The Multidisciplinary, Exciting Merits of Scientific Sketching in VR

By Lexi Henrion (Spring 2023)


Scientific sketching in virtual reality (VR) allows dynamic data visualization and creation by letting users draw, model, and even “think” in 3D, a more applicable format than 2D when translating concepts into the real world. This can have an impact in learning and discovery of concepts by users. Check out some of the specific merits, backed by studies: 

Realistic Visualization - Thinking in 3D

While the arts have long proclaimed the importance of translation from 2D and 3D (and, to a lesser extent, vice-versa), a translation is bound to carry some inaccuracies from the original. This is often considered part of the charm of a drawn piece. The sciences, however, require as much accuracy as possible. Sketching in VR can allow for more accurate and immersive visualization of real-world concepts. Since we visualize our world in 3D, visualizing and studying concepts in 3D allows us not to have to translate concepts into a different “medium” when sketching them out, which can help researchers to better understand complex phenomena. 

A study at the University of Utah finds that a virtual reality tool, which was developed for neuron tracing. was “effective” in its goal. The study goes on to elaborate, “On average, users are as accurate and faster at neuron tracing using our VR tool as they are using the current industry standard tool, and can trace orders of magnitude larger datasets via the integrated paging system. Moreover, users find the VR tool easier to interact with, and less fatiguing [than traditional visualization techniques].”. This may have something to do with users not having to mentally translate the 3D information into another format.

Read more here.

Efficiency in Prototyping

VR sketching and mockups allow users to quickly create and iterate on 3D models without use of real-world materials, accelerating the prototyping process while minimizing expenses. This can be particularly valuable in the fields of engineering and product design. In her paper, “Problem-Solving by Immersive Virtual Reality: Towards a More Efficient Product Emergence Process in Automotive,” Ferdinando Milella explores how automotive manufacturing can benefit from VR. She found, “When compared to traditional desktop-based modeling and simulation tools, immersive virtual environments offer unquestionable advantages in terms of front-loading and rapid problem-solving in crucial areas of development.” It’s easy to see how these benefits of VR could find themselves extrapolated to the larger engineering space beyond cars, as a practical problem-solving tool.

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Collaborative Work

VR allows researchers to collaborate on 3D models remotely, which can improve communication and increase productivity. In the wake of the Covid-19 Pandemic, doctors Jiangkun Wang and Lei Jing compared the collaboration efficiency of the traditional whiteboard, the electronic whiteboard, and the proposed virtual reality whiteboard “in a series of controlled experiments.” They found that “the VR whiteboard improves the collaboration efficiency by 52% compared to the [mouse-based] electronic whiteboard,” and is “comparable to the traditional whiteboard.”

Read more here. 

Engaging, Interactive Learning

VR can also provide a more interactive and engaging experience to students while learning complex concepts. Since VR can help meet learning goals of efficiency of analysis and accuracy, seen in the University of Utah study, it has also been shown to improve performance on exams and a deeper understanding of the underlying concepts. A study by Akhan Akbulut, Cagatay Catal, and Burak Yıldız “investigates the use of virtual reality on the performance of computer engineering bachelor science (BS) students within the scope of Data Structures course.” The experiment focused on sorting algorithms such as bubble, insertion, and merge sort–ideas which are difficult to comprehend at first glance–through a VR program (VR-ENITE). By evaluation on a multiple-choice exam, students using VR-ENITE were found to get “12% more successful results in average than the students who are in the control group,” experimentally showing the technology’s assistive capabilities. 

Read more here.

Bonus: Check out this article that explores the benefits of virtual reality meditation as compared to video meditation on students’ exam performances.

Moving Forward

It is likely that these benefits will only become more pronounced, making VR an increasingly valuable tool for scientific research and education.