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The proliferation of increasingly affordable virtual reality hardware (e.g. Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard, etc.) and the accessibility of development software traditionally reserved for video games has resulted in the emergence of a new platform for teaching and learning: the Oklahoma Virtual Academic Laboratory. With the creation of the O.V.A.L. system, instructors and researchers are provided the means to engineer the sorts of first-hand learning experiences that are typically only possible in a laboratory or in the field.
The software component of O.V.A.L. system was developed in the Unity3D video game engine. Extensive online documentation, coupled with an active developer community and a variety of tutorial resources (e.g. Lynda.com), made Unity an attractive solution. Importantly, the versatility of the Unity platform also allows for open-ended applications that go beyond the disparate 3rd party offerings that currently make up the educational VR ecosystem. Rather than building and executing a potentially endless library of individual, subject-specific applications, the O.V.A.L. allows users to upload 3D models on the fly while preserving the custom-scripted interface elements that allow for real-time, networked control over the visual characteristics that make up the model in question.
Various sub-systems (e.g. Photon Unity Networking for networking the headsets, Oculus runtime software to support a camera with two “eyes” and the LeapMotion SDK for hand-tracked interactions) round out of the OVAL software suite, but the system is innovative with regards to its hardware design as well. Importantly, the system features a custom railed-chair assembly- designed for 360° range of motion and cable management – whose design acknowledges critical ergonomic issues surrounding human factors in virtual worlds. Moreover, the modularity and upgradability of the hardware components allows for future scalability in both the virtual and digital realms. With this unique combination of hardware and software instructors can guide learning experiences from anywhere, and research teams can analyze and explore 3D data sets regardless of their location and despite a lack of physical space.
Cohabitation of the user with their data in the same hyper-manipulable 3D space represents a powerful tool for scholarship. Scale and perspective are completely (and instantaneously) malleable in these virtual worlds and a hypothetically unlimited number of data layers can be activated and made visible at the touch of a virtual button. Beyond immersing the student or researcher in a data set, the O.V.A.L. VR system also preserves embodied interaction types with hand and upper body tracking (you can lean in to get a closer look at an object, or to point something out with your index finger) and a railed-chair mechanism that prevents collision with the external environment (e.g. monitors, desks, etc.). Finally, all changes made by the user to uploaded 3D data sets in the O.V.A.L. space will propagate instantaneously across a network of headsets for a shared learning experience, transporting the user into a veritable VR classroom.
What does this networked malleability amount to? With the O.V.A.L. system, instructors and teams of researchers can create an environment of study from the ground up – an optimally designed teaching/learning space that displays (in a highly intuitive format) 3D data deemed relevant to the scholarship at hand, while simultaneously disregarding the myriad distractions or otherwise unnecessary elements that characterize traditional learning environment and media (e.g. classrooms, textbooks, cellphones, etc.). Researchers and instructors throughout the University and beyond have taken notice of these powerful benefits and the scholarly freedom such benefits precipitate by lending their subject-specialized knowledge to specific O.V.A.L. applications.
Current collaborators include (among others) the OU's College of Architecture, who are providing students the opportunity to quite literally walk through their CAD models; an interdisciplinary research team at Cornell University, who have shared their research data on the feasibility of cell-membrane like structures on Titan (Saturn's moon) for interactive visualization; NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center – who are gleaning insight on the interaction of stellar wind given off by a binary star system via 3D models; the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History, who are exploring the tool as a means to analyze archeological specimens; and the University of Oklahoma’s department of Chemistry and Bio-Chemistry, who are exploring amino acid relationships in virtual reality. In the humanities, Professor Endres, of the University of Oklahoma’s English dept., has used the O.V.A.L. system to digitally exhibit certain inherently physical characteristics of the 1500+-year-old Chad Gospels.
One of our collaborators, Thomas Madura of NASA’s Goddard facility, team hints at the potential long-term value of these systems when describing how, "...3D prints and visualizations reveal important, previously unknown [information]...", and, provide new means for, "conveying complex ideas to non-experts" (Madura et al. 2015). Of course, we can't guarantee this sort of insight (on the part of the researcher or the budding scholar), but with the O.V.A.L. system we can facilitate it.