Virtual learning spaces for theater and event technology

Students from Beuth University of Applied Sciences Berlin and the digital.DTHG team are jointly developing the first VR prototypes.

The rapid pace of technological development and the ongoing digitization of work processes are changing the everyday professional lives of theater and event technicians. New fields of work are emerging around online events, hybrid theater forms, virtual building rehearsals and at the interface of physical and digital realities.

How can the training of event technicians prepare for these new requirements and how can teaching be meaningfully expanded to include digital formats? For three semesters now, teaching has been taking place primarily online, and 2020 has shown how important digital teaching and learning methods are and will be in the future. It is becoming increasingly important to be able to successfully apply knowledge to practical problems. This “experiential knowledge” is becoming a key competence.

Digital technologies such as virtual reality can make a major contribution to this, because they create new opportunities for interactivity and promote active – especially spatial – learning of the subject matter. These technologies offer potential that goes far beyond learning with books. For example, learning processes that require a great deal of technical preparation and even risk of injury in a real working environment can be tried out in VR in a straightforward way and without worrying about physical consequences. The structure and internal workings of technical systems and equipment, e.g., a chain hoist, are often not visible from the outside or the equipment is not available at the actual learning location. In addition, the group size of the learning classes often does not allow for individual trial and error, and lab and class times are severely limited. Virtual learning environments, on the other hand, can be used independently of time and place and facilitate the active design of one’s own learning process through cooperative learning with and from one another.

Beuth University of Applied Sciences Berlin with its Theater and Event Technology and Management degree program has recognized this potential and embarked on this journey. After an insight into the analog teaching methods of the course with Stephan Rolfes, Professor of Machine Elements and Design Exercises and head of the course, the digital.DTHG team designed a series of prototypical sample exercises for Virtual Learning Spaces and tried out various teaching methods.

Virtual theater laboratory with exercise set-up for virtual chain hoist

For this purpose, digital.DTHG employee Vincent Kaufmann has transferred the theater lab of the study program into the digital realm and created a true-to-scale 3D model. The “Virtual Chain Hoist” exercise can take place there, for example: On the one hand, there is the possibility to get to know the components, the structure and the functionality of D8 / D8+ / C1 chain hoists in an explorative mode, on the other hand, a task prepared by the lecturer from an event context can be solved with the correct choice of chain hoist and assembly of related components. For this prototype creation the software SIMLAB Composer was used.

Exploded view of D8 chain hoist functional model

After these promising experiences, the goal was to awaken an understanding for the new technologies among teachers and students, to break down barriers, and to gain confidence in using digital media. In the winter semester 2020/21, a first practical seminar with 8 students could be conducted under the leadership of Pablo Dornhege and Franziska Ritter, the two project leaders of digital.DTHG. The goal was to analyze the existing prototypes and to design new virtual teaching and learning spaces, which were then to be prototypically realized.

Practical seminar on the theater and event technology course of study

How can a VR seminar be taught when the university is closed due to the pandemic, students have hardly any VR equipment available, and meetings can only take place online? Above all, the challenges were overcome thanks to the high level of motivation and curiosity of everyone involved: The Zoom video conferencing system with the option of retreating to team-internal meeting rooms (“breakout rooms”) became a digital classroom, communication channels such as Slack and Discord became a “lecturer hotline” accessible around the clock, and the Miro whiteboard application became a constantly present pinboard for conceptual work. These are all tools that have already established new forms of learning and working together and will be indispensable in the future.

Collaborative work between faculty and students throughout the semester on the MIRO whiteboard platform.

Lecturer Pablo Dornhege makes it clear right at the beginning of the seminar: “The great enthusiasm about the technical possibilities of VR must not lead to it being used as an end in itself: Didactics and technology must be equally considered and meaningfully combined. Therefore, in addition to the technical implementation, the pedagogical design of learning concepts was also important to us.”

The starting point of the seminar was the discussion of the potentials of virtual reality in teaching and the outlining of various areas of application. In three teams, concrete tasks were defined with reference to the subject canon of the study program, with content-related and didactic impulses coming in particular from Prof. Alexander Lindau, Department of Audio, Video and Media Technology.

The challenge of this seminar is that the students – without any prior knowledge – should be enabled to realize their prototypes in the Unity 3D development environment. Although the SIMLAB Composer software originally intended for the seminar provides an easier introduction to the programming of interactive VR scenes, there are limits to the interaction possibilities and a game logic to be developed. For this purpose, the game engine Unity3D offers almost infinite possibilities for expansion and customization. Applications can be developed for different VR systems and platforms and also adapted for use without VR glasses. Although the decision to use this software entails an initial hurdle, it enables the development of more complex applications and facilitates joint project work in teams.

Lecturer Pablo Dornhege with students from the “Klangraum” team coding

Lea Schorling, developer in the digital.DTHG team, supported the students in the coding process: “A basic understanding of program logic is helpful for students in any field of study. Over the course of the semester, a modular kit emerged with applicable scripts for repetitive scenarios such as checking results, evaluating decisions, grabbing objects, turning devices on and off, rotating text, etc.”

