Virtual training gets real

December 03, 2010

Computerised training systems are getting an extra dose of reality, thanks to an EU-funded research project led by the University of Leeds.

PC-based virtual reality training is typically cheaper than face-to-face sessions with a mentor or coach. As the recent Hollywood blockbuster Up in the Air showed, multiple members of staff can be trained by practising various scenarios in a virtual reality environment without having to leave their desks.

With businesses continually seeking to curb costs, more and more companies may follow the example of George Clooney's fictitious employer, Career Transition Counselling, and use simulators to train their employees. But virtual reality training tools are seldom as effective as working with a real person because the simulation package cannot respond to trainees' past experiences or preconceptions. For example, software designed to help managers conduct job interviews may include a number of different simulated scenarios that appear true to life. However, if the trainee is consistently hostile to the virtual interviewee or overly sympathetic, the system will not flag this up or suggest they try an alternative approach.

Researchers working on the ImREAL project are hoping to plug this gap between the 'real-world' and the 'virtual-world' to create a simulated learning environment that responds to users' behaviour and adapts accordingly. The project is involving seven partners from six European countries, including Austria, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK.

"Training often suffers when there are budget cuts, but having a highly-trained workforce can help companies get through difficult periods, so cutting or restricting training can be a false economy," said the project's coordinator, Dr Vania Dimitrova from the University of Leeds' School of Computing. "Simulated environments provide a cost-effective alternative to standard face-to-face training, but they need to incorporate the cognitive, social and emotional aspects of the activities that are being modelled. With the tool we are creating, we will close the gap between the simulated experience and the 'real-world' experience."

The researchers will be focusing on simulation systems for interpersonal communication - so-called 'soft skills' that are important when managing relationships in the workplace, dealing with customer enquiries or providing advice. ImREAL will develop intelligent tools that will encourage trainees to detect subtle differences in communication and social cues across different cultures. Chinese, Japanese and African people, for example, tend to use messages where the meaning is either implied by the physical setting or is presumed to be part of an individual's internalised beliefs, values and norms. In contrast, Americans and Europeans tend to communicate in a more explicit, open way.

The research will focus on three key sectors:Researchers will gather real-life experiences from each sector and develop software to organise and identify key elements of 'real-world' activities. This will enable simulations to draw on real-life situations and provide new opportunities for assessment, feedback, and learning. The aim is to develop a 'self-growing' adaptive simulation which embeds a 'virtual mentor' helping learners reflect on the experience they work through.

The €4 million research project involves an interdisciplinary team of computer scientists, psychologists, business and social scientists, experts in adult learning and two SMEs who produce training software, from across Europe. Radically new intelligent technologies for learning will be developed by adopting the latest advances in computerized learning tools such as Semantic Web, context modelling, and dialogic interaction. Technical implementation will be grounded in sound socio-pedagogical theories, such as 'activity' theory, andragogy, and self-regulated learning.

Researchers from the University of Leeds will be drawing on a partnership between the School of Computing (Faculty of Engineering), who are coordinating the project, and Leeds University Business School. This will combine expertise in artificial intelligence in education, knowledge capture, and 'activity' theory to lead the work on 'real-world' activity modelling.

"The problem we are tackling can't be solved by technology on its own, which is why so many disciplines are involved," said Dr Dimitrova. "This really is a pioneering approach to adaptive learning but we want to see it through from concept to delivery. By the end of three years, we aim to have two fully functioning demonstration simulators up and running that incorporate these new ideas and illustrate highly innovative technologies for learning."
For further information: Paula Gould, University of Leeds press office: Tel +44 (0)113 343 8059, email

Notes for Editors

1. The ImREAL project is supported by the European Commission, in the theme ICT-2009 Digital Libraries and Technology-Enhanced Learning, as a Specific Targeted Research Project (STREP), under the 7th Framework Programme, Grant agreement No: ICT-257831. The consortium partners are: University of Leeds, UK; Trinity College Dublin, Ireland; Technical Universitaet Graz, Austria; Friederich-Alexander Universitaet Erlangen Neurenberg, Germany; Technical University Delft, the Netherlands; I-maginary srl, Italy; and, EmpowerTheUser Ltd, Ireland. More information about the project is available at the ImREAL website (

2. The Faculty of Engineering at the University of Leeds is ranked 7th in the UK for the quality of its research (2008 Research Assessment Exercise); an impressive 75% of the Faculty's research activity rated as internationally excellent or world leading. It includes the Schools of Computing, Mechanical Engineering, Civil Engineering, Electronic and Electrical Engineering, and Process, Environmental and Materials Engineering.

3. The project is being coordinated by the School of Computing, which is a leading international centre for computing research with an impressive 80% of research activity rated as internationally excellent or world leading. Its research activities are funded by grants from the European Union, each of the seven UK Research Councils, government departments, and many industrial sources.

4. Leeds University Business School is currently ranked in the world's top 100 (Economist 'Which MBA?' 2010) and is internationally renowned for the quality of its teaching, research and facilities. It is ranked 6th in the UK for research according to the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, and its research has made a significant contribution to the understanding of the operation and development of businesses and the economy, with research centres and groups that cut across traditional boundaries. It is one of 20 UK business schools to have EQUIS accreditation from the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD).

5. The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise showed the University of Leeds to be the UK's eighth biggest research powerhouse. The University is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. The University's vision is to secure a place among the world's top 50 by 2015.

University of Leeds

Related Learning Articles from Brightsurf:

Learning the language of sugars
We're told not to eat too much sugar, but in reality, all of our cells are covered in sugar molecules called glycans.

When learning on your own is not enough
We make decisions based on not only our own learning experience, but also learning from others.

Learning more about particle collisions with machine learning
A team of Argonne scientists has devised a machine learning algorithm that calculates, with low computational time, how the ATLAS detector in the Large Hadron Collider would respond to the ten times more data expected with a planned upgrade in 2027.

Getting kids moving, and learning
Children are set to move more, improve their skills, and come up with their own creative tennis games with the launch of HomeCourtTennis, a new initiative to assist teachers and coaches with keeping kids active while at home.

How expectations influence learning
During learning, the brain is a prediction engine that continually makes theories about our environment and accurately registers whether an assumption is true or not.

Technology in higher education: learning with it instead of from it
Technology has shifted the way that professors teach students in higher education.

Learning is optimized when we fail 15% of the time
If you're always scoring 100%, you're probably not learning anything new.

School spending cuts triggered by great recession linked to sizable learning losses for learning losses for students in hardest hit areas
Substantial school spending cuts triggered by the Great Recession were associated with sizable losses in academic achievement for students living in counties most affected by the economic downturn, according to a new study published today in AERA Open, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.

Lessons in learning
A new Harvard study shows that, though students felt like they learned more from traditional lectures, they actually learned more when taking part in active learning classrooms.

Learning to look
A team led by JGI scientists has overhauled the perception of inovirus diversity.

Read More: Learning News and Learning Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to