An industrial robotic arm and video eyewear are all that Mario Lorenz from the University of Chemnitz needs to carry out hip replacement operations. These are virtual operations, which he has developed for trainee surgeons who need to practise before they work on real patients for the first time.
"In effect, they are able to gain a virtual experience of what it actually feels like to ream and prepare an acetabulum," says Lorenz.
"This represents huge progress." The university's Tool Engineering Department has developed the robotic arm in such a way that the virtual bone milling process precisely imitates the sensation of operating on a living body. Until now, such realistic training opportunities had not been available to up-and-coming physicians.
"The usual pattern of training is as follows: They try out their skills on a body donor or a pig. Then they become a registrar. One day, the senior surgeon or the consultant will say: 'It's time for you to have a try.' Then they will go ahead and do it. We want to improve training by introducing this additional stage involving the robot, which allows the trainees to feel how much resistance they will encounter."
Practical experience without risk
Welding, too, can be practised virtually. This was previously not possible for universities and constitutes a considerable advancement. Gunter Göbel, who teaches joining technology at the Dresden University of Applied Sciences, explains:
"We weren't able to allow students to weld for reasons of safety. We would have also had to provide every single person with individual instruction in order to deliver effective learning. But now the computer does it for us. We save time and money, and the students also benefit because they are now permitted to weld. They can also move on to real objects and proper welding equipment once they have achieved a certain level of quality in VR. That wouldn’t have been possible before."
Welding is still not on the curriculum for engineering students, despite the fact that it is important for them to gather their own practical experience. However, as the technician Marco Steinhäuser points out, it would be much too dangerous to conduct teaching sessions for large numbers of students.
"A considerable amount of smoke is produced, and the components are very hot afterwards. That means that we would have to instruct everyone individually. The major advantage of using VR is that we can give direct assistance during the welding procedure without running any risk."
VR stands for "virtual reality". The students wear a fully enclosed headset in which a screen is installed. Headphones cover their ears. The headset shows them a workbench, the metal that needs to be welded and their blow torch. They also actually hold a model torch in their hand. Arrows are displayed to help with the welding itself.
"When someone learns how to weld, the conventional approach is for the master welder to look at the results with him afterwards. But by then he has already completed the welding. The idea is simply to examine where errors have been made. In our case, the student gets a live view of any mistakes. These can then be corrected."
Learning through experience
Virtual reality can be deployed at schools as well as in vocational education and training. Torsten Fell, an expert in "immersive learning", provides us with an example.
"Let's take a geography lesson. I present some information about the Great Wall of China. I can use a book to point out what the wall looks like. But VR allows the pupils to see for themselves. Suddenly, they are standing on the wall. If they look down, they really feel that they are at a height of 6 or 7 metres. They are transported to this particular place in the world and perhaps will be able to interact with it."
And there are further possibilities. AR, or augmented reality, brings yet another level to the classroom. This involves projecting moving video images that mix in with reality.
"Then we have history," Torsten Fell goes on. "The WDR [WDR is a German public broadcasting station] has built a really great app for the history of Germany between 1933 and 1945. I can use my smart phone to bring the contemporary witnesses being interviewed into my classroom live. They sit a metre away and tell us about the things they experienced during these years."