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Virtual Reality: Changing The Game At Penn State

Although it’s frequently covered in the news, can be found in Walmart’s online inventory, and is already transforming the entertainment industry, the advent of virtual reality (VR) technology still seems like science fiction.

Recent films like Ready Player One depict dramatic, society-bending uses of VR that make it feel as if the day that this new technology becomes commonplace is still decades away. But whether it’s through VR headset gaming, augmented reality tools like Google Glass, or 360-degree video, much of this technology is on the cusp of entering our everyday lives.

At Penn State, the future is now.

Just below the space that houses Penn State’s undergraduate admissions office, on the bottom floor of the Shields Building, sits the Dreamery — a space filled to the brim with cutting-edge technology. The facility features several 3-D printers, space for curious students to fool around with VR headsets, and augmented reality goggles.

Since its humble beginnings in a small, traditional office in the Rider building, the Dreamery has come a long way.

“We have always done a lot of technology and finding ways to improve teaching and learning, but our space wasn’t very conducive to that,” said Chris Stubbs, the manager of Emerging Technology and Media at Penn State. “We would be talking about all kinds of technology like 3-D printers or telepresence robots or virtual reality, but it was always really cumbersome to show students, faculty, and staff who were interested in this sort of stuff because our office wasn’t really built for it.”

Since entering its new, open space, the Dreamery has become a place for students and faculty to try out and become familiar with a number of emerging technologies.

“Say you were a faculty member who came here not thinking about virtual reality or 3-D printing, once you get the chance to try it for yourself, it can influence your own thinking, it can make you think about how this may pertain to your discipline. I think that’s equally true of students,” Stubbs said.

Like any other creative space at Penn State, the Dreamery is open to anyone interested in the technologies it houses. Curious patrons can walk in and request to use the VR headsets, even if it’s just to explore and play for an hour or two.

Onward State staffer Lexi Shimkonis watches a virtual reality simulation of THON 2017.

360-degree video is one of the many uses of a virtual reality headset. Instead of a more interactive experience in which a person can move and act as they would in the physical world, a 360 video is a more passive experience. Instead, users watch a video as they would on a smartphone, but can move their heads around and see different parts of the digital environment develop around them. This technology has been implemented in many different ways, including music videos. Icelandic pop star Björk made the music video for her 2015 song Stonemilker in 360 video.

Penn State also makes use of 360 cameras. The World Campus has posted multiple videos of THON in 360 style — the perfect supplement for those who couldn’t make it to the real thing. Here’s a look at the 2018 line dance:

While it’s used in the Dreamery, 360 video is the specialty of another Penn State creative space — the Immersive Experiences (IMEX) Lab located in the Agricultural Sciences Building. Part of a greater Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT) initiative, the IMEX Lab was established primarily to provide a space for students to not only learn about technologies such as 360 video, but also to use that technology to create their own projects. Everything from podcast recording booths to VR headsets are provided at the lab, giving students the resources needed to become familiar with the new technologies and develop their own work.

Ryan Wetzel manages Penn State’s Creative Learning Initiatives and is in charge of the IMEX Lab. He considers the lab to be a way to make students and faculty aware of new technologies that they may encounter in their respective fields.

“It gives our students and faculty experience with emerging technologies that will revolutionize how we experience the world and the way that we interact with the content that we are studying and that we’re generating as a part of our academic stories here,” Wetzel said.

One potential way students may interact with VR in the classroom is through virtual field trips. Through 360 video in particular, students can take their time and learn at their own pace in a variety of potential environments. From University Park to commonwealth campuses to the World Campus, Penn State students can access experiences that they would normally need to be at University Park to partake in. Both Stubbs and Wetzel have been active in developing this idea further.

“If you can create VR experiences everyone can use, it creates equity. For example, ‘I couldn’t go on the field trip because I had to work.’ You just missed out on something that could have been transformative. If it’s in VR, you can do it any time you want, as many times as you want,” Stubbs said.

Wetzel has worked with numerous agricultural classes due to the IMEX Lab’s location in the Ag-Sci Building. He sees near infinite potential in VR’s ability to help students learn.

“How do you teach a plant pathology course in the middle of winter? You can’t go out and see which leaves are diseased and use them as examples for a class,” Wetzel said. “But with VR and 360-degree video, those are things that can happen at any time. That really frees up and lets students and faculty to learn in a more organic pace — a pace that matches where they need to be with content at any given time.”

