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Cool Learning: Gaming Studio Creates Unique Space for Students to Live and Learn at Duke University

Within a university, there are many programs and events meant to bring students together and provide a twist to the traditional learning model. Housing, Dining and Residence Life (HDRL) at Duke University is on the cutting edge by creating a space for students to gather in an innovative way at the Bolt Gaming Studio, located in the Edens Residence Hall in the heart of Duke’s west campus.

Opened in the fall of 2015, the one-of-a-kind gaming space offers eight monitors, including a quad arrangement of four screens totaling over 100 inches and 10 gaming computers that can be used for competitive or group gaming. Additionally, there is an assortment of game consoles, including Wii U from Nintendo, Xbox One S and PlayStation 4. The Bolt has several nooks and alcoves that aim to serve individual gaming needs, while large couches and roomy seating encourage group gaming sessions that may not be possible in residence hall rooms.

The Bolt is open to all students and serves as a connecting fabric between the Edens community and the rest of west campus. This accessibility creates a comfortable and naturally welcoming space.

“Not only is this concept appealing to potential incoming students in a tech-savvy generation looking for cutting edge opportunities offered by all universities, but it also provides a social outlet for students to get them out of their rooms and into the common areas, interacting with other students in an informal setting,” said Rick Johnson, associate vice president of student affairs.  

Many students already bring personal gaming consoles for their own use. These students can use the games and systems provided in the Bolt or bring in the games they own, giving them the option to take part in a larger student group. These factors foster a sense of community that was previously missing in the gaming experience on campus.

“It’s great that Duke recognizes that a lot of students utilize video games to come together.  It’s awesome that they put this together for us,” said Francisco Olivero, a senior undergraduate student who helped set up the gaming system last year.

The Bolt continues to develop by introducing new technology to keep the space fresh and dynamic. Last August, for instance, it introduced a new virtual reality (VR) studio. With 360-degree motion tracking and a controller featuring 24 sensors to allow play with unobstructed movement, the HTC Vive is a new wave technology that will add to the “cool” factor of this already unprecedented space.

Mark Everett McGill, senior lab engineer from Bolt’s technical team who designed the computer supporting the Vive technology, explains why VR tech is finally a possibility: “We have tried this multiple times and each time it has been a passing fad. This time, however, display technology is at an acceptable point in performance and technology is quickly catching up. HDRL has decided to provide the students access to this cutting edge tech — the HTC Vive — providing a dedicated space for its use and allowing me to build an extremely powerful machine to ensure that the VR experiences within the Bolt VR are as good as the current crop of software allows.”

The Vive is state of art virtual reality, superior even to recent technology.  A few years ago, the maximum speed was 60 Hz, meaning that when you turn your head quickly, VR could only show a new image a maximum of once every 1/60th of second, which is part of the reason for the dizzy, motion-sick feeling some experienced with the older VR tech. “Today we have displays that operate at 90Hz or more, have a pixel density high enough to look good even when right up against your face, and graphic processing units (GPUs) capable of consistently delivering 90 new scenes to the display per second,” McGill explained. There is no drag, delay or dizziness in this completely immersive experience.  

Also, the HTC Vive offers Room Scale VR where the user can move, walk or crawl around the room they are in while their motions are reflected in VR. It is a protective space where one can move throughout a room, looking, moving and interacting freely within the simulation.

The development of the technology may have originally been driven by the sports and gaming experience, but has become transformative for academia as well. With the introduction of the virtual reality system, students will be able to access this space for their curricular initiatives, using the technology for class projects, programming and simulations. Students can utilize free applications on their own computers outside of the Bolt, such as Unreal Engine, Unity or Destinations Workshop Tool, and use the Vive to run their own VR simulations. Biology, architecture, astronomy and other colleges can utilize this, creating endless possibilities for these “imagineers.”

Students will see what the simulator sees on separate screen projected in the Bolt. While the view is not the same VR experienced in the simulation, it helps make the Vive very much a group connection. The feed will also be streaming online, making it easy to share projects and experiences or simply see if the room is available for use. Expect to see solitary experiences as well as group experiences where one person uses the HTC Vive while others are in the room playing along.

“VR studios in Residence Halls are nonexistent; this will be the first of its kind,” said Rick Johnson, associate vice president of student affairs. The Bolt complements a sister facility located on the first floor that addresses the need for group study as well as private individual study.

While the Vive can be utilized for academic purposes, it can also provide an outlet for Duke students who are under stress. More than three-dozen games have already been uploaded for student use. As the technology continues to change among developers, new games and programs will constantly be added to The Bolt, allowing the space to constantly evolve.

HDRL continues to actively pursue ways to stay on the forefront of dynamic student life, providing students original and unique opportunities during their time at Duke University. As The Bolt continues to develop, it is with the mind that this entertainment and social outlet is entwined with an academic potential, joining the wonders of new technology, learning and the student experience.

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