3D virtual environments

Reflections on our virtual reality projects - part 1

Our journey into virtual worlds or virtual reality research started in Second Life.

Second Life

Educators gathering in Second Life ahead of the Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable’s weekly meeting

Educators gathering in Second Life ahead of the Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable’s weekly meeting

In 2007, we started investigating the role of a three-dimensional (3D) virtual world Second Life in education - and particularly, in supporting our university’s (The Open University, UK) students who study part-time and at a distance. We found Second Life to be useful for running tutorials with our students, for one-to-one meetings with our post-graduate students and for socialisation of students who were new to the university. The educators at our university ‘met’ with educators of other institutions/countries in this environment and learned from one another in the weekly meetings of Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable.

Encouraged by our experiences in Second Life, we embarked on developing a virtual geology field trip for our second level undergraduate students as a part of their Earth Sciences module.

Virtual Skiddaw - a virtual geology field trip

Sketch points to guide sketching in the virtual geology field trip

Sketch points to guide sketching in the virtual geology field trip

Our students are sometimes unable to participate in field trips due to family constraints or due to health or time constraints. So, we were keen to provide an experience to students as if they have visited Skiddaw mountains in the Lake District. So, with the help of digital photogrammetry and 3D modelling, we have simulated the six sites of the field trip to Skiddaw mountains in this 3D environment. It is an avatar-based environment - it is multi-user - so, students can come together to carry out activities together or the tutor can come in and take them on to a field trip just as our Geologist colleague does in real life. Each avatar has a name that you enter when you log in. You can find out from here where in the six sites each of the avatars are. You can text to one another. So, the tutor can send our messages to students. This environment support individual learning, peer-to-peer learning collaborative learning and tutor-led teaching and learning.

We have not only replicated the six sites of the Skiddaw mountains but we have added features and functionality that may not be possible to experience in real life: for example, draping the maps over mountains - geological map gives an insight into the different rock structures and how they are spread over the land, or bringing up a cross-section to see the geology underneath, or being able to fly and to have a helicopter view of the whole terrain, or being able to teleport to different sites. Each site has activities - so, you can pick up a rock and look at it under the virtual microscope. Virtual microscope is an OU application which is integrated within this Skiddaw app. So, you would normally pick up a rock and take it back to the field centre to study it whereas here our students can look at the rock while they are in the field and on a particular site - so, they learn within the context itself.

Webpage of the Virtual Skiddaw field trip

Videos of the field trip on YouTube: Video 1 and Video 2

Colleagues: Brian Richardson led the production of this app. Tom Argles was our Geologist expert who guided us on how the physical field trip experience could be replicated in a virtual environment.

Smartphone-driven Virtual Reality via 360-degree photospheres and 360-degree videos

We will discuss the next two initiatives of Google Expeditions (360 degree photospheres) and VR via 360 degree videos in our journey of virtual reality in the next blog-post.

Virtual Reality for Employability Skills

Photo from the workshop of the Employability and Scholarship Network of The Open University, UK. Participants are looking at Google Expeditions via the virtual reality viewers.

Photo from the workshop of the Employability and Scholarship Network of The Open University, UK. Participants are looking at Google Expeditions via the virtual reality viewers.


Professor Shailey Minocha and Dr Ana-Despina Tudor

About the event

On 20th July 2017, we (Dr Ana-Despina Tudor and Professor Shailey Minocha) presented at the workshop titled Employability in a distance learning context: using virtual reality of the Employability Scholarship Network of The Open University (OU), UK. Presentation-file (pdf)

Virtual Reality for Employability Skills

Virtual reality is becoming pervasive in almost all domains starting from arts, environmental causes to medical education and disaster management training, and to supporting patients with Dementia. Thus, an awareness of the virtual reality technology and its integration in curriculum design will provide and enhance employability skills for current and future workplaces.

Virtual Reality Technologies

At this event, our aim was to introduce the audience to a variety of virtual reality technologies. These technologies range from 3D virtual worlds (e.g. Second Life), to 3D virtual environments developed in gaming environments such as in Unity 3D, 360-degree videos in the Chrome browsers, and to 360-degree photospheres in Google Expeditions (Figure 1). We have described these virtual reality technologies in our blog-post: Virtual Reality in Education 

Figure 1:  Virtual Reality Technologies with increasing mobility of the usage of the technology

Figure 1: Virtual Reality Technologies with increasing mobility of the usage of the technology

Google Expeditions - mobile virtual reality

In the presentation, we next took the example of Google Expeditions App to discuss how the affordances of this App which we have empirically-derived in our an year-long project on Google Expeditions support pedagogical approaches of experiential learning, bridging virtual fieldwork with physical field trips, and inquiry-based learning. Our aim was to demonstrate the potential of simple and mobile virtual reality technologies such as in Google Expeditions in learning and teaching.

