OU's Tom Love Innovation Hub contains a lot of interesting technology, and the visual lab, filled with headsets and monitors, is no exception.
Tucked away near the coding lab, the Tom Love Innovation Hub’s virtual reality room contains several monitors and chairs all linked into headsets and handheld items used during a virtual reality experience. Looking around the room, most screens contain 3-D landscapes with drifting clouds and vibrant colors. It’s hard to resist the call to put on a headset and dive into a virtual world.
For the students of OU's Virtual Reality Association, these virtual panoramas represent far more than just enjoyable games and experiences. These panoramas represent a future in a world that is growing more and more reliant on VR technology.
In December 2016, computer science juniors Bryson Reece, Ryan Dobyns and Joseph Allen teamed up with fifth-year art, technology and culture majors Jacob Young and Alex Hopper to create an organization that would focus on enhancing students knowledge of VR while giving them an outlet through which they could work on VR projects.
Reece, the group’s current president, said that while “Innovation @ the Edge,” the Bizzell Memorial Library's sponsored workshop for innovative projects, has VR technology, the group felt that there still wasn’t a place on campus where interested students could practice their skills with VR to prepare for a future in technology.
“We noticed that at OU there wasn’t really a place to hone those skills or market them to employers,” Reece said. “We began to realize this was something quite a few students were interested in. So it’s our goal at OU VR to help build students’ portfolios and introduce them to career options they might not have had before.”
Reece said he thinks VR is the future of the tech industry. He believes preparing students to work in this growing field is the first step toward making sure students can find jobs after graduation.
To do so, the group works with several different VR systems, including Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Microsoft HoloLens. The group also uses a variety of programs for designing and coding projects, including Unity 3-D for a game engine, Adobe Photoshop to texture game objects and Autodesk Maya for modeling and animating.
Carl Grant, associate dean of knowledge services and chief technology officer for university libraries, agrees with Reece. Serving as the group’s faculty sponsor and adviser, Grant has worked with technology at libraries and universities for over 40 years and believes that knowing how to code for VR will be an invaluable skill in the coming future.
“These are jobs that are really growing — virtual reality has taken off,” Grant said. “The entrepreneurs are saying, ‘Hey, this is ready to go!’ So they’re all looking for help. For people who are willing to dig into this, it’s almost an assured ticket that there will be a job waiting for them.”
Grant also said the application of VR at the university will reshape how classes are taught. Grant said he envisions a future where astronomy students fly through space and hold planets in the palms of their hands, while budding architects walk through life-sized models of their buildings and biologists study the inside of an atom close-up.
“Once we show the faculty what’s possible with the technology, it clicks,” Grant said. “Almost every single dean that experienced VR (at the Innovation Hub) uniformly said they want this in their college — they want their students to experience this and know how to use it.”
That’s where, according to Reece, OU VR comes in. The organization is open to any student who is interested, and as Reece said, the more diverse the backgrounds and majors, the better.
Currently, the group is working on a VR colorblind experience. According to Young, one of the group’s co-founders who specializes in 3-D art, the experience will allow users to walk through an open meadow to an apple tree, where they can interact with the environment while listening to a narrative about the difficulties of colorblindness.
“The whole point of the experience is to show people what it’s like to be colorblind,” Young said. “You’re going to have a switch that will allow you to change the color scheme from what normal humans perceive to a scheme that fits red-green colorblind people.”
Young said the group is also excited about getting to work with the Microsoft HoloLens, a $3,000 piece of technology that focuses on augmented rather than virtual reality. The device constructs virtual constructs in the room around the user, augmenting what can be seen and interacted with. The HoloLens was given to OU VR by the OU IT store as a gift for the group’s dedication to working with VR technology.
People outside of the university have begun taking note of OU VR’s success. The group applied for a donation from Oculus, the company that builds the Oculus Rift VR headsets, and ended up receiving 10 headsets from the company, a gift worth over $4,000.
In the coming months, Oculus will host a next-gen workshop, where students from across the country will be brought to California to show off their work and discuss the future of VR. OU VR is competing for sponsorship from Oculus to send a few members to the workshop.
In the future, Reece hopes the club will continue to grow and further the goals of students who want to work in the VR industry.
“We’re now reaching widespread attention, and students know about us,” Reece said. “Students can come and get help with projects they want to create. We’re really looking to grow our scale to support as many students as possible.”
The group meets at 5 p.m. every Tuesday and Friday in the visual lab at the Tom Love Innovation Hub.