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7 Lessons in Leading VR Research on Campus

As immersive technologies come down in price and get easier to create content for, it may be time for your university or college to set up a program to help faculty experience virtual reality and augmented reality. A pro offers seven "VITaL" lessons.

SDSU's VITaL learning space

VITaL's immersive learning space

While a bunch of institutions have invested in helping faculty figure out how to use immersive technologies in their courses, few have had a campus reach as multi-tentacled as San Diego State University. Two years ago, in 2017, the California institution announced the launch of the Virtual Immersive Teaching and Learning (VITaL) initiative, which set up learning spaces and provided gear for instructors, allowing them to try out virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality and 360-degree immersion in their classes. Since then some three dozen faculty members have participated in projects for fields as diverse as art, astronomy, physical therapy, religious studies and hospitality & tourism management.

Led by James Frazee, senior academic technology officer and director of Instructional Technology Services, and Sean Hauze, associate director within ITS and a faculty member for the Department of Educational Leadership, VITaL's growth continues. The latest iteration, according to Frazee, emphasizes broader dissemination, more student input and bigger ambitions. Recently, he shared with Campus Technology what his university is learning about the use of immersive experiences in learning.

1) "Make It Available and They Will Come"

Recently, VITaL teamed up with the university library makerspace, buildIT, and the College of Engineering to invest in Google Expedition Kits. The new "low-priced" kits are already gaining traction in the K–12 space, and Frazee said he hopes they will allow for greater dispersal of the immersive technology into the farthest reaches of the school. The kits include student tablets and a teacher computing device, virtual reality headsets, "rapid chargers," a router and a case or charging cart. Both VITaL and the library acquired 30-student kits and the college purchased a 10-student kit. The Google kits specifically were a draw, Frazee noted, because they're capable of "device stream capacity," allowing other people to view what students are seeing in their headsets on a big screen in real time.

"Altogether, we'll have 70 of these Google expedition devices to be able to give students experiences that would be out of reach otherwise, a next important step in terms of growing and incubating the use of these technologies on campus," said Frazee. "We're trying to get new faculty who haven't had a chance, who want to be able to have an [immersive] experience where multiple people are using this simultaneously." It's "early days," he added. "Part of our ethos is make it available and they will come."

SDSU student using VR

2) Partner with Students and Their Organizations

The VITaL project works with students across a continuum of use cases. First, there's the user route, where instructors introduce a unit that involves the use of VITaL resources. For example, nursing students are using augmented and mixed reality to view virtual patients. The technology, created in partnership with Microsoft and Pearson, allows learners to walk around the patient, observing him in virtual holographic form. As the observation continues, the patient breaks out in hives and begins itching and breathing rapidly. The immersive scene enables students to witness the unfolding event and develop strategies for handling it. "This gear is more affordable than a patient simulator, which costs six figures and requires annual maintenance and you have to have somebody who's there to facilitate the use of the [inauthentic] mannequin," explained Frazee.

Second, there's the student organization route. The Aztec Game Lab is a group made up of computer science and computer engineering students as well as students from other areas on campus, such as art and film — anybody who's interested in developing games. The group uses the VITaL lab for its gatherings, which take place during the school year every Friday afternoon, and has also led to the offshoot creation of the Virtual Reality Club SDSU, which has gone on to work directly with faculty in creating VR content and applications for use in their courses.

Third, there's the content creation route, where students in some of the computer courses are creating VR content as part of their class assignments and using the immersive gear "to experience their creations," said Frazee.

While some universities are investing heavily in content creation (Arizona State University comes to mind with its work in creating content for a new online bachelor's degree in biological sciences through the help of Labster), San Diego State's ITS sees its role as "being a conduit or a connector to get people working with each other," Frazee said. "We help facilitate and make those connections, open those doors [and] provide those introductions to get people talking with each other to do the actual content creation." Once the connections are made, ITS "can step back."

3) Never Settle for Last Month's Equipment

There's always new equipment to try out in this field, said Frazee. Lately, his team is considering Magic Leap for "learning impact experiments." Magic Leap provides a lightweight, wearable computer and has been at the forefront of what the company calls "spatial computing." "They have probably the closest thing today to what is going to become smart glasses that will be feasible for people to wear around," Frazee added. The benefit of the technology is that it uses a dedicated computer vision processor and eye tracking in a way that allows the image being viewed to be aligned with the eye's natural focus, presumably eliminating the problems of nausea and headaches that a good number of VR users report. "I think it represents the next level of this type of experience," he said.

Recently, the university also invested in a 360-degree camera from matterport, a company that produces technology used to create 3D models, such as full tours of homes for sale. "It's a really sophisticated camera that creates 3D experiences for people to go on tours," Frazee explained. Now VITaL is working with the College of Engineering (and specifically its Construction Engineering Program) to help those faculty with some of their content creation. "It's not about the platform," he emphasized. "It's about what we can do with the platform."

Through these various acquisitions, Frazee has concluded that it's too soon to bet on any specific tech or standards. "The challenge is everything is evolving and moving so quickly that it's difficult to operationalize anything and scale it. "We don't want to place a bet on one technology only to have something else leapfrog it." As an alternative, the university's approach has been "to provide what amounts to a smorgasbord of technology for faculty to experiment with and to try out."

VR for learning at SDSU

4) Emphasize More Effective Learning (Alongside the Novelty)

Faculty who want to try out the immersion experiences are usually steered by ITS to another faculty member who has done something similar, to help them understand the process from a learning and research perspective. From there, to take advantage of the one of the campus's learning research studios, the instructor is expected to offer a proposal.

