Posted 12/15/99

Virtual Reality arrives

By Jon Tatting

Employers seeking basic job skills from graduating students may feel more at ease after seeing what Pine Technical College is developing.

And Dr. Robert Musgrove is watching an idea become a reality through an alternative sense of sight and feel — or Virtual Reality.

As president of Pine Tech, based in Pine City, Musgrove looks to implement a Virtual Reality Center which will train students via computers to simulate physical environments within applications including industrial and technological tasks.

By strapping on wire-connected headgear and gloves, a person can enter Virtual Reality upon looking through the equipped visor. Through an automotive program, for example, hand movements can manipulate a virtual hand to pick up different car parts or tools.

Pine Tech will be the first educational institution statewide to implement a VR center, which will be named the Janet Johnson Center for Virtual Reality. Musgrove unveiled the name in honor of the late senator’s vision of technology and education.

The building that will house the VR center is expected to be built next summer; student enrollment is anticipated for fall of 2000.

Last week, Pine Tech was awarded a $400,000 grant from the Minnesota Job Skills Partnership to train 211 employees at five local companies in virtual reality applications.

The college also received a second grant worth almost $200,000 to train and certify 700 retail and management employees working in the five-county region.

Both grants were signed and recognized by the college and MJSP during a ceremony at Pine Tech on Thursday, Dec. 9.

The MJSP program is responsible for offering technical, financial and job training assistance to Minnesota businesses, communities, educational institutions and workers across the state.

MJSP Director Roger Hughes spoke at the ceremony, noting that a consortium of area businesses, employees and customers will benefit from the improved training efforts.

Regarding Virtual Reality applications, key benefactors will be on-campus students as well as those taking courses from remote sites. Overall, Musgrove emphasizes distance learning at Pine Tech.

We were searching for ways to improve distance learning for those students living miles away, said Musgrove, who first became interested in virtual programming five years ago.

Virtual Reality programs will allow lab opportunities as well as class lectures via current interactive television. In essence, students with compatible computer systems could download virtual programs from their own homes.

“We could teach the whole program at a distance,” said Musgrove.

Last spring, three Pine Tech instructors received Virtual Reality training before receiving Eon Reality — VR development software worth up to $5,000. With the software, they will learn various programs to teach people set-up procedures for manufacturers.

Other institutions use Virtual Reality for home tours, entertainment, therapy and surgery practice. Though the “real thing” will most likely never be replaced in training environments, virtual programs can help refine skills, Musgrove said.

“There is so much potential in this for the college, state and higher education,” he added.