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als. According to Pfaff, Low developed a 10-step virtual experience for students. First, they get a short session on how to access the computer and pull up the program. Next, they learn how to use tools within the virtual world for grab- bing objects and moving around in the space. Then they start the assignment, which is driven by voice commands. Stu- dents grab virtual objects and move them from one place to another, as the voice directs them; then they might drag a plane through a crystal to demonstrate their understanding of cleavage planes and mineral structures. “At each step it asks you a couple of questions to make sure you know what you’re talking about, then it will take you on to the next step,” he said.
Because the assignment takes about 30 minutes to work through, students make reservations to come in and do the lesson on their own at the center outside of class time.
Getting Started
Getting started with VR doesn’t require a lot of equipment, Pfaff insisted — at least not compared to the 3D projection system in the center’s main classroom space. That ran in the “six figures,” he said. A Vive headset, on the other hand, is about $600.
On top of that, “you need a pretty decent computer,” which can run a graphics card to support the high demands of VR. In the case of the Vive, the graphics cards recommended by
the manufacturer include the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060, AMD Radeon RX 480 or something equivalent. The com- puter’s processor needs to be at least an Intel Core i5-4590 or AMD FX 8350 equivalent or better.
At Washington & Lee, the center runs HP workstations that cost about $2,000 apiece. Those are outfitted with NVIDIA’s GTX 1070 cards. But Pfaff estimated that an ably-outfitted computer could be acquired for $1,500, making the total bill (headset plus computer) between $2,100 and $2,600.
A VR setup also requires space for moving around, Pfaff pointed out. The Vive is a room-scale VR system that comes with two “lighthouses,” devices that are set up on opposite ends of the room (up to 16 feet apart) to track where the headset is in the space, and a pair of controllers that act as hands or some other kind of input devices. The Vive itself is tethered to the computer by a cable that’s about 15 feet long, enabling the user to move around.
That’s what distinguishes a high-end VR headset from the inexpensive versions, such as Google Cardboard, said Pfaff.
With $15 equipment, “no matter where you move your head, the thing stays in front of you, so the whole world drags around with you.” With the Vive, he noted, “you can throw something on the ground and then walk around it.”
Finally, there’s the software. Because the center runs Unity, the staff can use photogrammetry, enabling the team to create digital models out of physical entities (a building, an archaeological specimen or anything else) and put them into the virtual space. Or, if there’s an application that the instructor wants to try, it can be pur- chased and downloaded and run through SteamVR from Valve, the company better known for its computer games and online gaming platform. One example in use at the university is Calcflow, a VR graphing calculator.
Pfaff admitted that he can’t keep up with the commer- cial market of VR software, so the center made a choice early on. “We’re not going to wait for the application we need to appear. We decided to go down the road of developing our own content from the beginning.”4
Getting started with virtual reality doesn’t require a lot of equipment: You need a VR headset, a decent computer, graphics card, software
and space for moving around.
CAMPUS TECHNOLOGY | January/February 2018

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