Virtual reality lab opens in Hangar Building

Computer information systems and technology students have a new virtual reality lab to learn and work in.

Computer information systems and technology students have a new virtual reality lab to learn and work in.

Admittedly, learning looks a lot like playing in the lab, which holds 13 new VR-ready, high-performance laptop computers and 13 sets of Oculus Rift viewers with touch-control bundles.

The computer information systems and technology program purchased the new equipment through a technology endowment founded by President Emeritus Richard E. and Ruth McDowell and Zippo Manufacturing Co. This fall, instructor Jeremy Callinan, who is a 2004 graduate of Pitt-Bradford, is offering a VR programming class in the lab.

Some students in the new class have the viewers strapped on over their eyes while holding on to two separate controllers. In front of the students is a laptop with a scene on the screen. Below the scene is the computer code they have been working on. On either side of the laptop are two sensors that read where the controllers are in space.

They are in a VR space. VR is a computer-generated simulation of an interactive, three-dimensional space. The students are designing their own VR spaces for their class project. Getting it right will take an entire semester.

The controllers allow users to interact with the space. Ryan Filas of Hamburg, N.Y., has downloaded two guns. Designers can choose from free or paid items much like a graphic designer imports elements of clip art.

So far, Filas has two guns and a default environment that looks like the Bonneville salt flats - white sand, blue sky, nothing else.

Filas modified his guns so that they would shoot tennis balls. Then he demonstrates his current problem. When he fires a gun, its tennis ball projectile flies off to the viewer's left at a 90-degree angle. To get the gun to shoot straight will take trial and error of changing small bits of code and seeing the results.

Tyler Griffith of Bradford is a hockey player. He plays for the university's club team, and he is designing a hockey puck shoot. He has changed his environment so that there is a small room with a giant seal of the University of Pittsburgh covering the floor. A hockey goal stands in the middle of the seal with two spotlights pointed at it.

Griffith has to give characteristics through code to each object he imports to make it behave realistically. For example, he has experimented with the amount of gravity to give the puck to make it seem to slide on ice. He has had to lower its center of gravity. There are a lot of physics involved, and he, too, is working via trial and error.

As he demonstrates his world, he reaches quickly for the hockey stick. “I have to grab it quickly,” he said, “because it doesn't have any gravity yet.”

Bey Duda, a junior from Carnegie, is interested in the therapeutic uses of VR for people with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. She has already done most of the research for her end-of-the-semester paper because she is so interested in the subject.

She wanted to create a relaxing environment. On the desert plain are two kitties. A black kitty stands still while a white kitty runs toward it. When Duda pets the black kitty, hearts emanate from its underbelly.

Duda said she imported one kitty and then copied it to create the second. “That's how a lot of people learn to do things, by just building on what's given to you.”

Her goal is to build a calming environment where visitors can pet cats or play with them using a laser pointer that the cats will chase.

When she puts on the VR headset to demonstrate, she discovers a few problems she will have to work on before progressing to laser pointers. The kitties appear to be at least 20 feet tall. That is not relaxing. And some of the hearts come flying at the viewer. Also not relaxing.

Duda is unruffled. It is just another challenge to tackle - like part of a game.

“This class is like a break in my day because it's so fun,” she said. She is also taking game design with Callinan, who also considers the classes he teaches fun.

Duda is thinking of going into computer networking since she has enjoyed her classes in that area. Next semester, she will be an intern at Cutco in Olean, N.Y., to see if that is what she would really like to do.

However, the skills she learns in Callinan's classes cross over, she says, because they improve her abilities with computer coding - speaking the language that tells computers what to do.

Callinan has plans to show off his students' work. Several students in the class are working on a VR tour of the campus that the public can use, and an art show in January at Pitt-Bradford will feature the students' worlds as well as ones they create with art students.

Currently, VR is being used commercially primarily in training programs for companies such as Lockheed Martin, but as the price of headsets like Oculus Rift drop, more and more people will begin using VR recreationally, Callinan said. While it can be hard to determine what technology will take off and what will become a flash in the pan, when tech giant Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion in 2014, Callinan said, he knew VR was here to stay.