RPI Kicks Off First Full Semester For Virtual Reality Lab

Feb 6, 2019

Rensselear Polytechnic Institute is celebrating its first semester with a new virtual and augmented reality lab, where students can use modern technology to explore new environments and learning methods. 

The Rensselear Augmented and Virtual Environment lab, or RAVE, is on the second floor of the J. Erik Jonsson Engineering Center in Troy – and at first glance, it might not look like much. Aside from a few rolling tables, chairs, and TV screens, the red and gray patterned room is largely empty. However, through a collection of virtual reality headsets and augmented reality tools, RAVE holds a world of opportunity by immersing students into computer-generated environments.

Engineering professor and RAVE Co-director Rich Radke describes the space as a “one-stop shop” for VR technology, containing both high-end headsets like the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift, and more affordable options.

"You can take your phone, you can put it inside of a little – almost even a cardboard device – and you strap it to your head, and then that’s kind of like a very low-end VR," says Radke. "So we kind of run the gamut, and the idea is that students who want to design experiences can do so kind of at any level that they want.” 

One of the current projects at RAVE is intended to help students visualize how wind and wing size can affect the drag experienced by an airplane. RAVE co-director and associate professor Jason Hicken says that visualization is a major appeal of VR.

“There’s something very visceral about being able to change the wing yourself and see what happens to the drag," says Hicken. "So that’s what you’re going to do right now…” 

With the help of one of his students, Hicken sets me up with a headset and a handheld controller – and right away I’m transported into the middle of a bright blue sky and scattered clouds. A small propeller plane floats in front of me, with several large arrows hovering nearby to represent the plane’s wing size.

“The gray arrow represents drag, so your objective is to make that arrow as small as possible, because it’s resisting the aircraft’s motion forward," directs Hicken. 

Using a TV screen, Hicken and co are able to see what I see, and watch as I fumble around the virtual space and grab the arrows using the handheld controller. Sure enough, by pulling one arrow that increases the plane’s wingspan, the gray draft arrow shrinks instantly.

“This teaches you and students that the span, which is the length of the wing, is the most important thing – and you want it to be really wide," Hicken explains. "The only thing that really limits us in the span is structures and airports.” 

In another one of the lab’s projects, researchers were able to virtually recreate the RPI campus and some of its interiors. By putting on a headset and grabbing a couple controllers, I’m able to take a stroll through the school’s courtyard without even leaving the lab. I can also place different objects into the environment to play with, like a ball. Without being able to see where I am physically, I’m a little shy to reach out and move about the room freely. But Radke says the lab’s empty space and moveable furniture was designed for that purpose.

“The first thing we knew we needed was a large amount of space, right? And so you can see in this room, the room has these two poles that have these beacons, these cubes, on the sides of the room – those are used to track, for example, the VR headsets," Radke explains. "And so that means that you can basically walk all around the room and not have to worry about bumping into anything.”

In addition to VR headsets, RAVE also allows students to explore and learn with augmented reality. Whereas VR places the user in a computer-generated environment, Radke explains that AR adds a layer of graphics over the user’s line of sight.

“Augmented reality is more like the interface that Iron Man uses – he’s looking through this helmet, at the real world, and he sees all this stuff superimposed on the real world," he says. "So you can kind of look through this thing and you can see the room that you’re in, but you also see computer-generated elements that are floating around.”

Student Abhishek Shandilya shows me an Android tablet and app that can help students visualize the arrangement of atoms in solids. Usually recorded via x-rays, the arrangement of atoms is not something that can normally be observed with the naked eye. However, by looking through the tablet’s camera, Shandilya can project that recorded data around a paper cube to reveal a certain shape.

“It’s not published right now, but we can publish it on the Play Store, and anyone can install it," Shandilya notes.  

Right now, the lab’s projects are centered on getting students to explore and understand VR and AR, and better visualize classroom concepts. But Radke has high hopes for the space.

“The future, hopefully, is a set of engineering education experiences where you could experience something that we couldn’t normally expose a student to," he says. "For example, something like you’re inside a nuclear reactor that is about to meltdown, or you’re on top of a wind turbine trying to fix it, or you’re inside of a molecule, arranging the atoms. So VR is great for these kinds of experiences that we can’t actually directly, physically give our students.”