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Virtual reality kindles a new way to learn

Speed read
  • VR storytelling delivers engagement to the classroom
  • Students spearhead innovation in the use of VR
  • Challenges remain in sustainability and data transfer

It’s 1772 and the Gaspee, a British naval vessel, is patrolling Narragansett Bay off the coast of Rhode Island. A confrontation with an American ship ends with the Gaspee stranded on a sandbar.

When night falls, 80 men from Providence row out to the British ship and set it alight, touching sparks to the tinder that will soon explode into the American Revolution.

The YURT is managed by the Center for Computation and Visualization, part of Brown University's Computing and Information Services. It represents the culmination of nearly 20 years of virtual reality research. Courtesy Brown University.

To help students better engage with one of the earliest acts of rebellion in the American colonies, Brown University Artist-in-Residence Adam Blumenthal is working with a team of more than a dozen undergraduates to bring the burning of the Gaspee to vivid, interactive life through virtual reality (VR).

Changing perspectives

Scientists have long been exploiting virtual and augmented reality’s simulation and modeling capabilities in medical and engineering instruction. But an under-developed advantage of VR may lie in the arts and performing arts, which are about telling a story and engaging an audience — just what is needed in the classroom.

Gurcharan Khanna, executive director of the Center for Computation and Visualization (CCV) at Brown University, predicts that VR’s potential for communication and engagement will have a significant impact on classrooms of the future. Right now, the field remains in a state of exploration.

“We’re at the beginning of ‘OK, we have the technology, now what can we do?’” says Khanna.

The YURT, Brown University’s state-of-the-art 3D virtual reality theater, is an ideal place to begin answering that question.

Driven by 20 nodes of the CCV’s HPC cluster, the YURT displays over 100 million pixels onto 145 mirrors. Proprietary software blends images from 69 full HD projectors to create a seamless 360º surface — including overhead and underfoot.

<strong>Take a look around.</strong> Adam Blumenthal adjusts the projector display, a set of 16 GoPro Hero4 Black cameras that shoot 360° stereoscopic footage and resolutions as high as 8K. Courtesy Brown University.

Educators and researchers from across Brown’s campus explore the YURT’s potential. For example, Ben Knörlein, an application scientist working at the CCV, processes images of ocean plankton from a laser-holographic microscope and then projects the images in virtual reality.

When scientists are able to ‘swim’ among plankton in the YURT, the altered perspective leads them to new insights about these tiny organisms.

Another advantage of VR and AR is that it’s a safe space from which to explore the perilous and the unknown. Humans can’t easily stand on the surface of planets millions of miles away, but inside the YURT they can stroll across Mars to search for safe landing spaces for future missions.

Likewise, emergency workers can simulate entering a radioactive disaster area and practice urgent decision-making in the midst of chaos—without being exposed to genuine risk.

“VR is going to be incredibly useful for anything that’s dangerous or not doable otherwise,” says Khanna.

Student enthusiasm

As with Blumenthal’s team of undergraduates who are recreating the burning of the Gaspee, Khanna has found that one of the best ways to explore VR’s educational potential is to get students involved.

“Students are often the most enthusiastic,” says Khanna. “They have a lot of new, fresh ideas.”

The CCV hires students to develop new visualization software and hosts a weekly pizza lunch for all students to discuss the possibilities of virtual and augmented reality.

Current student projects include developing a method for doctors and patients to view the same internal organ simultaneously, using a HoloLens and augmented reality, and a 3D virtual reality tour of the Brown campus. 

Viewing the future

Despite the excitement, maintaining a major virtual reality environment on campus comes with challenges.

The initial purchase of VR hardware such as the YURT is often funded by a grant intended to support the project the first two or three years. But when the grant comes to an end, the university must decide who owns the equipment and how to support its continued use and maintenance.

“If what we’re doing is interesting,” Khanna says, “the university has a motivation to say, ‘This shouldn’t end. Let’s develop this.’”

<strong>If you build it, they will come. </strong> A computer science student at Brown University works on a 3D model of the Brown campus. The results will allow an immersive and realistic tour. Courtesy Brown University.

Khanna is especially interested in sharing VR and AR between two or more points, which is very data-intensive. As with other institutions involved in data-heavy research, Brown relies upon the Internet2 network to handle data transfer with low latency.

But it’s even more important to Khanna that Internet2 is a research network. Internet2 doesn’t just present the network as-is to its members, but responds to their input.

“It’s not just ‘here it is and take it,’” says Khanna. “Internet2 engineers can tweak it to do different things to support the data-intensive sharing that is required in these virtual environments.”

The challenges of implementing VR and AR in the classroom are outweighed by the advantages of new research perspectives, knowledge sharing, and heightened engagement. Soon, students may walk on the sun, warming their hands with the flames of a new way of knowing.

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