Have Headset Will Travel

By Mary Hardbarger

A student explores a virtual world at Radford University's Virtual Reality (VR) Lab
A student explores a virtual world at Radford University's Virtual Reality (VR) Lab

Virtual reality lab provides innovative learning experience for students, faculty

From the top of Mount Everest to the inside of a human skeleton, Radford University’s Virtual Reality (VR) Lab can take students, well, virtually anywhere.

Using HTC VIVE technology, students strap on a headset that transports them to a destination of their choice. Handheld controllers allow them to pick up objects, draw, write and initiate other commands that assist in exploring the virtual world.

In that world, users can, for fun, play fetch with a virtual dog or stop scary Vikings from overtaking a castle with a virtual bow and arrow.

For educational purposes, they can dissect and explore a full-scale human skeleton or skyrocket to another planet and observe the stars and galaxies that surround them.

To those who witness the surreal experience, the scene can be comical and even more difficult to put into words.

For example, when it looks like the VR user is about to hit a real, physical wall inside the VR Lab, he or she stops suddenly. How? Why?

Because, inside their computer-simulated world, a fake wall appears. VR is smart and sophisticated that way, and it’s advancing by the minute.

Associate Professor of Geospatial Science and Radford University alumnus Andrew Foy ’05 has become accustomed to such scenarios over the past several semesters. The technology is new to the University, and Foy has been training faculty and students how to navigate the VR terrain.

“The VR Lab was created to explore how we can use VR to enhance the learning experience for students,” Foy said. “Technology such as augmented reality and virtual reality is rapidly advancing, and the Geospatial Science department wants to be a leader in introducing these news ways of teaching and learning to the campus community.”

While newer to Radford University and higher education institutions, in general, VR has been around for quite some time. It wasn’t until about the first 15 years of the 21st century that the technology really took off.

According to the Virtual Reality Society, computer technology, especially small and powerful mobile technologies, has exploded. As its popularity continues to rise, its cost continues to decrease, making the technology accessible to more people.

The rise of smartphones with high-density displays and 3-D graphics capabilities has enabled a generation of lightweight and practical virtual reality devices. Depth sensing cameras, sensor suites, motion controllers and natural human interfaces are already a part of daily human computing tasks.

At Radford University, the possibilities appear endless in relation to the ways that VR can transform the  student experience.

Waldron College of Health and Human Services students could benefit from the virtual medical lab. An aspiring artist in the University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts might use VIVE’s virtual art gallery to create a portrait that can be saved and uploaded to  a portfolio.

Professors can also reap benefits. Foy said he and other faculty have uploaded lectures and PowerPoint presentations into the VIVE system, resulting in a truly interactive classroom experience for professors and students alike.

“We are also using VR for virtual labs for the GEOINT Geospatial Intelligence Certificate Programs, which are part of Radford University’s Innovative Mobile Personalized Accelerated Competency Training (IMPACT),” Foy said. “Students can interact with tools, such as the U.S. Geological Sciences topographic maps, in a virtual environment.”

In the summer of 2017, Foy’s colleague and fellow Associate Professor of Geospatial Science Stockton Maxwell traveled with a group of students to Peru as part of the Radford Amazonian Research Expedition (RARE), one of the University’s signature research and study abroad opportunities.

While there, Maxwell used a 360-degree 4K camera to capture the Amazonian landscape and adventures of the student-researchers. Back on campus, that footage was uploaded to VIVE. Now, students who don’t have the resources or simply don’t want to study abroad can  grasp that supplemental learning experience without leaving Radford.

“It will be like a virtual field trip,” Maxwell said.

Future projects could include using the same 360-degree 4K technology to capture images of residence halls, dining facilities and academic buildings. Prospective students, using VR devices of their own, could then explore campus from the comfort of  their homes.

“We are just beginning to understand how transformative this technology will be,” Foy said. “VR is changing the way we learn about our world, and even how we live in it.”

Currently located in Cook Hall, the VR Lab will move to Reed and Curie Halls upon completion of the building’s renovation in fall 2019. 

Mar 6, 2018