We gave a demonstration of Google Expeditions to give the participants an experience of looking at virtual reality through virtual reality viewers. The above photo shows participants viewing the Google Expeditions App on a smartphone inserted within the Google Cardboard

Virtual Reality and Employability

Depending upon the opportunities available to educators, we feel that for employability, at a minimum students should be made aware of virtual reality technologies and their potential. If time and curriculum allows, students should be made aware of the role virtual technology can play in learning and skills development and, finally, how virtual reality is being used in workplace practices (Figure 2).

Figure 2 : Three key areas related to virtual reality and employability

Figure 2: Three key areas related to virtual reality and employability

In Figure 3 below, we have 'unpacked' each of the areas in Figure 2 to illustrate how virtual reality technologies are being used in workplaces for learning, training, skills, development but virtual reality technologies are becoming integral to educational institutions, healthcare and businesses. 

Figure 3:    The way virtual reality is being used in each of the areas

Figure 3: The way virtual reality is being used in each of the areas


For more information on our research on mobile virtual reality via Google Expeditions, please see the web-page of our project

Virtual reality in education

Photos from the session (taken by Dr Ana-Despina Tudor)

Blog authors

Professor Shailey Minocha and Dr Ana-Despina Tudor


We (Dr Ana-Despina Tudor and Professor Shailey Minocha) presented at an event organised by the Learning Design and Technology Enhanced Learning Special Interest Group of the Learning and Teaching Innovation unit of The Open University (OU) on 20 September 2017.

These are some key points of our talk in conjunction with our presentation (pdf file)

Virtual Reality Technologies

In our overview of virtual reality technologies, we highlighted four technologies on which we have conducted research over the last decade:

  • 3D multi-user avatar-based virtual worlds, e.g. Second Life;
  • 3D virtual environments developed in gaming environments such as in Unity 3D;
  • 360-degree videos that run in Chrome browser; and
  • Smartphone-driven virtual reality (VR) or mobile VR through VR viewers such as Google Cardboard.

In the last couple of years, there has been a move towards mobile VR – where VR applications run on smartphones and the VR immersive environment is recreated through the VR viewers.

We now describe each of the technologies and refer to the slide numbers of the presentation for easy reference.

Second Life

Second Life (slides 3-4) is a 3D virtual world where users interact via avatars and through voice, text and gestures. At the OU, we have used Second Life spaces to run tutorials with our distance-education students, for one-to-one meetings with PhD or MSc students, and for running conferences. We have used Second Life in our research projects – both as a research environment (for example, on the design of learning spaces in Second Life – realism and non-realism of spaces and how they influence student experience; link to one of our papers in OU's research repository), or as a venue to recruit participants, or to use Second Life spaces to interact with our research participants (e.g. workshops, interviews, seminars).

3D virtual environments in Unity 3D

In 2013, we developed a virtual geology field trip in a gaming environment of Unity 3D. Our aim was to have a private space for our students to interact in. OU has been developing virtual fieldwork components for its distance students for decades (interactive activities and videos on DVDs, Web-based interactive activities aided by videos, sample data, etc.). For example, an activity as a part of a virtual environmental field trip is available in OU’s Open Science Lab With so few opportunities to gain fieldwork experience, distance-learning students would be disadvantaged without an alternative, hence the impetus for our innovation – developing virtual geology field trip – Virtual Skiddaw - a virtual field trip (VFT) in a 3D gaming engine (slides 6-11)

Virtual Skiddaw presents geological fieldwork in a 3D immersive digital landscape created using real world data from part of the northern Lake District in the UK.The 3D virtual geology field trip - Virtual Skiddaw has several realistic features to create an ‘authentic learning space’: the landscape has been developed from data acquired directly from the area; an authentic soundtrack has been weaved into the experience to increase immersion and the feeling of actually being there in the Skiddaw mountains; and the audio guidance from the ‘virtual tutor’ audio mimics a typical field trip.

Further, the emphasis throughout the VFT is on the user - observing recording and assembling data and questioning it, navigating from site to site and ultimately piecing together the clues to the geological story. The ‘authentic’ learning experience is certainly richer and more interactive than reading a textbook or clicking through a static (2D) website, and hence more effective for learning.

There is a video of a short demo of Virtual Skiddaw at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zfbA1s9uRoU 

Please refer to this paper for more details about Virtual Skiddaw.

360-degree videos in the Chrome browser

In the Chrome browser, you can run 360-degree videos and navigate around the 3D space using the controller (up and down and sideways and all around) provided in YouTube in the Chrome browser (see slide 13). Such videos are becoming increasingly common in raising people’s interest in VR and in campaigns where developing other kinds of 3D environments would be expensive. For example, Economist’s Oceans VR app (to be run in Chrome browser) has 360-degree video which makes the case for limiting fishing on the high seas. It gives a perspective on the issue by allowing the user to navigate the ocean as fish, fisherman, consumer and policy maker. These 360-degree videos can also run via an app on a smartphone and by viewing them via the VR viewer such as the Google Cardboard.

This article on the role of 360-degree videos in education might be of interest: The Benefits of 360-degree videos and Virtual Reality in Education.

