When Virtual supports Reality

With Virtual Reality (VR) heading for the mainstream and hardware becoming affordable, VR is gaining a lot of coverage for education applications

By Chris Calver

Users immerse themselves in strange and wonderful worlds that would otherwise be inaccessible and which offer a whole wealth of educational possibilities by taking students to places they could never go. But this article isn’t about VR. It’s about using simulated environments alongside physical hardware – virtual supporting reality.

Something that most educators can agree on is that technology is an asset to the classroom be it for increasing student engagement, delivering a rich and varied curriculum or pushing the boundaries of what is possible. Most people will also be able to agree that great technology comes at a cost and this is where software-based or virtual tools become valuable.

VEX IQ is a well-established educational programmable robotics platform which has many uses within the curriculum whether it be for Computer Science, Design Technology, Engineering or extra-curricular clubs and workshops. It allows students to design and build robots using all kinds of mechanical systems and sensors which can then be programmed to move and interact autonomously with their surroundings.

ROBOTC, the language used to program these robots was developed by an American company called Robomatter which was founded by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University. Robomatter realised that they could increase the rate at which students learned to program VEX robots by giving them a virtual environment containing simulated versions of their real-life robots in which to develop their code – and so Robot Virtual Worlds was born.

What makes Robot Virtual Worlds special is the fact that it is programmed using exactly the same ROBOTC software as the real VEX IQ robots. This means that students can flick seamlessly between the virtual world and reality, downloading the same program that was developed in the virtual world on to their real-life robot. So why is this useful? If the student has access to a real robot then why do they need the virtual world? 


In a classroom environment, robotics hardware is often shared at a rate of one robot between either two or three students reducing the amount of hands-on time each student gets to test their programs. A whole class can have Robot Virtual Worlds for the cost of less than two physical robot kits meaning every student can be programming all the time – if their partner is using the physical robot they can download to a virtual version.

Keep focus

Computer science and engineering both rely on fault-finding skills. When students are learning to program or are learning a new programming concept it helps to remove some of the possible distractions that can come with a physical robot such as mechanical issues from build mistakes.

Virtual vs. Reality

Learn to understand the difference between a virtual environment and the real world and how these affect your program development.
The real world has unexpected variables that might not exist in the virtual environment such as differing surfaces that affect friction, other robots moving in the same space or different types of obstacles. 

Build confidence

Often students have a fear of failure in front of their peers. When using the physical robots, these failures are very clear to see but the virtual environment allows them to test new ideas or concepts in a more private way before deploying it to a physical robot.

Teacher support

Robot Virtual Worlds is full of challenges that get progressively harder and require increasingly more complex programming solutions. Teachers can let their students work through these challenges at their own pace meaning these that are learning more quickly can push themselves further whilst teachers can focus on supporting these that are struggling. 

Chris Calver

Chris Calver is the Education Manager at Rapid Electronics Limited and has been mentoring competition robotics teams for 5 years. To find out more about VEX Robotics and Robot Virtual Worlds, email chris.calver@rapidonline.com

Twitter: @Chris_Calver


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