How virtual reality can support field trips


When the CCAT project started in Sept. 2019, we developed an eco-code that avoided air travel across borders. As a climate adaptation project, we felt it was essential to make sure that we would operate as sustainably as possible. At that time, we also started to explore the use of virtual reality (VR) as a way to help communicate past, present and possible coastal change and as a low carbon alternative for meetings, workshops, seminars etc.

 In Jan. 2020, we visited UCD’s VR lab and met Abey Campbell, who gave us a tour and the opportunity to try an immersive VR experience. Inspired by this meeting, we contacted a company in Waterford called Immersive VR Education who create fantastic education experiences and have an app for VR meetings and events. In February, they came to UCD to meet some of the CCAT team and UCD’s IT Services to demonstrate their technology, which was very impressive. A few weeks after this meeting, the world turned upside down when COVID-19 hit. Over the next couple of months, we adapted our activities and embraced the opportunities presented by digital technology for citizen engagement and research activities.

A member of the CCAT team trying VR

As a result of the pandemic, there has been a lot more interest in the use of VR, so we ran two workshops to explore the use of VR technology as a tool for a range of research activities. The first workshop was with academics from UCD in partnership with UCD’s Earth Institute, and the second with academics from the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences in Cardiff University. The feedback from the workshops indicated an interest in learning more about the use of VR, specifically for field trips. The pandemic was presenting a real challenge when it came to field trips and universities were looking at ways VR could provide an alternative. With this in mind, we organised a webinar in May 2021 to explore the use of VR for field trips. We invited an international line-up of speakers from Ireland, England, Denmark and the USA to discuss the topic.

VR event flyer
Flyer for the VR webinar

First up we had Abey Campbell who introduced VR and how it has developed from the early days of 1901 when a virtual balloon ride over Paris was created for the World’s Fair. However, it wasn’t until the late 60’s when Hollywood used immersive film experiences to include cartoons in real life films, such as Mary Poppins that it started to gain momentum. It was also at this time that the first headset was developed, which was so heavy it had to be suspended from the ceiling! The technology has rapidly advanced since the 70’s and Abey spoke about the future of this technology and how it will part of our world in the form of glasses that we will wear rather than wearing a headset.

An early headset

Guido Makransky, from the Virtual Learning Lab at the University of Copenhagen, gave a great insight into the use of VR for learning and behavioural change. He spoke about using VR for scenarios that would be either too expensive, too dangerous, or not possible. He had carried out research with students who went on a virtual field trip to Greenland using VR headsets and how they had better learning outcomes than those that had taken the trip using a desktop computer. He also conducted research with students learning about safety procedures before they started working in a lab. Ten days after the training, the students had to deal with an acid spill. Those who had been trained using VR managed the situation best.  For a recent project, he recruited participants online who were hesitant about getting the COVID-19 vaccine. They had to choose an older person’s avatar and visit a virtual doctor to learn about the social benefit of the vaccines. After this experience, there was an increase in interest from participants in getting the vaccine. The last project he spoke about was showing people the impact their food choices would have on the Rocky Mountain National Park in the future and how better choices would positively impact the environment.  He said that it was important for participants to have the time to reflect on their experience to avoid it becoming entertainment.

Results from the VR trip to Greenland

Lidia Lonergan for the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London spoke about how they created VR field trips to the Pyrenees and Somerset for their masters’ students. They used several tools such as high-resolution photo panorama images, drone footage, Google Earth overlayed with maps, and high-resolution 3D models. She presented a 3D model of a quarry in the Pyrenees and a cliff face in Somerset. These models allowed students to move easily around the areas and examine them from all angles. They could zoom in to see the rocks in incredible detail. She said that overall, the use of these tools had enriched the experience for the students and allowed access to terrains such as cliffs that would not be possible on a field trip and avoided issues such as bad weather, poor lighting or having to wait for tides etc. The downside was that for students without good broadband, an alternative had to be provided. She finished off by saying that the technology is rapidly being developed, but at the end of the day, nothing replaces geology in the field.

3D model of Somerset

Gareth W. Young from the V-Sense project in Trinity College Dublin presented a storytelling project using the VR social space AltSpaceVR. Participants were able to share their experience of COVID-19 and places that were meaningful to them. Gareth created a tutorial for participants, and they followed a five-step process to create 3D models of their favourite place. They used a number of free, online tools; Meshroom to create a 3D model from photos, Blender to remove extra material, Unity to assemble the scene and upload it to the web. He has created a short video about the project and, for the CCAT event, created models of the Martello Tower in Howth and a lighthouse in Wales using this process. Another project he spoke about was a field trip to Dublin Docklands using AltSpace, and showed a short a video about it.

Field trip in AltSpaceVR

The final speaker was Alexander Kepple from the Department of Geography at Penn State. They have created geoscience virtual field trips, which they have sharing online. He spoke about several research projects he had worked on that compared field trips to virtual field trips and how students enjoyed the virtual trips more and had better learning outcomes. With one study, students took part in a VR field trip before an actual field trip, and they felt they were better prepared having taken the VR trip beforehand.  His research showed that a virtual field trip was a valid alternative to a short lab session (90 mins). He finished off by saying that more work needs to be done to create more sophisticated ways to evaluate these VR field trips and that the technology is rapidly advancing.

Penn State University’s geoscience virtual field trips website

The event was very well received by the participants and they had lots of questions for the panel.  It’s clear that VR can be a very useful learning tool, and it can give students a different perspective (such as the view from the top of a cliff) and be used in situations that would be too expensive, dangerous, impossible or impractical in the real world.  Due to COVID-19, the interest in this technology has increased dramatically. I am sure we will see it used more widely in education over the coming years as one of many pedagogical tools used in teaching however, I hope it never replaces the experience of getting out there in all types of weather on a real field trip.

The talks are available to watch on the CCAT YouTube channel here