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7 Tips for Getting Started With VR/AR

Instructional technologists from Duke University and North Carolina State offer their advice on introducing virtual and augmented reality on campus.

There's no one-size-fits-all for virtual reality (VR).

"That is how new and fast-changing it is," explained Mike Cuales, associate director, creative & multimedia instructional technology support and development at North Carolina State University. "The technology is cool, but how do you apply it effectively to the classroom?"

Cuales and his fellow instructional designers on NC State's Distance Education and Learning Technology Applications (DELTA) team are working to answer that question, and to help introduce the potential of VR and augmented reality (AR) to the university.

"We want to democratize the development of VR for education," he said. "A lot of our early work has been one-on-one consulting with professors … who have been champions in their departments, but every conversation is wildly different." In one example, the team worked with Clint Stevenson, an assistant professor in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences, to develop VR training sessions that allow students and professionals to interact with virtual representations of food manufacturing facilities to look for safety violations.

It's a similar story at Duke University (NC), where the Duke Digital Initiative (DDI) supports faculty who have latched onto VR and AR as ways to give their students more immersive experiences. "With some new and emerging technology, faculty members don't know how it might be applied until they get their hands on it," noted DDI coordinator Elizabeth Evans. To help faculty get their feet wet, DDI provides funding for projects that involve new and emerging technologies and for individuals who want to go to technology conferences such as SXSWedu.

Campus Technology asked the instructional technologists from NC State and Duke for some tips on introducing VR and AR on campus.

1) Identify the Need

Ask faculty members to describe the problem they are trying to solve, recommended NC State lead instructional designer Cathi Dunnagan, who, along with colleagues Cuales and Bethanne Tobey, recently put on a workshop at SXSWedu to help faculty members begin designing their own VR experiences. Questions to ask: Why do you want to offer an immersive 360-degree experience? What purpose does that serve in terms of leading to student success? "Don't jump in just to be doing it," asserted Dunnagan. The NC State DELTA team has developed worksheets to help faculty members think through the process, especially when they get to the point of becoming content creators.

Duke's Evans agrees. "We ought to look at experiences for students that are too expensive, too dangerous, too rare or too geographically remote for them to get to otherwise," she said. "If a student can get an experience another way that is easier and cheaper, then we ought to do that." For instance, one of Duke's Middle East Studies faculty members is going to send graduate students to Morocco, where they will shoot 360-degree videos to bring back for students who can't make the trip.

2) Start Small, and Don't Overinvest

Although more sophisticated users might use higher-end video capture tools and post-production software applications, the NC State team likes to present low-end tools so faculty members can start to get comfortable with what is possible. "We are talking about a $300 camera and free or near-free software to create point-to-point tours," Cuales said.

He advised that colleges and universities shouldn't over-invest because the technology is changing so fast. "What looks awesome today may be gone tomorrow, because the company went belly up," he noted, or a technology could become obsolete because the vendor rapidly improved on it. "VR is being adopted in various industries at an alarming rate, which means the technology behind it is moving so quickly." Still, from an institutional standpoint, just getting faculty and staff members' hands on the tools is mission-critical, Cuales said. "You cannot read in a book what VR is or isn't," he insisted. "You must experience it. And the more faculty we can get to experience the technology, the faster we are going to come up with really great applications that are efficient at conveying their subject matter or solving a problem."

3) Partner With Your Library

The library system at NC State is a natural partner for the DELTA team. "We are sharing best practices with VR with them, so the library can outfit our faculty and student populations at scale," said Tobey. "We are a fairly small crew, but the library can loan out Samsung Gear 360 cameras, and put on workshops and hands-on demonstrations to train the bulk of the university. We are more on the innovative or experimental side."

A recent demo event in the library's "Technology Sandbox" featured the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Microsoft HoloLens set up for people to try out. Library staff assisted with the gear. The library announced it would soon have Oculus Rift kits available for checkout.

4) Set Up Hands-On Demos

Duke's Evans said her group often sets up demo tables so people can get hands-on experience with VR. "We have purchased several wireless-only cell phones for demo tables, because when you are doing demonstrations it is very hard to get people to download an app to try something," she said. "We bought three refurbished phones that don't have cellphone contracts and then load the apps on them. It works perfectly for demos."

5) Build a Campuswide VR Community

In addition to engaging the library as a partner, it helps to have an interest group around VR, said Tobey. Conversations on the NC State campus led to the formation of the Virtual Reality Interest Group (VRIG). "Anybody can attend VRIG meetings, and it involves different topics and locations," she said. "It is building a community here instead of us operating in silos. Multiple units from across campus are holding meetings where people are doing show-and-tells."

Duke's Evans noted that although her office does not have a setup where people can come experience VR tools on a regular basis, the computer lab group is talking about the possibility of creating labs specifically for that purpose.

6) Keep Researching New Developments

NC State continues to explore both the high and low ends of the VR market. For instance, for a biodiversity course DELTA might help develop some immersive content in a web-based environment but at the same time build it out in Unreal Engine, a suite of integrated tools for designing games, simulations and visualizations. "It goes back to the critical need to have exposure to what tools are capable of and where development costs come into play," Cuales said. "We are trying to understand what our capacity might need to be in the near future and keep pace with where outside industry is going with time, money and resources. We are going to see rapid changes in game engines that will afford us more capabilities in analytics. It is important to keep a broad view of what is possible."

7) Work with Other Campuses

Duke's Evans said that events such as SXSWedu and the Educause Learning Initiative Annual Meeting are great places to learn about what other campuses are doing with VR and AR.

NC State recently joined an organization called VR First, which is developing a consortium of universities exploring the topic. (VR First describes itself as a global program designed to provide state-of-the-art facilities to anyone interested in exploring the power and potential of virtual reality development.) "Their tagline is 'Democratizing VR/AR Innovation.' We are hoping to contribute to and learn from that global community," Cuales said. "We have no idea what is going to come of it, but that is in line with our mission in launching VRIG because we want to share what we have done and learn from a larger community. There is so much to learn. We are part of a pioneering effort that I hope will better inform and strengthen the ties and the impact of VR in education."

Reaching Out to Faculty

In 2016, the IT department at the University of Washington Bothell held one-on-one meetings with faculty members so they could experience the Oculus Rift VR headset and consider pedagogical uses for the technology. UW Bothell IT has partnered with the campus makerspace to make the Oculus Rift available as makerspace equipment for both students and faculty.

In a video created by the IT department, Dale Ahvakana, network application specialist, said, "We approached faculty who haven't had experience with VR before, because we want to expose them to the Oculus Rift and get their initial idea of what the technology might do for them."

In addition to the Oculus Rift, faculty members were exposed to other devices, such as an Xbox controller, motion controllers and muscle-reading tools. Each faculty session consisted of four to six demo applications with varying degrees of interaction, ranging from riding a roller coaster to a simulation of being weightless in a space station and interacting with objects.

Gary Carpenter, a lecturer in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, told the IT team that his first impression was that the immersion was very realistic. "I didn't know the technology was quite that far along," he said, but he added that he thought the learning curve for including its use in a course would be steep.

Ahvakana said that meeting with the faculty members had been informative. The faculty members got to experience VR and gave their initial impressions. "They could walk away with ideas for future classes, but I think it is a little early to integrate it into their classes in an everyday sense," he said. "Hopefully [the experience] will inform future applications the Oculus will provide and fill in the gaps that they see in their classes. We are excited to see what they have to offer."

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