheduled to be finished next year.

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