From MARS to Welding - Tech for Training and Education at BETT (Summary)

The busy halls of BETT at London Excel
The busy halls of BETT at London Excel

I recently visited BETT - the UK’s flagship education trade show, and was inspired by how many companies were showcasing solutions powered by immersive hardware and software.

There is a lot of talk about Industry 4.0 right now, especially with the Government’s Industrial Strategy, which regards VR/AR/MR as having potential to improve education, training, skills (especially in the lacking STEM skills) and in-work productivity, and this was very much reflected in the show.

In the meantime, here are some of the highlights from this year’s BETT.

Flavours of Reality

Elaine Topman, Learning Technologist from the Grimsby Institute of Further and Higher Education, presented a prototype application called Flavours of Reality, with funding from the Ufi. Using a Microsoft HoloLens, its goal is to teach students food health and hygiene in a simulated food factory environment. Students can ‘test and learn’ safely without compromising health and safety or costly impacts on quality assurance and productivity. The Institute is working closely with Icelandic Seachill - a major food manufacturer who saw its potential for training. They have agreed to provide access to their production lines to enable 360° film and audio, which will form the basis for the virtual training environment.

The demo I watched was quite basic (they have only been working on it for a few months) but it will be interesting to see how it develops.

Topman went on to explain that they hope to develop the platform for applications in social care and counselling, sport and uniformed public services, employment, construction trades and mathematics.

Vuze Plus 360 degree camera
Vuze Plus 360 degree camera

I got the chance to see content produced by the £800 Vuze+ - a stereoscopic 4K 360 degree camera, which the company plans to deploy in educational and training scenarios. There were stitching issues but for the price, I was pretty impressed.

At the Vuze stand I caught up with Chris and Vanessa from Contented Brothers. They are working on something pretty special within the virtual reality/enterprise space but I can't write about it just yet!

Reinventing Life on Mars

Nikos Samiotis, EMEA Workstations Project Lead at HP, spoke about the HP Mars Home Planet project - an international collaboration that is bringing together architects, engineers, artists and students to design an urban area for one million humans to live on Mars. Supported by NASA, who are launching 120 HP ZBook Workstations to the ISS to "help push the boundaries of science and discovery", the project has already received 16000 contributions. The next stage is to start developing virtual reality versions of some of these concepts with Technicolor, building on combined imagination. Samiotis appealed to universities to launch their own Mars Home Initiative.

Here I am (as always with a headset on!) trying an experience powered by Nano Simbox - an educational tool based around scientifically accurate simulations of quantum atomic structures.

Industry 4.0

Daryl Unitt, Head of ICT / National College for High Speed Rail, gave a talk about the Fourth Industrial Revolution. He evangelised about how immersive technologies are delivering on Europe’s largest engineering project - High Speed Rail 2. The goal is to have two colleges, one in Doncaster and another in Birmingham, each housing 650 apprentices where immersive technologies will play a strong role in presenting data, simulating high risk scenarios and improve staff training.

Class VR

After large investment, the stand of Class VR, by Avantis Systems was one of the largest at the show, with free headsets on offer, and a war themed VR educational experience. They offer their own integrated headsets as bundles, which are supported by their own VR Class content platform.

War themed Class VR stand at BETT
War themed Class VR stand at BETT

Digital Dissection by 3D4 Medical

There are quite a few healthcare related training applications out there, but what was described as ‘one of the best presentations of the show’ by the moderator, was by Edel Lynch, Medical Education Team Lead and Sophie Madden, Senior Medical Project Specialist of 3D4Medical.

They described the frustration of trying to see over the shoulders of others during dissection lessons about human anatomy during their medical training. They did a live demo of Complete Anatomy - an augmented reality application that allows medical students to dissect and learn about the human body, in a more personalised engaging way. They quoted that 65% of us are visual learners, who struggle with textbook learning resources, and that ‘active learning’ is proved to provide considerably better results than any other. They also said that we recall things better when we discover answers ourselves, rather than being told them directly. This sense of self discovery and exploration is what Complete Anatomy aims to provide.

Struggle to concentrate?

One of the more unusual exhibitors I met was Smart Start Minds, developed by neuroscientist Dr Thomas Dannhauser, from University College London. When wearing a specially developed headband, the user is challenged to concentrate and focus on a task - any lapse is registered by the software. The idea is, over a period of weeks, this training will boost one’s ability to learn more efficiently.

Lenovo's Ambitions

Perhaps my favourite presentation was by Rich Henderson, Director of Lenovo Global Education Solutions. I got the chance to try the Lenovo Mirage Solo headset produced with Google Daydream. Completely integrated and wire-free, I was surprised how well the inside-out positional tracking worked (powered by Google WorldSense) and its light weight made it a joy to use (although like with most headsets, I wished the field of view was wider).

The Lenovo Mirage Solo Headset
The Lenovo Mirage Solo Headset

I also got to see the Lenovo Mirage Camera which is based around Google’s VR180 format.

Henderson spoke about Lenovo’s interest in education, saying they see virtual reality as an enhancement rather than replacement to teaching. The company did a trial with 500 UK teachers, of which 23% had used VR before. After the trial, 97% said it improved engagement and would like to integrate virtual reality in their teaching moving forward. This has led the company to offer customised bundles of their Lenovo Mirage Solo headset, which includes a teacher's tablet and VR/AR content portal, which currently hosts over 700 pieces of content, from tours of Everest to exploration of a human cell.

Lenovo's Rich Henderson talks about Gartner's Hype Cycle
Lenovo's Rich Henderson talks about Gartner's Hype Cycle

What I thought was very interesting was that Lenovo have received huge interest from brick and mortar higher education establishments, who see VR as a way to grow enrolment beyond the boundaries of their limited physical spaces, through networked/remote learning.

Learning to Weld

Finally, Learn to Weld, by Weldability, was a virtual welding application that allows learners to experience welding in a safe environment in an engaging exciting way, training both muscle memory and underpinning theory and prepare them for a potential career.

It consisted of a mock welding iron, and a software feedback system to guide the user to correctly angle it. The company has a version that works using a virtual reality headset (although that was not present at the show) and have had great success with shortening the time it takes for people to learn industry standard techniques.

Learn to Weld, by Weldability,
Learn to Weld, by Weldability

Just a snapshot

That was just a snapshot of the immersive applications at this year's BETT. Microsoft, Acer, Dell and Google had a strong presence with virtual reality applications on show.

What I also noticed is many companies who are already offering educational/learning/training applications, are experimenting with VR/AR and MR. One thing is for sure - learning and training is set to be revolutionised with immersive tech and truly release people's potential, regardless of background and status.