Introducing Children to Adult Tasks through Virtual Reality

Ted Leath, University of Ulster, Northern Ireland


The early introduction of school children to adult tasks through non-immersive virtual reality (VR) may develop dexterity, task-oriented memory and appropriate attitudes while being fun at the same time. VR allows the provision of a safe environment for children to attempt tasks not safe enough, or appropriate in the real world. It is proposed that the environment for these tasks be implemented through the Virtual Reality Modelling Language (VRML). VRML is a widely supported, inexpensive and accessible way to implement three-dimensional environments or “worlds”. An example project is proposed which will allow the evaluation of the extent to which successful completion of the virtual task translates to competency in the real world task.


The ubiquity of PCs and networking in schools has made available teaching and learning environments that were hitherto unknown. Software tools for the development and display of three-dimensional learning environments or “worlds” are freely available and widely distributed through the Internet. Through the use of these tools, simulations may be constructed which could allow school aged children to perform adult tasks which would not be not safe enough, or appropriate in the real world. The reasons for attempting this would be threefold:

1)      Children could develop dexterity and spatial awareness through interaction with a virtual world. This dexterity would be advantageous not only in terms of the simulated task, but should also be of benefit in acquiring computer skills, and in understanding metaphorical models.

2)      Children could develop task-specific competency and memory through repetition and experience (Conway, 1997). In addition, the exercise of memory should be of general developmental help.

3)      Tasks may be weighted to encourage the development of appropriate attitudes in the hope that these attitudes will become ingrained and carried into adulthood. For example, in the physical world, driving on the wrong side of the road may or may not result in an accident. In a virtual world where there are no enduring consequences (except in the participants memory), driving on the wrong side of the road might always result in an accident.


Veronica S. Pantelidis (1996) lists the following circumstances (among others) in which VR should be used in education:

·        When a simulation would be used

·        When teaching or training using the real thing is:
(a) dangerous
(b) impossible
(c) inconvenient

·        When mistakes made by the learner or trainee using the real thing could be:
(a) devastating and/or demoralizing to the learner
(b) harmful to the environment
(c) capable of causing unintended property damage
(d) capable of causing damage to equipment
(e) costly.

·        Teaching tasks involving manual dexterity or physical movement.

·        Essential to make learning more interesting and fun, e.g., working with boring material or with students who have attention problems.

The early introduction of school children to adult tasks fulfils several of these criteria.


Virtual Reality environments divide into two broad categories, immersive and non-immersive. Immersive VR uses specialist equipment or physical environment to “immerse” the user in a new sensual reality, completely manipulating senses of vision, sound, touch, and more rarely, smell and taste. Non-immersive VR is also known as “through the window” VR since a computer workstation is used to provide a window into the virtual world. A three-dimensional world is displayed on a computer workstation screen, and the user can move about the world using a pointing device like a mouse, or the keyboard.


VRML is to three-dimensional environments what HTML (HyperText Markup Language) is to two-dimensional web pages. VRML does not execute like software, but is grammatically analysed (parsed) and then displayed. This is most often accomplished through a web browser with “helper” software. The presentation of parsed VRML files is known as a virtual world. The world is displayed as if viewed from a particular location. The visual presentation of objects in a VRML world follows a conceptual model designed to resemble the physical characteristics of light. Lights in the world are combined to produce displayed colours. The browser provides navigation paradigms (such as walking or flying) that enable the user to move the viewer through the virtual world. In addition to navigation, the browser provides a mechanism allowing the user to interact with the world through sensor nodes in the scene graph hierarchy. Sensors can be embedded which respond to user interaction with objects in the world, the movement of the user through the world, or the passage of time.


A comprehensive document on the use of VR in education (Youngblut, 1998) states the following at the time of writing:


The example project proposes the creation of a VRML world containing a public telephone callbox similar to the one pictured below

Figure 1 Digital Photo of BT callbox

Along with an object representing a coin. The task chosen involves a child successfully placing a telephone call with all that this involves procedurally including lifting the handset, inserting a coin, entering the correct number and replacing the handset at the end of the simulated phone call. A VRML browser will be used to access the world using a mouse as a pointing device. Visual and audible feedback, clues, help and affirmation will be provided to enable the child to successfully complete the task. Specifically these will include:

·        Visual movement on depression of touchtone buttons

·        Audible touchtones and dial tone

·        Visual display of numbers as pressed in callbox window

·        Speech output on incorrect button depression

·        Context sensitive help via help button using speech output

·        Congratulatory speech output on successful completion

The evaluation of the effectiveness of the project will involve the establishment of two groups of children. One of these groups will use the VRML world to complete the virtual task a specified number of times. The second group who have not used the VRML world will serve as a control group. Both groups of children will then attempt the real world task under supervision. A comparison of each group’s effectiveness in performing the task will be compiled, taking note of:

·        Whether or not the task was successfully completed

·        The nature and number of mistakes made during task execution

·        The time required to complete the task successfully






Figure 2 View of VRML world using Internet Explorer with Cosmo plug-in


Figure 3 Alternative view of VRML world using Internet Explorer with Cosmo plug-in


Other similar VR projects include a total immersion project called “Crossing Streets” (Rusch  et al., 1997) which was undertaken at the National Centre for Supercomputing Applications. The project involved teaching children how to cross intersections using a CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) total immersion environment. The “Virtual Bicycle” project (Youngblut, 1998) is being developed to train and rehabilitate young bicycle users. Haywood Community College has developed a virtual milling machine which allows students to study the effect of programs they develop for driving a CNC milling machine by walking through a simulation while changing viewpoints (Youngblut, 1998).


Conway, J. (1997) Educational Technology’s Effect on Models of Instruction,

Pantelidis, V.S. (1996) Suggestions on When to Use and When Not to Use Virtual Reality in Education, VR in the Schools, Volume 2, Number 1, June 1996.

Youngblut, C. (1998) Educational Uses of Virtual Reality Technology, publication of the Institute for Defense Analyses.

Rusch, F.R., Cimera, R.E., Millar, D.S., Shelden, D.L., Chapman, D.A., Khan, Y.H., LeBoy, S. and Moore, U.T (1997) Crossing Streets: A K-12 Virtual Reality Application for Understanding Knowledge Acquisition,


Ted Leath is currently Senior Computing Officer for the University of Ulster, Magee College, where he has been working for the last 15 years. Ted was formerly Executive Producer - Educational Products Division at Vision House Publishers in California where he worked for 5 years producing books, cassettes and multimedia packages with some of America's best-selling authors and speakers.


Ted left the publishing business in 1982 to enter the world of computing as a programmer/analyst, and has been working in further and higher education for the last 17 years.


Work interests and responsibilities have included, technology for distance education, multimedia production, interactive systems, distributed systems, videoconferencing and video distribution.


Research Areas include interactive systems, multimedia systems, distance learning, distributed systems, and the World Wide Web.


Address for correspondence: Ted Leath can be contacted at the Faculty of Informatics, University of Ulster, Magee College, Londonderry, N. Ireland; e-mail: