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Arab Universities on the Road to Virtual Reality

CAIRO—Arab researchers are starting to join the virtual-reality movement, recognizing its potential in training, investigative learning and data visualization.

Virtual reality is a three-dimensional computerized simulation of a real-world environment in a seemingly real or physical way. It usually involves wearing a special helmet with a screen inside and sometimes gloves fitted with sensors to mimic tactile sensation.

“VR is starting to grow. I know there are many groups in Arab universities who are interested,” says Wadee Al-Halabi, director of the Visual Reality Center at Effat University in Saudi Arabia. “However, it is in its early stages now, and most of these attempts lack large funds.”

Arab universities want to use virtual reality across many disciplines, including architecture, engineering, computer science and medicine, says Mohamed Ali Hammami, the head of the virtual-reality efforts at Qatar University.

For example, in architecture the technology allows students and teachers to explore a building or an urban area before it’s even been built. In engineering, researchers can build prototypes in virtual reality to avoid mistakes and make corrections. In medicine, replicas of human bodies can help to make up for the short supply of cadavers and also offer students the opportunity to learn surgical skills before actually putting scalpel to skin.

Hammami says several major universities in Arab countries—especially in the Gulfhave invested in the concept, either for particular programs and staff or for all departments to use in their teaching and research. Effat University has a virtual reality research center; King Abdullah University of Science and Technology has what it calls a visualization core laboratory and Qatar University has a virtual reality section.

These centers focus on using virtual reality for teaching and research. The technology is also used to help students enhance their skills and to express their creativity in how they conduct applied research and present scientific data.

“The Cost of VR can be high,” says Hammami, “but smart alternatives are emerging such as high-end head-mounted displays.”

The hope of many researchers is that virtual reality will also enhance teaching.

“Virtual reality in education will allow us to go beyond regular teaching and research,” says Hammami, “by putting the teacher and the students inside the topic.”

The technology could also potentially increase collaboration between universities by making it easier for them to set up joint projects and linking the few virtual-reality centers around the region.

But any possible golden age of virtual reality is yet to be realized at Arab universities. Hammami says that as a new emerging technology in the region, it faces several hurdles in becoming mainstream.

These challenges include research and teaching staff’s lack of familiarity with the technology, the need for financial investment and a distinct lack of Arabic content—most companies that make virtual-reality technology are Western and so their use is not usually designed for an Arab context.

Hunter Hoffman, a visiting scholar at the Effat research center and director of the University of Washington’s virtual reality center, says Effat University is “a good role model for how to introduce virtual reality to Arab universities.”

This, says Hoffman, is because the Saudi center is adopting an interdisciplinary approach to developing a virtual-reality program. Students and experts develop and test ideas to come up with solutions to real-life problems, Hoffman says.

For example, students at Effat University have already conducted an experiment using student volunteers to test a new technique, which attempts to use virtual reality to distract users from pain. The idea is to eventually reduce the physical pain suffered during wound care by children with severe burns.

The issue of funding is perhaps the most crucial factor that advocates of virtual reality will have to overcome, but several low-cost virtual reality systems have recently been developed for educational purposes.

Arab universities need to find the funding and educate staff and students to boost awareness of virtual reality, says Hammami, in order to stay relevant and competitive on an international scale. This is because he thinks the drive toward virtual-reality applications will redefine learning—it could offer Arab students not only the chance of a more modern pedagogy, but also the opportunity to master cutting-edge technology, which may help to make them more employable.

Besides investing in the right software and choosing the most smart and affordable hardware, Hammami says virtual reality needs to be at the center of a university’s organization. He also advises universities to hire people to create content that virtual-reality hardware can run.

Hoffman says it’s important for Arab universities to get with the program now or risk being left behind.

“VR is going to have very significant applications for universities and the early adopters of virtual reality technology are going to have a big advantage over the late adopters,” he says.

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