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One of the IQ Center’s three VR labs
Pfaff said he learned how to use the tools, such as VRTK, by watching videos on YouTube and checking out lessons through the university’s Lynda account.
Pre-Research but Post-Dabbling
Washington & Lee faculty aren’t at the stage where VR research is taking place. At this point, it’s really more dabbling, because there aren’t “big enough sample sizes,” Pfaff said. “This is the one thing that we always try to figure out. Does [the use of VR] work better than just using a piece
of paper? Does it teach you something? And that’s a hard question to answer.” That means the findings so far are purely anecdotal. “It certainly raises student engagement. They love interacting with stuff in VR. They love working on it. They get excited about it more than they do writing a paper,” he asserted. “Whether that means they’ve learned more, I don’t know.”
There’s still plenty of headspace for VR’s usage in edu- cation to grow. Currently, for instance, the center hasn’t figured out how to get the instructor fully into the virtual world alongside the student. Pfaff’s team is using a pro- gram called PUN from Photon, which integrates with Unity to help developers create multiplayer games. Now the coders can create VR worlds that multiple people can inhabit, in which they see and talk with each other, which is a start.
What the center hasn’t been able to master is the abil- ity to allow one person to manipulate an object in the virtual world and have that activity show up in the other person’s view too. “If I pick up a box, it doesn’t pick up reliably in the other person’s environment,” Pfaff explained. “It’s just a glitch. If we can work that out, that would be another huge avenue for users’ instruction because you could do this anywhere. It could be two people in VR systems on opposite sides of the world.”
And then there’s the stretch goal: mixed reality. The cen-
ter owns a motion-capture system, a set of cameras placed around the room that can track reflective markers. “If you put those reflective markers onto a motion-capture suit, you can capture your body and any sort of real-world objects,” Pfaff said. “What would be interesting is to mix real objects with the virtual world.” As he explained, a problem with VR is that a person in a headset can walk up to a table and try to set something on it, but because the table doesn’t really exist, it falls to the ground. He’d like to give his users a way to reach out and grab something vir- tual — a coffee cup — and feel it as if it were really there. When it was picked up, it would move. That would enable students “to reach out and grab something, such as a molecule, and touch it to get a tactile sense of it.”
He insisted that the technology “is already there.” It’s just a matter of doing the work of finding or making the applica- tion and then hoping somebody comes along who can use it in a course. And that points to the final challenge Pfaff and the IQ Center have faced in their work related to VR piloting: getting instructors to buy into the technology. “We’ve been building all sorts of one-off demos, just hop- ing to show them off to faculty members and say, ‘Hey, look at this! Would this work for your class?’”
Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for Cam- pus Technology.
CAMPUS TECHNOLOGY | January/February 2018

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