April 26, 2017

University of Oklahoma Expands Networked Virtual Reality Lab

OVAL with architecture studentsDeveloped by the University of Oklahoma Libraries’ Innovation @ the Edge staff and launched early this year, the new Oklahoma Virtual Academic Laboratory (OVAL) is already hosting interactive coursework for students enrolled in architecture, interior design, chemistry and biochemistry, art history, English, journalism, and library and information science classes.

“We’re hosting ten different classes, with part of the curriculum in virtual reality settings,” said Matthew Cook, emerging technologies librarian and 2015 LJ Mover & Shaker. For example, a biochemistry class is having students use the stations to “fly through chemical molecules in VR, and having them submit screenshots as a requirement for class to see where certain atomic bonds connect in a protein.”

In a YouTube video introducing OVAL to interested students and faculty, Anuj Guruacharya, a graduate assistant in Oklahoma’s biology department, explained, “If you look at hemoglobin on a computer, its [structure is] not really easily grasped…oxygen is really hidden inside, and the iron molecule is also hidden deep inside. When you look at it in VR, you can really dive into the iron molecule and oxygen molecule and realize where they are located [within the hemoglobin protein]. Using the VR really helps students understand what’s happening to oxygenated and deoxygenated blood.”

The two virtual reality (VR) stations at Oklahoma’s Bizzell Memorial Library include railed chairs that were custom designed by the university’s physics fabrication lab to enable a range of motion and cable management, 3dconnexion Space Navigator 3D Mice, Leap Motion Controllers (to enable interactive hand movements), Oculus Rift head mounted displays, and PCs that the staff outfitted with high-end graphics cards, fast CPUs, and plenty of RAM. (For libraries interested in creating similar VR workstations, off-the-shelf Oculus-ready PCs currently retail as low as $600–$800, “gaming chairs” for $100, 3D Mice for $100, Leap motion controllers for $40, and Oculus headsets for $600, totaling about $1,500 per station at the low end.)

“It’s a public-facing, walk in, sit down VR workstation for any library user to upload any 3-D asset from any field, and share the experience of manipulating and analyzing that 3-D model across a network of virtual reality headsets,” Cook told LJ.

Six additional OVAL workstations will be in place by fall semester at the university’s Law School Library and its new Innovation Hub maker space and collaboration zone, allowing the system to support up to eight simultaneous VR participants on the university’s network from three locations on campus.

“We’re scaling right now…and any user at any workstation can join this virtual reality classroom and be part of analysis sessions, fly-throughs of architectural models, molecular data, animal specimens, dinosaur digs, you name it,” Cook said. “Anything that’s too far away, or microscopic, or fragile [can be modeled and] you can hold it in your hand with your professor, and manipulate it in virtual reality.”

OVAL screenshotThe Unity3D gaming engine was used to create the executable application OVAL 1.x. According to the initial OVAL users guide, each OVAL workstation is configured with a non password-protected Windows user named OVAL_Public, and a Dropbox folder associated with the account enables users to drag and drop 3-D models for uploading and immediate access.

The system can use models generated in computer aided design (CAD) software commonly used in fields such as architecture and engineering. The OVAL team is also experimenting with low-cost 3-D modeling and scanning techniques to support content creation and is offering technology consultations at the library to help with custom projects. However, the user guide suggests that interested faculty or students first check several online databases for 3-D content, including the Smithsonian, NASA, Sketchfab, Thingiverse, MorphoSource, and Turbosquid.

If the project continues to prove popular with faculty and students, “the beauty of this system is that it can be scaled up relatively easily,” explains an OVAL workshop outline on the library’s website. “It’s not too difficult to imagine a classroom-sized number of headsets, networked for an instructor-guided session. Indeed, we can eventually send these headsets to distance or non-traditional learners (for about the cost of an expensive textbook), thereby allowing them to join in OVAL sessions remotely.”

Cook, who was recognized as a 2015 LJ Mover & Shaker for his work developing the Sparq labyrinth interactive meditation tool and the award-winning NavApp, which helps students navigate campus libraries using smartphones, said that researching and developing these new tools is a key part of the work done by Innovation @ the Edge.

“As emerging technology librarians, Cody Taylor and myself scan the private sector for tools that might facilitate research and instruction. When such tools are located, we deploy them in a classroom or research setting,” Cook explained in an email. “Oftentimes this technology is so cutting-edge, however, that it takes a certain amount of ‘massaging’ to fit both the goals and culture of the academic setting…. In the case of NavApp, vendors hadn’t tackled an environment quite like our large public institution, nor—in the case of [OVAL]—were all the ergonomics and software hammered out to support public facing, educational application. In that sense, then, launching projects is built into our schedules, at least insofar as the adoption of new technology isn’t always as straightforward as we might like.”

Carl Grant, associate dean, knowledge services and CTO for University of Oklahoma Libraries added “they spend a lot of time trying to understand the researcher/educators needs and existing workflows so that when we tailor and introduce the systems/technology we do so in as unobtrusive manner as possible. That is key to achieving adoption in my experience.”

Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (menis@mediasourceinc.com; @matthewenis on Twitter) is Associate Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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