3-D gaming software turns educational, thanks to Duquesne student from Mt. Lebanon
Referring to what you see using Oculus Rift as three-dimensional is hardly doing it justice.
Look at a computer screen displaying an applicable image, put on the Rift's virtual-reality headset and be prepared to feel as if you can reach out and grab what you're viewing.
The product is scheduled to be available to the public in the first quarter of 2016, but in the meantime it's made its way to institutions of higher learning, including Duquesne University.
Computer science major Brian Adams, a 2013 graduate of Mt. Lebanon High School, had the opportunity to try Oculus Rift for its primary purpose, gaming. But he also started to think about how the technology could be used for other purposes, such as scientific applications.
In the meantime, a Duquesne faculty member was thinking along the same lines.
“I heard about the Oculus and the virtual reality, and how kids and students were interacting with this,” Jeffry Madura, professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, explained. “And I thought, this would be a nice mechanism to help students, both majors and nonmajors, to immerse themselves into the world of molecular systems.”
With an eye toward being able to view representations of atoms and molecules in three dimensions, Madura put out a call for students to help him develop the capability.
“I was the first one to respond,” Adams said. “I immediately was excited about the project.”
He and some other students went to work on adapting existing software to work with Oculus Rift, a procedure that ended up taking quite a while.
“We thought, let's try to implement our own method, create our own software,” he said. “So using a video game engine called Unity, we were able to implement the 3-D structures of the molecules into the program, and also integrate the Oculus Rift pretty easily.”
The result pretty much fits into Madura's vision of developing an educational tool to help provide a better understanding of how the basic components of chemistry work.
“This is another tool that allows us to get a look into something we've been looking at forever and discover something new,” he said. “And that's what research is all about.”
He is enthusiastic about how students will adapt to using the Oculus Rift headset and its specialized lenses in the name of research.
“When I put them on, I'm looking around and saying, wow. I'm seeing things I haven't seen before,” Madura, a Pleasant Hills resident, said. “But these kids, this is going to be natural for them. And they're going to do things that I wouldn't even think of doing.”
As for the technology's stunning 3-D effect, it is based on a double image that appears on the computer screen. Adams explained that the Oculus Rift lenses “warp the image to make it seem like you have perspective.”
Meanwhile, a device mounted on top of the screen picks up infrared signals produced by the headset.
“As you move, it tracks the way you move,” Adams said. “And that's pretty much how it works. It implements a 3-D effect, makes you feel as if you're right next there next to the atom.”
So instead of using the technology for video games, students will use it to learn, at small fraction of the price that a room-sized visualization system would cost.
“And hopefully, we're going to be able to take this to the public in the near future,” Madura said, “to make it available so they can put these goggles on and see what DNA looks like, see what a protein looks like, see where the water is, and start to interact and perhaps get some interest in the sciences.”