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Virtual reality and augmented reality

Digital Innovation

Local innovations are the successful introduction of products, systems or services to a market or society by a stakeholder who already has a local presence. Many of these local innovations already use digital media to make processes more efficient or more independent – e.g. drones, 3D printers or virtual reality. That is why we speak of local digital innovations.

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At a glance

Virtual reality (VR) will radically alter our life – or it will forever be considered irrelevant and disappear into oblivion. This roughly reflects the two different poles of opinion that have formed around this technology. Headsets for the consumer market, which we can use to immerse ourselves in virtual worlds, have now existed for around two decades. But, so far, there has not been a true breakthrough. So, is VR not the technology of the future that many believed after all?

The truth probably lies somewhere between the two. Because, at the very least, VR is fundamentally changing the manner in which people can experience the digital world. Our “conventional” digital devices, such as computers or smartphones, can merely provide a second-hand experience. This is because, in this case, we always exchange information via the “indirect route” of the keyboard and screen. VR promises to remove these barriers. Incidentally, the same is true of its sister technology, augmented reality (AR).

VR and AR merge our sensory perception with a virtual environment. What distinguishes them is the level of intensity with which this takes place. Virtual reality glasses immerse us in a completely virtual world. Special controllers on the hands and feet track our movements and translate them into a simulated 360-degree environment. By contrast, augmented reality adds and superimposes virtual elements to the physical reality. We usually use a smartphone, tablet or smart glasses for this purpose. The cameras in the devices analyse the physical surfaces and objects and supplement these with texts, videos, images or three-dimensional animations in real time.

The fascination with/potential of the technology lies in the fact that simulated situations feel so real that we perceive them with our entire body – and can also learn from them. The huge fields of application are clear to see: entertainment and education. The latter area clearly also plays a key role in development cooperation – and the use of VR is already being tested in certain pilot projects. The primary focus in on vocational education and training.

A number of specific effects can be identified:

  1. Quality of learning. Learners are immersed in a virtually recreated working world in which they can independently and interactively explore their environment. This personal experience creates a more profound learning experience and enables knowledge to be internalised.
  2. Cost reduction. Simulating practical exercises – such as for a welding course – allows a significant reduction in material costs. The practical feature: the exercises can be repeated as often as desired.
  3. Availability. Learners can theoretically access digital education and training content from anywhere in the world. This can, for example, help during migrations from trouble spots when access to workshops or other physical training facilities is temporarily unavailable. Simulations of well-equipped scientific laboratories could prospectively even counter the phenomenon of brain drain, as high-quality education can be offered worldwide.
  4. Risk mitigation. Whether in metalworking, policing or in aviation – some professions are inherently exposed to certain risks. VR can confront trainees with different scenarios to raise awareness of certain dangerous situations. It is also a safe way to practice critical movements or processes from professional practice.

Costs as a challenge

So why have VR and AR not found their way into large-scale use in educational institutions and lecture halls? As is so often the case, the answer is simple and particularly affects developing countries: it is too expensive. Although costs can be saved in the long-term, the technology usually requires a significant initial investment. And that makes it difficult at present. Not only are real VR sets only available from around EUR 500 per unit, but specific leaning applications first need to be developed on the software side depending on the application. At least, simple alternative products to traditional VR glasses are gradually entering the market, such as Pocket 360 or Google Cardboard. But even they usually require ownership of a smartphone. In addition, most VR experiences require reliable access to the internet, potentially even high-speed networks. This is a particular challenge in a development cooperation context and makes any large-scale use very expensive, if possible at all.

VR/AR requires an integrative approach

Besides the question of cost, there is yet another tough nut to crack – the integration of the technology into everyday education. At a social level, this means that teachers need to be trained and also motivated to accept the new technical opportunities. After all, AR-based work steps in particular often supplement an existing, analogue vocational training curriculum. Project owners who have gained experience in the technology in a development cooperation context report various challenges in this regard. In addition, they stress how important it is to choose a suitable technical partner to develop the software and provide the corresponding hardware, which can also be difficult.

Current situation

The Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) is the client of pilot and other projects that use VR and AR in connection with vocational education and training. However, the use of the technology is currently still in its early stages. The current focus is on gaining experience and learning about the various approaches.

  • The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) provides training for smallholders in India, Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Uzbekistan in sustainable farming techniques for cotton. The programme includes VR training sessions, which can ultimately be experienced by farmers around the world using VR glasses.

Digital Innovation

Local knowledge is the key to developing successful new solutions and locally adapted offerings on site. A large number of these local innovations are already using digital means to make processes more efficient or more independent.

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