Stubbs and Wetzel were also involved in a project led by Alexander Klippel, a geography professor at Penn State, that involved building a VR geoscience lab for students to study rocks.

Klippel is a part of a research group based at Penn State called ChoroPhronesis. The group has used a game engine called Unity to turn data from volcanoes in Iceland into full VR models, and used procedural modeling to visualize forests at different ecological stages and “make abstract information experiential,” according to Klippel. ChoroPhronesis has even traveled to remote locations like the Ishi Wilderness in California to create immersive experiences that can help people train to fight wildfires.

On top of making VR breakdowns of high altitude peat bogs in the Andes Mountains and the Penn State Obelisk and completing a host of other projects, Klippel’s group also conducted an extensive study that found that field site experiences can be replaced with immersive virtual experiences and allow for potentially better learning outcomes.

“Bottom line, immersive technologies allow for access to learning experiences that the majority of students are not able to have due to numerous limiting factors,” Klippel said.

From ChoroPhronesis’ portfolio, a student interacts with a model of an Icelandic volcano. (Courtesy of ChoroPhronesis)

Stubbs has even heard of students and faculty in the College of Engineering experimenting with a VR dissection lab, where students can practice taking apart equipment.

“Right now you could take apart equipment in a class, but that means you’re destroying things, you’re spending a lot of money, you have to go to one place,” Stubbs said. “But with a VR version, you can do it as much as you want, there’s no cost, it’s more sustainable. It also means that you can do things you wouldn’t be able to do previously, like take apart a jet engine, because that would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. In VR, it’s free and limitless.”

Even in the field of business, Wetzel sees potential applications for VR and 360 video.

“You can simulate that big business pitch, you can practice being in front of a big board room filled with important people,” Wetzel said. “Anything that can make you feel like you’re really there is vastly important. You can use this to figure out how to market any idea, extremely useful for those interested in entrepreneurial activity. Any time you need to orient someone in a particular time or place, this technology can be useful for that.”

While these sorts of interactive VR environments can give students and faculty freedom to experiment and learn about places they may not get to visit themselves, 360 video can be used as a classroom tool to guide students along in professor-led field trips from the comfort of a desk. These experiences tend to be more solitary, however, just as a student pressing the play button after the rest of the class has already started can change the entire experience.

“If a class is taking a virtual safari and the teacher wants everyone to see the giraffe that’s coming from a certain area, if someone is just ten second behind, then that isn’t worth anything,” Wetzel said.

Wetzel and his team are currently working on an Android app to solve this problem. The app will give professors a sort of remote control that syncs up to their students’ headsets and gives everyone the same, constructive experience. They hope to have the app up and running by this fall.

This app is just another example of the quality and ambition of the tech scene at Penn State, which makes the university “well-positioned” when it comes to technology, according to Wetzel.

“If you’ve done any sort of comparison with peer institutions and nationally, our IT and TLT groups are very often leading the way and ahead of the game in terms of technologies that we’re looking at as well as helping all students and faculty use them in meaningful ways,” Wetzel said.

Wetzel cites the One Button Studio as a key example of Penn State’s tech development. The studio’s simple video editing software is designed to give people with little experience the opportunity to make well-produced videos.

“(The One Button Studio) is something that is a wholly Penn State invention and was created because it met a need. And because it was a smart invention that had a clear purpose and can be used over a broad spectrum of disciplines, there are well over 100 institutions around the world that have implemented based on our design,” Wetzel said.

The university has started its own cross-discipline experimentation with virtual reality technology. The Bellisario College of Communications will offer a new course this fall called “AR & VR for Journalists.” Norman Eberly Professor of Practice in Journalism Will Yurman was asked to teach the course. He has been educating himself on new technology for more than a dozen years and produced a two-year series of 360-degree panoramas using still photography several years ago. He used this prior knowledge to start learning how to shoot 360 VR video about 18 months ago.

“(The College of Communications is) always talking about technology and new methods of presenting information, within the framework of storytelling. We don’t want to be teaching new technology just because it’s new, or the latest bright and shiny toy,” Yurman said. “But we do want to be exposing students to skills that will be useful to them in their careers. It’s not that knowing one piece of software, or how to use a specific camera is important. It’s important to understand that there are options and how to learn to use them to tell the stories you want to tell.”

