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Interactive Video Shows Promise as an Education Tool

Times Staff Writer

The soap opera, set in a hospital emergency room, opens with a doctor and nurse chatting amiably. Suddenly, the doors burst open and a bloody, badly injured car accident victim is wheeled into the room on a stretcher.

Doctors and nurses, clad in blue scrub uniforms, scurry to his aid while paramedics shout details of his injuries and vital signs. Patient Seth Middleburg is clearly in bad shape: He has head injuries, a fractured pelvis and is having trouble breathing; he may be bleeding internally.

Then a strange thing happens. A doctor looks up from Middleburg’s gurney, stares directly at the camera and asks: “What do you think?”

Middleburg’s life is in your hands.

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With a touch of the TV screen, you decide which X-rays to take, which tests to run and how soon to pump in vital fluids. Doctors and nurses scamper at your commands, as a timer ticks off what could be the final moments of Middleburg’s life.

Make the right moves, and Middleburg survives until surgery. Call it wrong, and he dies before your eyes.

“Interactive video,” the latest addition to a brave new world of educational technology, is already altering the way training and instruction are delivered to everyone from physicians to soldiers to high school students.

Part video game, part teacher, interactive video devices are the result of a happy marriage between the first-rate imagery on videodiscs and the options offered by the personal microcomputer.

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A number of San Diego firms, anticipating a boom in the use of interactive video in schools and training settings over the next few years, are developing videodiscs and computer programs that could put them at the head of the class of suppliers of this new technology.

The list includes Intelligent Images Inc., producers of the highly sophisticated emergency room training scenario now used in 25 hospitals and medical schools across the country.

While there is some debate over whether it will ever completely replace films and videotapes in the classroom, interactive video has already proven to be a cost-effective and useful training tool for the private sector and the military. Soldiers learning to maintain missile systems on interactive video simulators reduced their training time by half and retained the information better--with no chance of making costly mistakes, according to one research study.

“It is as perfect a teaching tool as I have ever seen,” said David Gimbel, co-founder of Voice & Video Inc. in San Diego and an avid follower of the progress of this nine-year-old technology.

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“I think interactive video offers us an opportunity that two technologies have never fully realized--complete control, which is a feature of the microcomputer, and high-quality presentation, which is a feature of television,” said Richard Haukom, a San Francisco videodisc dealer and president of the International Interactive Communications Society.

Those factors combine to produce simulations that are incredibly real. The Army is using interactive video to train its personnel to fire weapons, repair vehicles and maintain equipment. Thousands of automotive workers have learned their assembly line jobs through instruction and testing offered on videodiscs.

The key is the shiny, durable 12-inch videodisc, which most people remember for its failure to catch on as a home-entertainment medium. RCA Corp. lost $540 million a few years back trying to convince Americans to buy their home movies on videodiscs instead of videotapes.

But when placed in a videodisc player and hooked to a computer and a television monitor, the disc takes on new value. Its concentric grooves hold 54,000 separate images, the equivalent of 675 carrousels of slides now commonly used in classrooms.

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An entire encyclopedia is already available on a videodisc, and the future will bring single discs containing an encyclopedia, a dictionary and a thesaurus.

More importantly, the device offers “random access,” the ability to call up any single piece of information within two seconds. Unlike videotape, there is no waiting for rewinding and fast-forwarding.

Teachers can purchase whole courses on videodisc or design their own lessons around the images contained on less expensive discs. Either way, students learn from a medium that is entertaining and can be tailored to their individual learning capabilities.

“They know how to relate to that screen, and they’ve been spoiled by it as well,” said Rockley Miller, editor and publisher of The Videodisc Monitor, a trade magazine based in Falls Church, Va. “They’re very critical of crude computer graphics. They respond to good video.”

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“This machine, which sounds like the most cold, impersonal, inflexible (device), can actually be much warmer than a teacher, more fun than a teacher and give them the best teaching that’s available,” Gimbel said.

The disc players can be used by themselves--biology students in the Sweetwater Union High School District are already watching cells divide on videodisc units--or combined with computers to produce state-of-the-art instructional videos like the one offered by Intelligent Images.

Eight million permutations--including five possible conclusions-- have been programmed into the emergency room scenario. The paths followed are determined by the user’s decisions.

After the drama ends, expert analysis is compared with the decisions made by the user. A timer lets him know how quickly he reacted, and the computer calculates the cost of the procedures and equipment ordered.

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Students who have been using the system for about a year at Boston University’s School of Medicine are very enthusiastic about it, said Dean Arthur Culbert.

“They go in there and expect to spend 20 minutes, and four hours later you have to kick them out,” he said.

“It’s visual. It’s audio. (They like) the ability to manage the patient. They really like the cost factor analysis,” Culbert said.

Sweetwater High School biology teacher Dennis Rasmussen, who uses a videodisc as a teaching aide, has found it more convenient than film and slides, but not a replacement for them.

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“This is a lot more convenient,” Rasmussen said. “All you have to do is punch in a number and there’s the slide. You don’t have to go forward or backwards.”

