Real & virtual
Students at all levels and from all academic corners, from undergraduate to postgraduate, and from international visitors to those studying in other schools, play an important role in the work and research of the HIT Team. The Team takes pride in ensuring that its taught-course content is research-led, and any student project undertaken must be of relevance to a real-world application. Field research is highly encouraged, as are the delivery of presentations, demonstrations and concisely-written reports to external subject matter experts and stakeholders who may be able to help develop the results of the research further. Just a small selection of the projects undertaken by students over the past few years are presented here, but it is clear that the taught design principles (including, importantly, Human Factors issues) underpinning serious games, VR and telepresence developments are well received.
Students gain significant benefit from including 3D modelling and games engine integration skills on their CV – skills that one would not normally associate with the teaching and research of a predominantly electronics school. Students have also benefited from these experiences when seeking employment after completing their academic courses. For example, the student behind the Minigun simulator development went on to work for the games company Rebellion, programming many of the AI functions for the 2010 action game Aliens vs. Predator. Another student secured a position with Jaguar Land Rover’s Simulation Centre.
Year 3 students studying Interactive 3D Design for Virtual Environments and Serious Games (School Ref.: EE3K1) are able to demonstrate their 3D modelling and games engine integration skills as part of a group project set by academic staff in October of each year. Over the years, the project application areas chosen have been both diverse and challenging, with groups presenting their achievements to a small academic assessment panel in January of the following year. Every year, the rapid acquisition of 3D skills and the achievements of the students continue to impress academic staff. Projects have included:
- Virtual Planetary Rovers: the group challenge here was to design and build a dynamic robot vehicle and manipulator system, capable of traversing a virtual planetary surface between a spacecraft and base, and to complete an object handling task en route. The two best projects were awarded unique prizes celebrating 50 years of manned spaceflight from visiting Russian space simulation specialists.
- Virtual Hospital Ward Scenarios: basic bedside healthcare training was the focus of this group assignment, with student simulation offerings ranging from hygiene procedures and blood group checking, to the insertion of central venous lines and ventilator control. One student also developed an impressive vital life signs monitor, such that the displayed heart rate, blood pressure and oxygen saturation read-outs could be manipulated electronically from a separate computer screen.
- Disability Awareness: students were set a unique problem of trying to represent different forms of sensory and physical disability using gaming software to demonstrate issues of building access or site navigation around 3D models of parts of the University campus. Issues such as wheelchair access, colour blindness and migraine symptoms were amongst the many simulations presented.
- Air-Sea Search & Rescue Simulators: here the student groups were tasked with designing and demonstrating a prototype virtual trainer for helicopter search-and-rescue applications. Students within each group tackled specific design and build elements, from the helicopter exterior and flight characteristics to the cockpit control layout, and from the winchman and casualty avatars to the boat or coastal rescue scenario.
- Virtual Heritage: with the most diverse range of projects presented to date, student groups were challenged to select an historical topic of local, national or international interest and to design an interactive virtual educational package based on that topic. Amongst the topics selected were the Village of Portmeirion, Warwick Castle, the Giza Necropolis, the Roman Colosseum, the inventions of da Vinci, even Concorde!
Year 4 (MEng) students can choose to develop their own individual final year project and, over the years, there have been some very impressive outcomes, such as the Minigun simulator.
Another MEng student developed a simulator to teach basic physics (laws of motion) using a scenario which required the end user to dock the (now defunct) Russian Kliper spaceplane concept with the International Space Station. Difficulty levels were based on introducing additional axes of spacecraft control. Based on the Ogre Engine, this demonstrator was demonstrated by the student to the Russians in Novocherkassk in July 2008.
Other projects have focused on such topics as wearable computers for micro-telerobotic control, wreck-diving safety and spatial awareness, underwater explosive ordnance search and disposal, and submarine periscope training.
The ROV challenge
Since 2010, final year project students, together with academic and technical staff, have come together to design and build a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) from scratch, with the aim of diving the submersible onto the decks of the scuttled HMS Scylla.
Students work as a group throughout the project, but develop their own underwater subsystems, integrating their solutions with those of fellow team members prior to the actual dive. Individual projects have ranged from developing the human-ROV interface to small manipulators, and from building subsea pressure and temperature sensors to onboard communications modules.
The students are encouraged to water test their developments, using the School’s tank, prior to diving on the wreck. The first ROV was launched in February 2011 from the Plymouth-based diving support boat Venturer whilst moored alongside the historic Breakwater Fort in Plymouth Sound, as the weather was judged unsuitable for the longer transit out to the Scylla Reef. Despite some technical hitches, video records of the seabed and various artefacts were obtained.
The latest dive is scheduled for September of 2012. Both dives have been part-sponsored by Dstl, with additional support given in the form of discounted thrusters and lighting equipment from Buccaneer Ltd (based in Aberdeen) and Interspec R&D (a Canadian organisation).