Envision This: Virtual Classrooms on Your Campus

The days of passive classroom presentations are numbered at Purdue University. In April 2004, this Big Ten school in West Lafayette, IN, opened the doors to the 5,600-sq.-ft. Envision Center for Data Perceptualization, and the traffic has steadily increased.

Data perceptualization is the science of translating data into human sensory triggers that help learners increase the speed in which they assimilate and understand them. In English, that means students can touch concepts and ideas — a completely new field of study that mixes psychology, computer engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, and mathematics. So although the center answers to the office of the vice president of information technology, its mission eventually will reform every department from dance to communications.

“I can’t think of any subject on campus that is not likely to find a way to teach using this facility,” said Laura Arns, a research scientist and the associate director for the Envision Center.“Part of our goal is to work with any and every department.”

Nor is the reality a stuffy computer lab. Instead, it more resembles a Disney World ride that allows students and professors to dabble in interactive virtual reality scenarios. For instance, students enrolled in select consumer sciences and retailing courses use the center to shop for products in a recreated Target Superstore. Meanwhile, some chemical engineering majors report to the Envision Center to pre-process large amounts of chemical data with high-resolution computer graphics to visualize the resulting data — the better to discover and design new materials, one of the more challenging tasks in science and engineering. And since the environment is admersive, participants feel like part of the virtual world, not just observers peeking at a window on a computer monitor.“It takes over your attention,” Arns noted.

Consider it a field trip for adults.

Although the Envision Center is devoted to both education and research, scientists have yet to produce hard numbers on the learning impact. “We’re just getting started on running some of those evaluations,” said Arns.

“We’ve been busy developing a lot of tools.” The anecdotal evidence, however, indicates the center is a hit. Already officials struggle with scheduling challenges, trying to fit all of the research projects and classroom instruction requests into the space. Arns often has to solve the gridlock by giving National Science Foundation-funded projects priority; the organization, after all, kicked in $862,000 to build the center.

Equipment Checklist

The largest device housed at the Envision Center is called a FLEX, manufacturer Fakespace’s offering in the virtual reality theater niche. Think of it as a 10-ft. cube you can stand inside, with computer graphics on the surrounding screens. Officials can also open up the side of the cube to create a 30-ft.-long wall for a large audience. State-of-the-art tracking allows corrective perspective rendering and direct interaction, while a five-channel speaker system contributes surround-sound to the scene.

Another room features a 7’ x 12’ high-resolution tiled wall using 24 projectors to show a lot more information in greater detail in the same amount of space. It can display a total of 9.4 pixels — or five times the resolution of a typical desktop PC. Officials say its ability to handle satellite imagery of geographical areas makes it an immediate tool for homeland security and environmental protection issues.

A portable STT Motion Captor Optical machine — six infrared cameras on tripods and a series of linked computers — handles converting movement into a digital 3D image. The Department of Visual and Performing Arts in particular has used this equipment to create interactive dance performances.

Finally, the access grid in the center of the building offers videoconferencing over the Internet instead of via long-distance phone lines. Arns personally uses this technology to teach a class collaboratively with other universities.

The bill for the Envision Center came to $3.9 million: Purdue University anteed up $730,326 for the equipment and $2 million for facility construction; corporate partners chipped in $327,000 in in-kind donations. It’s a hefty price tag, Arns admitted, but then again, much of what they chose only exists in a few locations worldwide. “You can get started for a lot less if you buy just one smaller device, and raise funds from there,” she says. Her advice: Purchase a virtual reality theater first, and perhaps scale back on its dimensions at that. “You can always get just one wall or two walls and expand later,” she added.

Next, be selective. The marketplace has its share of vendors knocking on Arns’ door to demonstrate the latest in innovation. She also travels to several conferences each year to eye products, but takes along the same common-sense purchasing guidelines all college administrators observe: “Don’t buy something because it’s popular and everyone else has it,” she said. “Find out what you actually need at your location.” Second, don’t overlook incidental costs, like the dollars to renovate a building to showcase the equipment and salaries for people to operate it.

Currently, she’s searching for the best way to add more resolution to the FLEX virtual reality theater in order to project the same detailed as the tiled wall. “But there’s going to be one new thing per year that really jumps out and you need to have it,” she said with a laugh.

Imagine, If You Will…

Here is a glimpse at how some professionals are using the Envision Center for Data Perceptualization at Purdue University.
• Scott King, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences in the School of Science, used the FLEX to analyze movement that influences plate tectonics in the planet’s crust.
• Melanie Morgan, assistant professor of communication in the School of Liberal Arts, created a virtual audience — complete with normal feedback — to help students overcome fear of public speaking. Students could rehearse their presentations in front of the fake listeners.
• Jeffery Holland, assistant professor of entomology, will offer his students a virtual reality program to model an ecological simulation in the spring of 2007.
• Dr. Rick Chua, a neurosurgeon at Arnett Clinic in West Lafayette, called on the center to image areas around the brain and spine.