University of Sussex Media Release.
. Puppet on a Screen

27 October 1998
For immediate release

A team at the University of Sussex has just netted an EU grant of £380,000 to create a 'virtual reality' puppet theatre. The team, led by Dr Mike Scaife, is aiming to extend children's experience of interacting with computers at the same time as developing their cognitive abilities and teaching them new skills. Their 'Virtual Reality Puppet Theatre' will be a radical new way of helping children play and learn at the same time.

Using the graphic power of a Playstation to enable multiple scene changes and points of view, Dr Scaife hopes to create a computer with a screen big enough for audiences to watch the plays children put on, which will feature different sorts of scenery, different puppet characters and the choice between an improvised script and one pre-programmed by the child.

The team, including Drs Yvonne Rogers and Hilary Buxton, envisage the virtual reality theatre to have the child-manipulated puppets mingling with other puppets controlled by the computer itself. The child's controlling tool is likely to be something like the data glove which is currently used for virtual reality interaction. The data glove has sensors which allow the wearer to 'manipulate' a virtual environment by moving things around, for example. Dr Scaife's data glove may be in the form of a hand puppet, so the puppet the child manipulates on the screen matches the puppet they have on their hand.

This is the big difference between the Virtual Reality Puppet Theatre and a Playstation - whereas a Playstation is pre-programmed and offers a limited number of choices, the children will be programming the theatre themselves as their plays are performed. As Dr Scaife points out; "The important thing is that they don't just design a play and then watch it. They're constantly interacting with it."

This is where the educational value of the theatre comes into play. "Up until now, children haven't been given anything other than quite simple computer tasks to do. So we're trying to use computers to develop new forms of play which we think will lead to new forms of learning, because by playing, children learn," Dr Scaife says, "and the learning aspect of this is that when you're forced to reflect on what you do instead of just doing it, you start to get much more powerful cognitive tools. Here the kids will have lots of characters, different scenery and a script to think of - by externalising their thoughts onto a computer they will learn more and learn it faster."

As well as being an innovative concept, the virtual reality theatre will be designed using an innovative research tool - the child's imagination. Children will be involved from the very outset in deciding how the virtual theatre will look and what it will do. Dr Scaife calls this "informant design", because the child acts as an informer by imagining some aspect of the design which the team will then put into practice and test on the child to see if it works. It looks like the little kids might actually be teaching the big kids a thing or two.

For further information please contact Sally Hall, Information Office, University of Sussex, Tel. 01273 678888, Fax 01273 678335, email s.l.hall@sussex.ac.uk, or Dr Mike Scaife, School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences, University of Sussex, Tel. 01273678317/ 678769, email M.Scaife@sussex.ac.uk.

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