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Mixing It Up in the Design Lab: The Virtuality-Reality Continuum

A Q&A with Tilanka Chandrasekera

Established in 2015, the Mixed Reality Lab at Oklahoma State University focuses on research and instruction in augmented reality, virtual reality, and digital prototyping for design. It provides space and infrastructure for both students and faculty researchers to work on design-related projects that incorporate AR, VR, and 3D printing tools. The lab helps students, researchers, and, through outreach activities, the broader community learn how to apply these technologies in design.

CT asked Tilanka Chandrasekera, an assistant professor in the department of Design, Housing and Merchandising at OSU, about the Mixed Reality Lab's goals for research and instruction.

Mary Grush: How did the Mixed Reality Lab at OSU come about?

Tilanka Chandrasekera: The Mixed Reality Lab is an initiative of the department of Design, Housing and Merchandising in the College of Human Sciences at OSU that allows students, faculty, and researchers to work with AR, VR, and 3D printers. Students can explore and experience the use of these tools in the design process, faculty can examine the impact the tools have on teaching and learning, and the broader community can benefit from the output of our researchers.

But perhaps the key reason for establishing a lab was for students to learn how to communicate their designs. We recognize, of course, that designers express things visually, and they try to communicate their design ideas through visual media. Fifty years ago, a hand sketch might have worked. But today, we have different digital tools to help us communicate our designs more effectively. Tools and practices are evolving around us, of course, but the lab will help prepare our design students in this important aspect of their profession.

Grush: What, in general, are the types of technologies in the lab today?

Chandrasekera: Primarily, as I mentioned, we have AR, VR, and 3D printing tools. Augmented reality is a relatively new technology for designers that allows them to experiment with virtual design elements by overlaying them onto real, physical environments or representations of the real world. Using the lab's VR displays, students can try out their designs in a fully immersive environment. 3D printers are used by interior design students for prototyping furniture and other design elements, while Apparel Design students prototype garments and fashion accessories.

The lab not only provides a growing array of technologies that prepare design students for their profession; ultimately it will help researchers understand and communicate new, seamless workflows for this important constellation of tools — AR, VR, and 3D printing — as these technologies become more mainstream in the design world.

Grush: What's the difference between virtual reality and augmented reality?

Chandrasekera: VR puts you inside a computer-generated environment that is not connected to the 'real', physical world at the time you are experiencing it. It's entirely virtual. AR, however, allows you to overlay virtual elements onto a physical environment — in effect, you are mixing virtual elements into your physical reality.

Grush: Can you explain the term "mixed reality"? What mode do the students typically work in?

Chandrasekera: The term mixed reality comes from a paper by Milgram and Kishino, published back in 1994. The authors talk about the virtuality-reality continuum, where on one side of the continuum you have the virtual space, and at the opposite end you have the real, physical world. In the middle range, they identify augmented reality and augmented virtuality — which is what they termed "mixed reality". Today, the combination of virtual and real-world spaces may also be called mixed reality.

At the Mixed Reality Lab we try to have students work across the continuum — in the real, virtual, and mixed spaces — experiencing them all.

Grush: What are some of the tools in the lab that support work along the virtuality-reality continuum?

Chandrasekera: If you look at tools in the lab in the context of the virtuality-reality continuum, we have different modes of VR provided. For example, we have the Passive 3D stereoscopic projector, multiple HMDs for VR, and multiple HMDs for augmented reality. We also have both PC and mobile AR capabilities. And to address the physical component, we have, of course, the 3D printers. We have many tools in the lab — other tools for use along the continuum include body scanners, motion capture systems, and more. And not to be overlooked, importantly, we have a collaborative design console that allows designers to collaborate on design projects.

Grush: Do the collaborative design tools in effect place you at different points along the continuum based on the tools you and your collaborators use?

Chandrasekera: You might look at it that way. At least you would always be somewhere along that continuum.

Grush: Can you talk about some of the lab's projects?

Chandrasekera: Sure. There are several. One is the Augmented Reality Model Exchange (ARMeX), where we are trying to explore how a 3D, augmented reality model can be exchanged between two locations; in another project we are looking at how people perceive spaces with regard to color, using VR; and one of our latest projects is a virtual museum collection.

Grush: Given the notion of a continuum, and all the different tools that a designer might use in different phases of a project — and in collaboration with others — are you examining workflow issues? Are the students picking up on workflow as they use the Mixed Reality Lab for their projects?

Chandrasekera: An example might help to answer your question. In some of our research on mixed reality for teaching and learning, we are studying how students perceive 3D printing. As a part of that research, when our students design furniture pieces, we look at how they perceived that process — especially from the perspective of workflow: from digital modeling to prototyping of the model, with an augmented reality phase in between.

And in general, in looking at workflow from a design standpoint, we often see a trial-and-error process. For example, when we are designing a house, we start from a conceptual statement, adding and changing as we consider and reconsider our ideas. We look at many "what if?" scenarios. This is called divergent thinking. We are trying to have several potential solutions to draw from in our creative process.

It's useful here to note an important aspect of our digital design tools — if we were to try to experience all our solutions in a physical model, it would never be cost effective or practical. Even a scaled physical prototype (rather than a 1:1 physical model) might be impractical, causing us to fixate on a given iteration simply to pause the process and quit using so much expensive material. In the digital space, you can do a lot of modeling without much chance of economic or similar repercussions or a perception of waste. So our digital tools — and our work towards the virtuality end of the continuum — afford us great opportunities for divergent thinking, thus supporting the creative process.

While there are no prescribed workflows, our research allows us to examine workflow in various project examples to try to discover how these workflows affect design and design education. And, along the virtuality-reality continuum, the students will find appropriate tools for different stages of their process. As they mature as designers, they will understand and appreciate how their workflow moves through the virtuality-reality continuum.

Grush: The Mixed Reality Lab is still fairly new — opened in 2015. Do you have plans to expand it?

Chandrasekera: Yes, and soon. We are building a new wing to our existing Human Sciences Building, and on the top floor in that building there is going to be an additional lab at a much larger scale. We're looking forward to more exciting work — and change — in mixed reality.

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