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sion of a movie but without a plot. In place of that, the center worked with the faculty member to develop a workflow that would allow the students to download protein structures from the Protein Data Bank, a pub- licly available protein database, and then adapt them with Maxon Cinema 4D, a program that preps the files for use in VR. (Other programs that do a similar job, according to Pfaff, are 3DS Max and Maya from Autodesk and the open source Blender.) From there, the students put the files into a virtual world created in Unity, a game engine used for a lot of VR develop- ment work.
By the end of the four-hour lab, students could put on the Vive headset, enter the virtual world and pick up and manipulate their proteins using the hand controllers. “They were able to hold their protein in their hands and see a really good rendering of it,” said Pfaff. But more importantly, he added, they also learned how to access protein data from the data bank and handle other activities they “needed to know anyway for all kinds of biology classes.”
Another version of that kind of work was set up for a class on the molecular mechanics of life. The instructor gave his students an option for their final projects of creating complete VR environments with a learning component, in which cues respond to
student input for biochemical reactions. “It’s like a full-blown little educational module inside VR that anybody can go into and interact with,” Pfaff explained. “So this could be used later on for other classes as well.”
As part of those projects, the participants are learning how to program for VR. “It’s not a lot of hardcore programming,” Pfaff emphasized. “You can get around pretty well without writing too much code.” To speed up the work, the center has adopted various tools, including the Virtual Reality Toolkit (VRTK), a collection of scripts and “concepts” that help people build VR applications quickly in Unity. “VRTK takes care of a lot of the heavy lifting,” he said. “You can launch a Unity project, put in VRTK, and then in just a couple of clicks, you can have a world that you can move around [in] inside of VR. And then you drag in assets that you create outside, like the protein structures.”
The third approach being tested out in the center is perhaps the most ambitious one: creating assign- ments that exist in VR.
Paul Low, a geologist and researcher for the univer- sity who has been the lead developer on many of the center’s VR projects, has created a lesson to introduce new geology students to the crystal structures of miner-
As part of their work in the IQ Center, students are learning how to program for VR.
CAMPUS TECHNOLOGY | January/February 2018
Students can manipulate biological models in VR to study their structure.

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