Breakthroughs: HU professors, students to advance VR experiences

A number of factors have made it easier to create a truly immersive virtual reality field experience in recent years.

Chief among them is advanced camera technology that has made large megapixel, high resolution imagery production easier and more affordable.

These cameras also offer 3D and 360-degree options, with built-in, or software-supported, image manipulation features. These same features can easily be attached to observation tools or flown on drones to capture an area of interest from numerus angles and perspectives.

As important as the collection equipment is the advent of affordable immersive, high-definition virtual reality systems. such as the Oculus Rift, Vive, Samsung Gear, and even Google Cardboard, which have greatly expanded access to immersive experiences.

droneBut since VR field experiences are such a relatively new endeavor, there exist no explicit best practices for setting them up. Three HU professors and students they partnered with intend to change that via “The Virtual Field Experience: Understanding best practices in creating immersive proxy field environments” project launched in November.

The overarching goal of the research is to advance immersive virtual field experiences within the physical and natural sciences, said Earth Systems Science Professor Dr. Michael Meyer, who, along with fellow professors, Dr. Christine Proctor and Albert Sarvis, partnered with students on the project. To accomplish this, the group plans to outline use-case scenarios for additional application in later, more developed settings.

“Most professionals in the discipline agree that field experience is one of the most important aspects of any earth and environmental science student’s education, as that is a major skill they will use in their career,” Dr. Meyer said. “Every year, the state of Pennsylvania hosts an entire conference dedicated to it.”

The assumption that field work is the only way to teach earth and environmental science topics has led to an unspoken ‘taboo’ surrounding virtual field experiences in traditional earth and environmental science departments, even as this lack of online resources has been shown to be a detriment for modern students (Sliko and Coldsmith, 2016).

And cost, location, ease of access, and safety can make field experiences difficult for many educators and students. For students in highly urban cities like Harrisburg, the lack of access to field sites also disproportionally affects low-income students, where the added cost of travel and/or class time may take away from needed employment or childcare duties. This is especially true for college students who have little or no outdoor experience, younger students, students who are physically challenged, or students with social anxiety.
Thankfully, Harrisburg University has the technology and know-how to use drones to capture field experiences that can be brought to students via VR.

“HU already has a strong background in all the fields this project requires: GIS methods, spatial dataset analysis, virtual reality programming, and (a growing background in) the environmental sciences,” Dr. Meyer said. “This is an opportunity to provide HU students excellent, real-life, hands-on training with sophisticated analytical instrumentation and see how that work contributes to real-life environmental problem solving.”

The project has been supported with a $10,705 HU Presidential Research Grant. The total project cost will be around $20,000, with gap funding covered by volunteer students, other institutions (such as the PA Geological Survey), and additional grants.

The project should be completed by 2019. Participants are completing a literature review, a 3D VR camera has been purchased and is on its way, drone licenses and site access have been applied for, and a prototype VR field trip is the immediate goal, Dr. Meyer said.

Four students, two from HU’s Environmental Science Program, and two from the Geospatial Technology Program, will help conduct flights, produce imagine, complete site assessments, and assist with rendering/testing.

“Harrisburg University is uniquely positioned to develop a VR field experience and lead in the field. The University’s dedication to education and technology are often the top factors that bring students to the institution. Harrisburg University would be able to showcase our technical capabilities with the new drones it has recently acquired,” he said. “And while working on this research HU faculty have the opportunity to establish and grow a working relationship with local environmental and Earth science partners. There is the potential that if this grant proposal for a small-scale pilot project is funded, then this becomes an opportunity to bring larger scale recognition to the technical work that can be done at the university while also creating an in-demand educational resource. A well-crafted VR field experience would be useful as training for field work and an in-demand service that other institutions would seek out.”

About Harrisburg University
Accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, Harrisburg University is a private non-profit university offering bachelor and graduate degree programs in science, technology, and math fields. For more information on the University’s affordable demand-driven undergraduate and graduate programs, call 717.901.5146 or email, Connect@HarrisburgU.edu.