Computer science sophomore Eric Gonzalez’s mouth dropped open when he strapped the Microsoft HoloLens, a $3,000 virtual reality headset, to his head.
“Is this what heaven looks like?” Gonzalez said jokingly.
He and other students involved in OU’s new virtual reality club experimented with the rare, pricey piece of technology during one of their first club meetings March 24.
OUVR was founded in early March to provide a space for students to work together on virtual and augmented reality development projects, said Ryan Dobyns, computer science sophomore and OUVR president.
Dobyns said he hopes club members will gain valuable experience in the new and rapidly developing field of virtual reality that will allow them to build a strong portfolio to show potential employers.
“We’re not just hanging out, playing games,” Dobyns said.
The group formed to bring together the diverse skillsets needed to develop virtual reality content, such as coding, artistic design and creative brainstorming, said Bryson Reece, computer science sophomore and OUVR vice president.
“We’ve taken up this hobby of developing for (VR), and in doing that we realized we need to expand the people we know and the skillsets we can take advantage of in order to create good VR experiences,” Reece said.
The organization has about 15 members, but it is in the process of reaching out to potential members in order to expand as much as possible, Dobyns said.
Virtual reality is a relatively new and quickly growing technology that typically involves wearing some type of headset and allows users to experience a 3-D world without being present in it.
“Good VR is extremely immersive,” Reece said. “You get transported to a different place, you forget that you’re standing in this room — at that moment you are somewhere else. You are interacting with things that aren’t there, interacting with things in entirely new ways that aren’t possible in physical reality.”
The new club is part of the university’s wider efforts to expand virtual reality on campus, led primarily by University Libraries.
Carl Grant, chief technology officer of University Libraries and OUVR faculty adviser, said OU is at the forefront of this new technological frontier.
After the successful use of virtual reality in the Galileo's World Exhibition in fall 2015, the library installed virtual reality stations at Innovation @ The Edge, a technology-driven public experimentation space heavily equipped with 3-D printers, VR headsets and more located on the first floor of the Bizzell Memorial Library.
Other virtual reality workstations based on this first model can be found across campus, with locations at the Innovation Hub, the architecture Library in Gould Hall and the Inasmuch Foundation Collaborative Learning Center in the OU College of Law.
Grant said there are 24 classes from various departments across campus whose students are required to use the virtual reality technology at these locations to complete some classwork.
“We bring the technology, faculty brings what they're trying to teach and instruct, and then we show them how we can help with what they’re trying to teach students,” Grant said.
Grant said virtual reality provides endless opportunities in an academic setting, such as allowing science students to “climb inside” chemical compounds or giving art students a chance to get a hands-on, up-close view of objects that remain locked away in museums.
“We talked to the researchers down in the research park, they’ve got all kinds of issues where unless you can shrink yourself down to a microscopic size and climb inside things, you just can’t see it,” Grant said. “We can do that in virtual reality.”
Grant said he has received positive feedback from other schools and technology companies which have expressed interest in OU’s virtual reality initiatives.
“It’s pretty satisfying when you’ve climbed into the ranks where the leading institutions are looking at you, saying, ‘OK, we like what you’re doing there,’” Grant said.
Grant said he is happy that students created a VR club and hopes they will help develop content that can be used in an academic setting.
“One of the things we were really trying to do this year was build community around (Innovation @ The Edge) ... so this is great,” Grant said. “We’re thrilled to see this club come together and hope it does some amazing work. I have high hopes for it.”
Gonzalez said he was excited about joining the club because it gives him access to expensive technology like the Microsoft HoloLens, which the club received free of charge from the One University Store, that he otherwise would not be able to learn how to use.
“Outside of it, we don’t have the money and the capabilities to do it, but with this club, you’re able to,” Gonzalez said.
Reece said the field of virtual technology is expanding quickly, and he would not be surprised if OU provides students with their own personal VR headset in the next three years.
“We’re really grateful and really lucky to be here at OU, (which) is pushing the forefront of VR,” Reece said.