Smartphone-driven virtual reality

The field of education can be a key beneficiary of the smartphone-based VR application (app) trend as it can build on the previous adoption of apps in schools. Smartphone-based VR apps allow users to access and navigate 360-degree photospheres, or 360-degree videos of real or simulated places for educational purposes. VR can also provide experiences of unrealistic events, such as bringing dinosaurs to life in 360-degree videos, a collaboration between Google Arts and Culture and UK’s Natural History Museum. The Google Expeditions app with 360-degree photospheres has been the focus of our Google-funded research over the last year and a half.

Google Expeditions (GEs)  are guided field trips to places that students experience on a smartphone through a VR viewer called Google Cardboard. The GEs app (available for Android and iOS platforms) has currently over 700 expeditions. An expedition comprises of 360-degree photospheres of locations such as Grand Canyon, Antarctica and Iceland. Further, GEs have 360-degree simulations to envision concepts and systems such as the human heart, the respiratory system, or the process of pollination.

At this event (see slides 15-20), we described the technological affordances of GEs. Based on a large exploratory study, we discussed how these empirically-derived affordances support pedagogical approaches of experiential learning, bridging virtual fieldwork with physical field trips, and inquiry-based learning. Please see this paper on affordances of GEs.

Virtual Reality and Employability

We highlighted three areas of VR that students should be aware of for employability (see slides 21-23):

  • having a general awareness of VR and the technologies;
  • role of VR in learning, training and skills development; and
  • being aware of the use of VR in the workplace in a wide variety of domains and applications.

The slide 23 in our presentation describes the three bullet-points related to VR and employability. We have elaborated on virtual reality and employability skills in another blog-post

The future

We discussed that VR has now become accessible due to the mobility element as there are VR apps now that run on smartphones and there is a facility to watch 360-degree videos within the Web browser. As a result, the uptake of VR is becoming easy and we will see more of VR applications being integrated in education, in training and development in workplaces, and in the industry.

However, as with any other technology-enabled learning initiative, the role of educator is paramount - how the educator embeds the technology (VR in the context of this article) within the curriculum and designs activities around it, and, most importantly, how the educator is able to justify/explain to the student, peers and managers about the role that VR will play in student learning, engagement and attainment.


Please have a look at our list of publications in OU's Research repository for papers and reports related to the role of virtual reality and 3D virtual worlds in education. 

Also, as you scroll down our web-page of the Google Expeditions project, you will find links to a number of blog-posts from our experiences of investigating the role of mobile VR as in Google Expeditions in inquiry-based learning, in fieldwork education, and in experiential learning. 

3D Virtual field trips and their relationship with physical field trips

At The Open University (OU), UK, we have a long tradition of virtual field trips to support our students at a distance. These virtual field trips have been made available on CD-ROMs, DVDs, on websites (e.g. Sorting out Soils in OU's Open Science Lab) and now in 3D avatar-based virtual environments (e.g. Virtual Skiddaw - the 3D virtual geology field trip in OU's Open Science Lab - OSL). Virtual field trips enable our students to familiarise themselves with the area and develop/practise fieldwork skills.

Virtual field trips (VFTs) can be perceived as replacements to physical field trips and even considered as a threat/obstacle for physical fieldwork (a survey of UK school teachers by Geographical Association). However, disciplines such as geology, biology, environmental science/studies and geography are founded on field observations, exploration, and enquiry. The skills for such disciplines are best learned and practised in the field - to discover and to be curious. In fact, fieldwork by its very definition involves leaving the classroom and engaging in activities through first-hand experience of the phenomena out-of-doors. 

We perceive VFTs being used to support, enhance and extend physical fieldwork so that students can make the most of their time out in the field. VFTs can help in preparation ahead of a physical field trip, and as revision aids after a physical field trip. 

Virtual Skiddaw is a browser-based 3D Geology VFT App within OSL. It was developed with a 3D game engine (Unity 3D). Virtual Skiddaw presents geological fieldwork in a 3D immersive digital landscape created using real world data from part of the northern Lake District in the UK. Unlike other 3D virtual field trips that are normally based around fictional landscapes, the Virtual Skiddaw App has been developed using real data - digital photogrammetry, LiDAR data and maps from UK's Ordnance Survey. 

The multi-user avatar-based environment of Virtual Skiddaw facilitates interaction with other students and educators and facilitates synchronous communication, peer-to-peer learning and collaborative learning. There are six sites of Skiddaw in this VFT - each site has 5-6 activities. The 3D virtual environment (VE) facilitates learning activities that lead to improved transfer of knowledge and skills to real-life situations through contextualisation of learning. If students are unable to visit all the six sites due to time or weather constraints, then this VFT provides a space for practice and revision of fieldwork activities.

The sense of presence afforded by the 3D VE and the sense of self due to the avatars contribute towards an immersive experience for students and educators.

The evaluation of the Virtual Skiddaw initiative is being supported by OU's eSTEeM - The OU Centre for STEM pedagogy.  

Publications and reports by the project team are available in OU's Research Repository (ORO).