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Developed by UNSW’s School of Mining Engineering, a new virtual reality tool offers an incredible 360-degree gamified Australian mining adventure to high school students.

James Tibbett holding the virtual reality headset and the 'smartphone' puzzle.The first thing the high school students see when they come into the room is a little pile of laser-cut, wooden puzzle pieces with etched-in mineral element symbols on their desk and an empty phone case the same dimensions as an iPhone 6.

“As soon as they arrive, they are picking up the pieces and asking things like, ‘What element is ‘In’?’ and I can say, ‘That’s Indium, a silvery-white highly ductile metal that is so soft that it can be cut with a knife. It’s used to make the screen of your smartphone touch sensitive, which is very useful,’” explains James Tibbett, Virtual Reality Development Manager in UNSW’s School of Mining Engineering.

By the time the students have put the puzzle pieces together (forming the shape of a phone and held together by the phone case), and Tibbett has run through his introductory presentation, the fun can really start. Students don their virtual reality headsets and earphones and dive into their metaphysical mining adventure.

The immersive educational experience is part expedition, part game. First you develop a ‘shopping list’ of the elements you need to collect by exploring the components of a virtual smartphone. Then you meet Bruce, a virtual reality mining engineer in a 360-degree virtual open pit mine with huge virtual trucks driving around. Bruce talks you through your mission and then you’re free to explore. Once you’ve collected all the materials you need: copper, gold, aluminium, silver, lead, lithium, silicon and rare earth elements, the experience is complete and your virtual smartphone comes back together.

There are a number of clever techniques that Tibbett has incorporated in the experience. There's the highly enjoyable ‘find and seek’ gaming aspect. There is a series of Q&A interviews with enthusiastic mining engineers at each of the six sites. These are shot in 360-degrees (using six GoPro cameras on a tripod so you can look in any direction) on location in Western Australia, Queensland and New South Wales with astonishing backdrops of huge machinery, gaping caverns, vast pits, wide skies and the curiously beautiful, but mystifying, tangles of pipes, conveyor belts and towers.

You can see hundreds of drill holes and thousands of tonnes of explosive go off in a very controlled fashion, like a Mexican wave going through the ground.

James Tibbett, Virtual Reality Development Manager, UNSW School of Mining Engineering.

There are also 360-degree photo and video galleries to explore and the experience isn’t quite complete without watching the blast sequence. “The blasts that we show are from open-pit mines, so they are very visible and very large,” says Tibbett. “You can see hundreds of drill holes and thousands of tonnes of explosive go off in a very controlled fashion, like a Mexican wave going through the ground.”

Tibbett has been working on this project for the best part of 2016 and says the aim has been to raise awareness that mining is not all about the controversial mining materials that appear regularly in the media, like coal and uranium, but also other things that are beneficial for society that often go unappreciated. “Even when we work towards 100% renewable energy, it is important to realise that the components that make up wind turbines need to be mined from the ground, and the same goes for the components in solar technology,” explains Tibbett.

The primary audience is high school students and the initial plan is to send eight headsets out to each of the four Mining Education Australia (MEA) universities involved. “So far, we have run a pilot session for a group from Power of Engineering and also launched a preliminary version at UNSW’s Open Day,” says Tibbett. “Now, we’re almost ready for the full launch.” Initial feedback has been so successful that the School of Mining Engineering is purchasing additional headsets to take its fleet to 20.

So why choose a smartphone? “It’s something that, in Australia at least, everyone can relate to,” says Tibbett. “Also, from an awareness raising perspective, if you know there are 60+ different metals from all over the world that go into making it, you might even think twice about, ‘Do I actually need the latest model?’”

Tibbett is convinced that the future of this technology is only just starting to be realised. “I think we’ll see a lot more universities doing similar things in the future to show prospective students what their career could look like,” he says. “And the ones that don’t will soon start to fall behind.”

This project was funded by MEA and the UNSW’s School of Mining Engineering. The project could also not have been possible without the amazing support of Northparkes Mines; Rio Tinto Aluminium’s Weipa Bauxite Mine; the Tanilba Northern Dune Silica Mine; Glencore’s Mt Isa Mines and George Fischer mine; Alkane Resources’ Dubbo Zirconia Project; and Mineral Resources’ Mt Marion Lithium Project.

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