As Frazee explained, "What we're trying to do is get them to enter this with a question in mind. We ask them: 'What is the problem you're trying to solve? What is the research question that you have that's driving this work?'" Only then will ITS work with them on creating a plan to help them meet their instructional goals. That's tailored, he added, to address the nature of their curriculum, who their students are and what type of software is available for the content they're teaching.

There's a heavy dose of research involved in this approach too. The studios include sensors and head-mounted displays and other technology "for capturing what's happening in the space." For example, faculty have used time-lapse photography to create a record of how students interact with the equipment. They'll boil a 90-minute session into a 90-second video that shows everybody in the room moving "like ants as fast as they can." The purpose is to understand how the lab is being used and where people are spending their time.

That kind of information may be useful for evolving the learning spaces and making improvements to their operations. But it's also at the heart of a fundamental aspect of immersive experiences: Can VR and AR and other such activities boost motivation to learn — and not just because the gear is novel (which it is) but also because it's a more effective way to gain the skills and knowledge the student needs "to be a better engineer or a better nurse or a better astronomer or whatever it might be"?

5) Team Up to Study Learning Impacts

The big question with any new education technology, of course, is whether it contributes to the process of learning in ways that are more effective (or more affordable) than the traditional formats. Teaming up with other schools helps to add a "scholarly approach" to the immersive projects, suggested Frazee.

San Diego State has several VITaL-related deals in the works with other institutions — only one of which has really been made widely public. That's with fellow CSU campus Sonoma State University, which has run its own VITaL Lab since spring 2018. The partnership includes joint research work, such as a study involving the astronomy departments at both schools to use VR to teach students about the phases of the moon, a unit that previously was taught often using "a flashlight and Styrofoam ball," said Frazee.

The larger and more diverse the sample size, he said, the more potential to "be able to generalize to other audiences."

6) Think Accessibility

Frazee said he believes immersive technologies hold the promise of serving as "empathy machines." The idea has obvious application in the health and medicine fields: "You can imagine somebody who's a healthcare professional putting on a headset and having the experience of being a 78-year-old person with macular degeneration and profound hearing loss," he suggested. "Now they can literally see what that looks like and experience it in a way that would not be possible otherwise."

But it doesn't stop there. What about giving a student the eye-opening experience of being treated in a certain way "because of the color of your skin" or being bullied because of your shape, size or behavior — or, closer to campus, enabling instructors to find out what it's like to maneuver through their courses as a student with a hearing or vision deficit? "There's a risk mitigation driver to that," he pointed out, in terms of avoiding lawsuits, "but there are also more noble motives in terms of just fulfilling our mission of access."

VR equipment at SDSU

7) Never Stop Aspiring

When voters in San Diego approved a measure that would allow the city to sell the site of the former Qualcomm Stadium to the university, the institution began painting a vision of a new school football stadium, commercial and residential space, a riverside park and a campus extension. Frazee has his eye on that extension, and particularly a planned "innovation district," which would bring university researchers, faculty and students elbow to elbow with industry.

Frazee's aspiration: to establish a space capable of producing holographic content. When the university developed its virtual patient for the School of Nursing, it had to rely on the use of a "really sophisticated video recording studio" provided by Microsoft, which was an all-green room packed with dozens of Kinect sensors and other devices trained to the center point of the room. "That's one of maybe a handful of places on the planet where you can do that kind of creation," he said.

He envisions a day when a team of students could work with medical providers, for example, to help them create learning content for their health care professionals — "not only the actual media production but the actual instructional design and assessment." The idea isn't to be profitable "just to make money," he added, "but to make money that we could use to reinvest into more emerging technologies." Another benefit: to help students join "really meaningful projects" that will translate well into the world of work.

"We feel like if you can give students the ability to experience situations of people, places and things in this really immersive environment, it can have a deeper meaning and in turn be more memorable for them," Frazee said. "I'm very excited about what the future holds for us."

Stay Scrappy, and Other Tips for Immersive Success

San Diego State's James Frazee is continually surveying the immersion learning landscape to share what the VITaL initiative has to teach. Here are three lessons worth remembering.

Look for cheap solutions. Lacking the same resources as some of the other universities involved in immersive technology research, San Diego State has had to get "scrappy" with how to addresses certain aspects of its work. For example, early versions of VR headsets had tethers connecting them to computers. That cabling posed tripping hazards to people "who are essentially blindfolded in this virtual world and don't know that they've got this cord dangling behind them," noted Frazee. So, his crew came up with the idea of using retractable dog leashes "that you can get it at Petco for 10 bucks" to "make sure the environment is safe and easy to use."

Let faculty take students for a virtual ride. One way faculty are being enticed to try out new formats at San Diego State is through the availability of some dozen 360-degree cameras available for checkout. "That's an affordable way for us to get the faculty exposed to creating the content that would be consumed with these devices," said Frazee. The cameras are a "relatively affordable" way to allow instructors to take their students out into the field (virtually) to let them see what they're doing in their research projects.

Don't forget social experiences. One of the concerns Frazee has as an educator is figuring out how to prevent immersive technology from isolating students from others. "Part of the goal for us is to help faculty craft experiences where students have to work interdependently and rely on one another to solve a particular problem or to complete an assignment that has some sort of authentic real-world task as the focal point."

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