The course will be an overview of augmented reality (AR) and VR technology and feature examples of how these technologies have already been used by journalists while giving students hands-on experience. While the potential of these developments may still be unknown, Yurman hopes to continue experimentation.

“How do you use these technologies as journalists? It’s a very different question than using them for gamers, or in advertising, or by artists or filmmakers. And then there is the question of whether an audience will watch or immerse themselves in it,” Yurman said. “I think we won’t know the answer until we try.”

Student Body President Cody Heaton also made VR a part of his platform. In the mold of programs such as Arizona State’s Virtual U, Heaton hopes to give prospective students remote opportunities to tour Penn State’s campus.

“It’s an outreach initiative targeted towards international students or just those that can’t afford to go on tours,” Heaton said. “It’s currently in a soft launch, so we can send out cheap VR headsets so they can do a virtual tour and see what Penn State is all about.”

Even in the realm of Penn State athletics, there’s been VR implementation. Penn State fans are able to download and watch free virtual reality content with a new app available for Android and iOS. Penn State Athletics partnered with a company called EON Sports VR two years ago to create LionVision VR, and it’s available now.

The app provides fans with a variety of features, though users will need their own headsets and equipment. The dream of many to stand next to Trace McSorley during a key play against Ohio State has finally become a (virtual) reality.

Student interest in VR has grown, resulting in the creation of the AR/VR Club. The club formed last year after the merging of the university’s AR and VR clubs. Muhammad Adlan Ramly is president of the club and hopes to encourage others to try out and become familiar with these emerging technologies.

“We know AR/VR is still relatively expensive these days, so we are always open for people to join and try the free facilities which are provided from the campus’ UPAC funding,” Ramly said. “Our main goal is to engage students in building their experience & portfolio by participating in hackathons, student research competitions, and conferences.”

The club has put on open houses to help interested students learn more about VR, and hopes to provide live demos of technology in the HUB on weekends during the fall semester.

Both the IMEX and Dreamery encourage students and faculty to use their equipment, whether it’s with set goals in mind or just for fun. You can play VR games at the Dreamery and check out the 3-D printers. The IMEX Lab offers a program called “Face Your Fears,” where students can be scared by ghosts and other horror experiences. It’s this real sense of terror that represents the power for VR.

“When you feel like you’re really there, there’s a lot of power that goes with that,” Wetzel said.

Through involvement and projects from the university itself, VR and related technologies can provide a wealth of opportunities for students and faculty. 

“This helps Penn State students have an edge in their careers. I think it’s essential that we provide these opportunities,” Wetzel said. “We want people to come here and use this stuff.”

Stubbs labeled Penn State’s responsibility to acclimate its students to the latest technological advancements as part of TLT’s mission.

“To be honest, we’re just scratching the surface,” Stubbs said. “It’s a rapidly changing kind of environment and I think that we’re doing our best to find cool opportunities that will bring benefit to education, but we’re also cognizant that where it is today is not where it will be in 6 months, 8 months, or a year down the road, so it’s a fun time to be at this space.”

Wetzel seemed to share Stubbs’ opinion that Penn State is a good place to learn about emerging tech.

“It’s not just about learning any individual piece of technology in a room, because we know that it’s here for a little while and soon will be replaced with something else,” Wetzel said.  “We want to give you the critical thinking skills needed around certain pieces of technology that are transferable to whatever comes next. The VR technology may change, but those core components of creating that experience will remain the same.”

 Klippel also sees Penn State as a frontrunner in the national tech scene and a school with potential. 

“Penn State is at the forefront of supporting immersive technologies for education and research. It is a fantastic place to be at the moment.”

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About the Author

Matt Paolizzi

Since graduating from Penn State in 2021, Matt is (hopefully) manning a successful job and (hopefully) living a happy life by now. In a past life, he was a writer for Onward State and remains a proud alumnus of the best student publication in the country. Check out Podward State too, Onward State's official podcast, that he co-founded alongside Matt Ogden and Mitch Stewart in 2019. It's his baby, give it a wave and make sure it's doing okay. Thanks to da king Sam Brungo and everyone who follows, it most definitely is.

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