Purdue students gain hands-on experience with virtual reality at Envision Center
Purdue student employees at ITaP’s Envision Center are working with cutting-edge technology to build virtual reality simulations and data visualization tools for research and education.
Using the Microsoft HoloLens – a mixed-reality headset that is not yet available to consumers – Jordyn Lukomski and Amanda Luginbuhl created an application that lets a user virtually dissect a grasshopper in three dimensions. The project is a continuation of a two-dimensional simulation built at the Envision Center for Purdue entomology Professor Christian Oseto’s students.
“The 2-D web simulation is really static – it has flat pictures,” says Lukomski, a senior in computer graphics technology, explaining the motivation behind her project. “Students didn’t understand what organs were on top, on the bottom or on the sides, so that spatial visualization was an issue for them.”
In the three-dimensional environment Lukomski and Luginbuhl developed, students can move around and examine the grasshopper from different perspectives to get a sense of how the insect’s organs fit together.
They were able to design the application this way because of the HoloLens they had access to at the Envision Center. The HoloLens mixes virtual and augmented reality and integrates 3-D digital images into a user’s real environment, allowing the user to interact with the virtual components in a way they can’t with similar systems. “A lot of the students that tested it said it was really cool and really handy to see everything from whatever angle they wanted to,” says Luginbuhl, also a senior in computer graphics technology.
Not only did entomology students find the 3-D version a lot more fun to use, they also demonstrated a markedly better understanding of grasshopper anatomy than students who dissected with the 2-D tool, quizzes administered to both sets of students showed.
Although this project served as the thesis for their senior capstone course, Lukomski and Luginbuhl have continued refining it since and are in the process of applying for funding to develop it even further. They both hope to continue as graduate students at Purdue and keep working at the Envision Center.
Jordan McGraw, a first-year graduate student in computer graphics technology, has discovered an interest in designing and developing educational video games thanks to his work at the Envision Center.
Among the projects he’s worked on are ISEEK, a game that aims to increase financial independence for women in developing countries by teaching them entrepreneurial skills and connecting them to lenders, and an interactive drug discovery game in which users try different ways of docking drug molecules to protein targets and could potentially discover a combination that might lead to a new way to treat disease.
“It’s really neat being able to see how games don’t have to be strictly for entertainment,” says McGraw. “The game may be fun and engaging, however, it may have a very important message that you want to get across, or a skill that you want to teach the player.”
His work at the Envision Center has complemented his classroom education at Purdue nicely. “Pretty much everything I’ve learned in class is directly applicable here,” he says. “There’s so much overlap it can be hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.”
The technical and artistic expertise necessary for game development aren’t the only skills that students who work at the Envision Center are honing. Noah Bannister, a second-year graduate student in computer graphics technology, says he’s also gained valuable experience managing long-term projects and working with clients.
Bannister has worked on several projects in the two and a half years he’s been at the Envision Center, including the virtual clean room, a simulator where pharmacy students practice compounding drugs in a sterile environment.
His experience at the Envision Center has taught him a lot about best practices for virtual reality systems and using available technology in creative ways. “Experience extending existing technology is something I’ve gained here that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise,” Bannister says.