Towards the fourth reality of science

Founded in December 2016, Sm4rtLab brings augmented reality to photonics studies at the University of Eastern Finland. Sm4rtLab is one of its kind in the world, and a joint effort between the university’s Department of Physics and Mathematics, IT Services, and University Properties of Finland Ltd.

Text Marianne Mustonen Photo Varpu Heiskanen

“The project is rooted in the idea of how to create learning environments and how to provide support for research in a completely new way,” says Juha Eskelinen, the university’s CIO.

“We want to be involved in the creation of a novel teaching and learning culture that makes use of the latest technologies and augmented reality.” Sm4rtLab can be used for teaching and research from anywhere in the world.

The first step in the project was the creation of a virtual laboratory.

“Our real optics laboratory can now be controlled remotely from a personal computer. Another alternative is to wear a Microsoft HoloLens headset to experience augmented reality. Using them, you can have a laboratory in the middle of your classroom, for example,” says Professor of Photonics Pasi Vahimaa from the Department of Physics and Mathematics.

According to him, the same technology can be used in any laboratory, such as in the fields of chemistry or health sciences.

“We are talking about an application of the Internet of Things (IoT), so we only need devices that can be connected to the internet.”

In the future, Sm4rtLab will be used as a learning environment for the university's own students, but secondary schools could also benefit from it.

“Pieces of real laboratory equipment cost thousands of euros, but by using Sm4rtLab, schools could save on costs and make their photonics teaching affordable and available to everyone. We are dealing with a completely new way of teaching,” Vahimaa says.

For instance, it is easier to illustrate a three-dimensional crystal structure when the object floats in the air and can be twisted and turned by hand.

For scientists, too, Sm4rtLab opens up completely new avenues for research. According to Vahimaa, scientific research is traditionally divided into theoretical and experimental research.

“Now we are witnessing something that dissolves these boundaries. In this new way of doing things, modelling looks realistic, and the physical measurements in the background can come from a real or a simulated device. For example, we can create models of physical phenomena, and these models are in line with reality,” he says.

“We want the laboratory equipment to look real. There are several remotely operated laboratories in the world, but we are now presenting the first virtual laboratory that looks like our real laboratories.”

The opportunities provided by a virtual laboratory are endless. In the future, it could be used in research dealing with hazardous and radioactive substances, to dismantle a bomb, or in space exploration.

“The technology for doing this already exists. However, we aren’t quite there yet to make this part our day-to-day teaching. Our project ends at the turn of the year, and that's when we make Sm4rtLab available to others, too,” Vahimaa says.

“In the future, we will be investing in the automatic collection and analysis of data by using an IoT cloud environment. We are also expanding this concept to other laboratories and institutions of higher education,” Eskelinen says.