BACKGROUND: The University of Virginia's Virtual Lab helps kids and curious adults look inside the things we use everyday to see how they work. The system uses emerging software visualization tools to explain common technologies. There are currently eight virtual labs on the website: electronics, a microelectronics teaching lab, microelectronics production, electricity and magnetism, a circuit lab, scientific instruments, semiconductor science, and nanoscience. The lab is hugely popular, having recently achieved its one millionth online visitor, with the sections on semiconductors and transistors accounting for as much as 20% of the siteŭs overall traffic.
ABOUT THE LAB: The Virtual Lab is the brainchild of electrical engineering professor John Bean, who wanted to find a way for kids to be able to take apart a device to see how it works, then put it back together again. Consulting with two high school science teachers, he learned that students loved in-class demonstrations to illustrate basic concepts like charge attraction and repulsion. But while entertaining, the instructors found it difficult to explain the science behind the demonstrations and illustrate it visually. Bean decided to bring the 'behind the scenes' causality to the virtual realm to better visualize forces, electrical current, and the like. Each of the eight virtual labs contains a variety of experiments for the user to select from. Once an experiment is selected, explanatory text with animated images guides the visitor through the experiment. In many cases, the visualization is also accompanied by a Podcast.
WHAT IS VIRTUAL REALITY: The term "virtual reality" is often used to describe interactive software programs in which the user responds to visual and hearing cues as he or she navigates a 3D environment on a graphics monitor. But originally, it referred to total virtual environments, in which the user would be immersed in an artificial, three-dimensional computer-generated world, involving not just sight and sound, but touch as well. Devices that simulate the touch experience are called haptic devices. The user has a variety of input devices to navigate that world and interact with virtual objects, all of which must be linked together with the rest of the system to produce a fully immersive experience.
ABOUT COMPUTER MODELING: Computer modeling is used to simulate the structure and appearance of both static objects, such as building architecture, and dynamic situations, such as a football game. Computer models can enable the user to test the consequences of choices and decisions. They can provide cutaway views that let you see aspects of an object that would be invisible in the real artifact, as well as visualization tools that can provide many different perspectives. Physical models that reproduce behavior are limited by the physics of the world, while computer models have much looser bounds. Computer models enable you to run companies and civilizations, fight battles, play football games and evolve new species.
The American Association of Physics Teachers contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.