Available since 1978, interactive video has dug a foothold in the military training market and is increasingly popular in private sector training. In 1985, the U.S. armed forces employed 4,250 videodisc players. By 1990, at least 57,500 will be in use, according to a market study conducted by The Videodisc Monitor.

American corporations used 36,000 units in 1985. By 1990, they will be using 124,000, the study projects.

“It is tomorrow’s teaching tool in the military. That’s a commitment already,” Miller said. The Army has just decided to purchase another 35,000 units for a new training project, he said.

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Experts say that the technology is now filtering into public school systems, colleges and universities. Though some disagree, many believe that in the next two to five years, interactive video may become as common as filmstrips in the nation’s classrooms.

“Until a year or 16 months ago, those of us who were producing the material were trying to get the educational community interested in using it,” said Ron Nugent, director of the Nebraska Videodisc Group at the University of Nebraska’s Lincoln campus. “Now what’s happening is that the educators are coming to us and saying ‘How do we use this? Where do we get the money?’ ”

Schools, which owned 2,600 videodisc players in 1985, will have 35,000 by 1990, The Videodisc Monitor study predicts.

Interactive video’s future as an educational device depends on a number of factors: cost, the availability of videodiscs, school budgets and the ability of the growing number of companies in the industry to convince educators to purchase the units.

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Since many schools already have computers, a videodisc player and a monitor can be added for under $1,000. At the other end of the spectrum, hardware for the Intelligent Images video ranges from $3,500 to $13,500.

The price of the educational videodiscs ranges from under $100 for one displaying the paintings in the National Gallery of Art to $2,500 for an advanced electronics course.

But with only 50 to 300 discs available for classroom use, educators wonder whether they should invest in the hardware before adequate course-ware is available.

“It’s a fairly new medium for everybody and part of our initial sales effort in the past six to eight months has been a missionary effort as well, to introduce the technology and the subject matter,” said Stephen Yatsko, vice president of Intelligent Images.

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Six American companies now press videodiscs, at costs as low as $600 per disc. At those prices, even community colleges are producing their own discs. New York University’s law school is producing a moot court simulation for use by its students.

But sophisticated interactive simulations like the emergency room scene cost much more. Yatsko refused to disclose the cost of the video, but experts said it may have cost $250,000 or more.

Educators are responding to the growing availability of software--but slowly. “This is a technology that’s been around a long time,” said James Mecklenberg, director of the Virginia-based National School Boards Assn.'s Institute for Transfer of Technology to Education. “Several times in its history, people have advocated its use for educational purposes . . . It has not yet, including this time, caught on with large numbers of people.”

Recently-produced educational videodiscs show the promise of better sales in the future, but “for whatever set of reasons--technical, social, entrepreneurial, creative--it has not caught on with this market,” he said.

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Others see the boom coming during this decade. “There has been, certainly in the past year, evidence of much greater interest,” Nugent said. Computer-literate educators from elementary schools to high schools are beginning to purchase disc players, he said.

“I don’t see the day when every student is going to spend his whole day in front of one of these terminals,” Miller said. “I do see the day when you’ve got one of these in every classroom for use by the teachers, mostly as backup.”

Charles Bridgman is banking on it. A retired anatomist and medical illustrator living in Escondido, Bridgman and two colleagues have spent the past five years writing and illustrating a textbook on microscopic anatomy.

Next to his anatomical drawings, Bridgman has placed small bar-codes, replicas of the black and white vertical line insignias on products in grocery stores.

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A wave of a light-pen over a drawing of the heart’s mitral valve lights up Bridgman’s television monitor, which shows a six-second demonstration of the valve working. Other codes yield close-ups and cross-sections of various anatomical structures. Future texts will take readers on tours through the lung and heart, not unlike the 1966 movie “Fantastic Voyage,” which Bridgman helped illustrate.

“The movement adds another dimension because you can see around an object almost as if it’s three-dimensional,” said Bridgman, who is putting the finishing touches on his project in a cluttered room in his mother’s Escondido home. “But more importantly, we see that object in action in time.”

Bridgman’s book, scheduled to be published by Harper and Row this fall, will contain in its jacket an 8-inch videodisc and a floppy disc with the necessary computer programs.

Targeted for colleges and medical schools, it uses a simpler, cheaper computer than the Intelligent Images device. The interactive video setup could be purchased by a library or school for about $1,500. The book will cost no more than an ordinary text.

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“This opens another door that most people haven’t thought of,” Bridgman said. “They thought it might do away with printed publishing. What it’s going to do is enhance printed publishing.”

Someday, Bridgman hopes to publish instructional programs that will quiz his students as they follow along on interactive videodisc. And someday, he believes, the technology will reach down into the elementary schools, where students will follow videodisc images that accompany their primers.

“We have the potential to make Dick and Jane even more inane by video,” he said. “Or, by contrast, we can make them truly creative, imaginative characters that are doing truly imaginative things.”


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