Student Lukas Runge, who has already gained previous experience with different programming languages, sums up the semester: “Pain is temporary – Glory is forever! Thanks to the active support of digital.dthg, we were able to develop a functioning prototype in a short time as a team of three students, despite the steep learning curve when learning Unity and in an unfamiliar working environment from the home office.”

At the end of the semester, three functional prototypes were presented, which are briefly described below.

Three VR prototypes – microphone set-up, truss set-up, cabling of an exhibition stand 

Klangraum – experience miking virtually
Students: Lukas Runge, Maximilian Müller, Christian Eckel

“Klangraum” is a virtual learning space for the field of sound design. The goal is to be able to listen to and compare different miking of instruments. Two different rooms are available: On a stage, instruments can be miked and correct selections can be tried out. In a recording studio, the focus is on the positioning of the microphone relative to the instrument. For this purpose, various microphones are available that can be moved 360° around the sound source. This makes it possible to experience differences in sound and to understand the relationship between pickup positions and microphone types. The auditory impression is calculated live on the basis of real sound recordings. For this purpose, recordings were made with several microphones of the same type at a total of six positions around the respective instrument. They are recorded in an open database so that further recordings with other microphone types and instruments can easily be added. “Klangraum” offers the possibility to evaluate the effect of microphone position and selection when recording different instruments without much effort and to acquire basic knowledge for recording practice.

 

Hazard Detector – Finding errors in virtual space
Students: Johannes Muck and Erik Bayer

The virtual learning room “Hazard Detector” aims to test theoretically learned knowledge in a realistic working environment in a practical way. An exhibition hall with a traverse rig suspended at working height is available as the VR training room. Before the rig is pulled to its final position by the chain hoists, the users will perform a final safety check and identify possible sources of danger. To be found are both obvious mistakes that even an untrained eye would notice – such as a hammer forgotten on the spreader bar – and those that require a thorough knowledge of the rules and regulations of the event world – such as a missing sling label. Some mistakes are hard to miss, while others require close attention and patience. Add to that stressors such as the recurring sounds of hammering in truss pins and the noisy work of the surrounding trade show construction. This learning space gives the opportunity to identify different hazards. At the same time, the multifaceted everyday work of an event technician is brought to life.

 

Connect – See, experience and understand media technology virtually
Students: Sebastian Finsterer, Marius Mirschberger, Gilbert Adamek

“Connect” is a virtual learning space in which users can familiarize themselves with modern media technology in the event sector and expand their knowledge. The framework for this is an exhibition stand on which typical audio and video media technology is installed, which can be explored and used by VR users. For example, wireless microphones and feeds can be transmitted to various locations and video images from various laptops and cameras can be distributed to LED walls, displays or an Internet stream. VR users can take a look at this setup at their leisure and start looking for all the necessary cables, devices, adapters and converters at the lectern and in the backstage area. For better orientation and discussions, there is a clear cabling plan on the wall. The room can be explored alone or together. To consolidate the acquired knowledge, there are various games and tasks that have to be solved within a certain time: e.g. marking different devices, cables, signal paths or even a sound check situation. In this way, what has been learned can be put to the test in a playful way.

Welcome to the future

Franziska Ritter is pleased about the discussions that were initiated at the study program: “For all participants, it was very enriching to think together in such an experimental and open way about how to prepare for the new professional challenges with good digital teaching.”

Prof. Stephan Rolfes emphasizes: “In the beginning, the faculty was rather reluctant towards a virtual teaching format. With their prototypes, the students convincingly showed what great potential the technology has for our teaching. Immediately, more ideas came out of all subject areas and the desire for more VR exercises was voiced.”

For this reason, there will be another practical seminar in the coming summer semester, in which further prototypes will be created, for example on the subject of safety signage in event spaces, rehearsal stage setups, logistics and fire protection exercises – there is no shortage of ideas. But also topic complexes on historical stage technology, such as those currently being developed by Prof. Dr. Bri Newesely in the European CANON Erasmus+ project, are suitable for adaptation.

The overriding goal is to initiate the necessary structural changes at the universities: In the long term, access to XR labs such as those currently being established in neighboring disciplines at Beuth University is needed, as well as dedicated financial and technical resources at the respective degree programs. In order to work on VR projects that are fundamentally interdisciplinary in nature, cross-disciplinary collaborations with external partners and academic networks are needed. Last year, for example, the “XR Academic Network” was founded at the TU Berlin – a cross-university network in which academic staff from Berlin and Brandenburg universities regularly exchange information about teaching and research in the field of XR technologies. The challenge in the future will be to create our own flexible structures within the university and to skillfully combine these with external practical knowledge.

In conclusion, it remains to say that the three prototypes that were created demonstrate in a convincing manner that it is precisely this agile way of working that is needed in order to be able to react quickly and flexibly to constantly changing (technical, pandemic, social) conditions. Thus, a new way of learning could be tested together with students and digital teaching could be advanced. Welcome to the future!