virtual reality lab demonstrator

Discovering new worlds through the VR lab

December 17, 2021


On the second floor of Boatwright Memorial Library, across the hall from the Technology Learning Center, is a small lab. But those who enter see a bigger picture. The room is a gateway to European castles and cathedrals, a city in Egypt near the end of the Ptolemaic period, or the inner workings of a molecule.

The virtual reality lab opened in fall 2020 as part of a renovation to make the TLC more accessible to students. The lab has a gaming computer, an HTC Vive positional VR headset, which allows users to enter an immersive space, and a Microsoft HoloLens augmented reality headset that displays virtual objects inside a real environment.

The classroom uses are as varied as the tools and applications. In Agnieszka Szymanska’s art history class, students used the discovery tour function in Assassin’s Creed Origins to evaluate the historical accuracy of the action-adventure game’s environment. Eugene Wu, associate professor of biology, used the 3D modeling software Nanome to allow students to manipulate proteins. And in a third class, students used a VR application to visit a European gothic cathedral.

“Seeing pictures of the cathedral is helpful for getting the context of the size and the architecture,” said Andrew Bell, a technology consultant in the Faculty Hub. “But to actually put on the headset, walk into the church, hear spatially what it sounded like, and see it to scale deepens the experience for students.”

Bell and others in the Faculty Hub support faculty who want to use VR and AR in the curriculum by identifying available applications and discussing how different tools achieve learning objectives. In the TLC, staff and students are on hand to assist with the technology. 

While the classroom ties are essential, Bell said students are also encouraged to come in outside of class and test the technology.

“The TLC students have become masters of creating 3D models. They recently created a 3D model of Boatwright Library and one of the chapel,” he said. “We want anybody that’s creative, or innovative, or thinking about what’s next to be able to tinker.”

Melissa Foster, a specialist in the TLC, adds that this is how students become familiar with today’s cutting-edge tools and develop the skills to learn emerging technology for years to come.

“People may think they only need to know one tool, but the reality is they have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” she said. “That’s the state of technology nowadays. It’s always changing, and there’s always something to learn.”