Baylor Virtual Reality Club focuses on trending technology

An elevator rises. The doors open.

The Waco Tribune-Herald reports a few steps forward, a wooden plank positions the user teetering above skyscrapers and a bustling downtown.

And that’s before spiders and clowns add to the pressure.

Without the headset, the user is back in a small room in Baylor University’s Moody Library.

The scene is out of a virtual reality game called “Richie’s Plank Experience,” an example the Baylor Virtual Reality Club uses to showcase VR to its members.

Virtual reality, defined as a computer-generated simulation of an interactive three-dimensional environment, has wide potential, from entertainment to education. VR is already in use for general instruction in some college classrooms, and Baylor officials are exploring its potential.

Education by VR is far more relaxing than the nightmarish fantasies some games feature. One application at Baylor lets users take close looks at human anatomy — lungs before and after years of smoking, for instance, or immersive experiences inside of a stomach.

“I watched a heart procedure in here,” said Tanner Osborn, a Baylor academic consultant who works with VR. “And after watching, I feel like I learned about it.”

About two dozen faculty and staff members recently attended a VR session with Osborn, and almost everyone had an idea for how it could be incorporated in a course, he said.

One art department professor mused about a virtual gallery — a blank museum room where students place works of art and design the room based on flow.

“It’s just a different way to learn, especially for a visual learner,” Osborn said. “I find students learn best when they’re engaged, and there’s not a more engaging experience than this.”

Almost every university has VR technology in some form because of the gaming industry, and education is catching up with the technology’s potential, Osborn said.

Oculus Rift, a popular VR system, is listed on Amazon for $399, about $200 less than its opening price in 2016. Users wear a goggle-like headset and hold a small controller in each hand.

James Cotter, an electrical and computer engineering sophomore, leads the Baylor Virtual Reality Club, which was chartered in January. Every other Monday, about 35 Baylor students flock to the library for meetings.

Cotter describes the technology as “stepping into a new world, where you can see, you can walk around and you experience the presence of somewhere you’re not, somewhere created by other people for you.”

While recovering from knee surgery a year ago, Cotter used Google Earth in VR to “walk” around campus from his bedroom. He also once used it while preparing for a New Orleans vacation with his mother, mapping out a route to the Superdome.

“When we were driving into New Orleans, I recognized buildings,” he said. “I knew exactly where we were and we’ve never been here before.”

Jake Rutkowski, also a sophomore officer of the club, said he saw Baylor for the first time in VR from Dallas. He then decided to visit in person.

Cotter, Rutkowski and fellow member Sean Blonien communicate with several gaming companies, which allow them to play and share with the club. They recently mingled with developers and players at South by Southwest, an annual conference in Austin focused on technology and arts.

“My friends play it and say, ‘Wow, this is like the future,’ ” Blonien said. “And it’s interesting because it’s now. You can use this right now and develop it right now. We can grow this industry now to make it even better, which is what I really like.”

Rutkowski said he experienced the artwork of Vincent Van Gogh in VR.

“If you’ve ever stepped inside a painting, it’s really interesting,” he said.

The New York Times has reported on athletes using VR to train and study game film.

Osborn’s goal is to expose as many people as possible to VR and let them decide how best to use it.

“I was an astronaut last week,” he said. “I went to the bottom of the sea a couple weeks ago. I can’t do those things. I’m never going to go to space, but I floated. I looked around and saw Earth as a little speck. I can’t do that in real life. That’s so cool.”

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Information from: Waco Tribune-Herald, http://www.wacotrib.com

This is an AP Weekend Member Exchange shared by the Waco Tribune-Herald

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