What is virtual reality? What can it do? What can’t it do? What is it good/bad for? These are some of the many questions we ask on the first day of our course, Virtual Reality Design (Virtual Reality for Interdisciplinary Applications from 2017–2018). Since 2017, professors Ole Molvig of the History Department and Bobby Bodenheimer of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering have been co-teaching this course annually to roughly 50 students at a time. With each offering of the course, we have significantly revamped our underlying pedagogical goals and strategies based upon student feedback, the learning literature, and our own experiences. What began as a course about virtual reality has become a course about interdisciplinary teamwork.
Both of those terms, interdisciplinarity and teamwork, have become deeply woven into our effort. While a computer scientist and a historian teach the course, up to ten faculty mentors from across the university participate as “clients.” The course counts toward the computer science major’s project-class requirement, but nearly half the enrolled students are not CS majors. Agile design and group mechanics require organizational and communication skills above all else. And the projects themselves, as shown below, vary widely in the topic and demands, requiring flexibility, creativity, programming, artistry, and most significantly, collaboration.
This focus on interdisciplinary teamwork, and not just in the classroom, has led to a significant, if unexpected, outcome: the crystallization of a substantial community of faculty and students engaging in virtual reality related research from a wealth of disciplinary viewpoints. Equipment purchased for the course remain active and available throughout campus. Teaching projects have grown into research questions and collaborations. A significant research cluster in digital cultural heritage was formed not as a result of, but in synergy with, the community of class mentors, instructors, and students.
Evolution of the Course
Prior to offering the joint course, both Bodenheimer (CS) and Molvig (History) had previously offered single-discipline VR based courses.
From the Computer Science side, Bodenheimer had taught a full three-credit course on virtual reality to computer science students. In lecture and pedagogy this course covered a fairly standard approach to the material for a one semester course, as laid out by the Burea and Coiffet textbook or the more recent (and applicable) Lavalle textbook (Lavalle 2017). Topically, the course covered such material as virtual reality hardware, displays, sensors, geometric modeling, three-dimensional transformations, stereoscopic viewing, visual perception, tracking, and the evaluation of virtual reality experiences. The goal of the course was to teach the computer science students to analyze, design, and develop a complex software system in response to a set of computing requirements and project specifications that included usability and networking. The course was also project-based with teams of students completing the projects. Thus it focused on collaborative learning, and teamwork skills were taught as part of the curriculum, since there is significant work that shows these skills are best taught and do not emerge spontaneously (Kozlowski and Ilgen 2006). This practice allowed a project of significant complexity to be designed and implemented over the course of the semester, giving a practical focus to most of the topics covered in the lectures.
From History, Molvig offered an additional one credit “lab course” option for students attached to a survey of The Scientific Revolution. This lab option offered students the opportunity to explore the creation of and meaning behind historically informed re-constructions or simulations. The lab gave students their first exposure to a nascent technology alongside a narrative context in which to guide their explorations. Simultaneous to this course offering, Vanderbilt was increasing its commitment to the digital humanities, and this course allowed both its instructor and students to study the contours of this discipline as well. While this first offering of a digital lab experience lacked the firm technical grounding and prior coding experience of the computer science offering, the shared topical focus (the scientific revolution) made for boldly creative and ambitious projects within a given conceptual space.
Unlike Bodenheimer, Molvig did not have a career-long commitment to the study of virtual reality. Molvig’s interest in VR comes rather from a science studies approach to emergent technology. And in 2016, VR was one of the highest profile and most accessible emergent technologies (alongside others such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, CRISPR, blockchain, etc). For Molvig, emergent technologies can be pithily described as those technologies that are about to go mainstream, that many people think are likely to be of great significance, but no one is completely certain when, for whom, how, or really even if, this will happen.
For VR then, in an academic setting, these questions look like this: Which fields is VR best suited for? Up to that point, it was reasonably common in computer science and psychology, and relatively rare elsewhere. How might VR be integrated into the teaching and research of other fields? How similar or dissimilar are the needs and challenges of these different disciplines pedagogical and research contexts?
Perhaps most importantly, how do we answer these questions? Our primary pedagogical approach crystallized around two fundamental questions:
- How can virtual reality inform the teaching and research of discipline X?
- How can discipline X inform the development of virtual reality experiences?
Our efforts to answer these questions led to the core feature that has defined our Virtual Reality Design course since its inception: interdisciplinarity. Rather than decide for whom VR is most relevant, we attempted to test it out as broadly as possible, in collaboration with as many scholars as possible.
Our course is co-taught by a computer scientist and a humanist. Furthermore, we invite faculty from across campus to serve as “clients,” each with a real-world, disciplinary specific problem toward which virtual reality may be applicable. While Molvig and Bodenheimer focused on both questions, our faculty mentors focused on question 1: is VR surgery simulation an effective tool? Can interactive, immersive 3D museums provide users new forms of engagement with cultural artifacts? How can VR and photogrammetry impact the availability of remote archeological sites? We will discuss select projects below, but as of our third offering of this course, we have had twenty-one different faculty serve as clients representing twelve different departments or schools, ranging from art history to pediatrics and chemistry to education. A full list of the twenty-four unique projects may be found in Appendix 1.
At the time of course planning, Vanderbilt began a program of University Courses, encouraging co-taught, cross disciplinary teaching experiments, incentivizing each with a small budget, which allowed us to purchase the hardware necessary to offer the course. One of our stated outcomes was to increase access to VR hardware, and we have intentionally housed the equipment purchased throughout campus. Currently, most available VR hardware available for campus use is the product of this course. Over time, purchases from our course have established 10 VR workstations across three different campus locations (Digital Humanities Center, The Wond’ry Innovation Center, and the School of Engineering Computer Lab). Our standard set up has been the Oculus Rift S paired with desktop PCs with minimum specs of 16GB RAM and 1080GTX GPUs.
As the design of the joint, team-taught and highly interdisciplinary course was envisioned, several course design questions presented themselves. In our first iteration of the course, a condensed and more accessible version of the computer science virtual reality class was lectured on. Thus Bodenheimer, the computer science instructor, lectured on most of the same topics he had lectured on but at a more general level, and focused on how the concepts were implemented in Unity, rather than from a more theoretical perspective that was present in the prior offering. Likewise, Molvig brought with him several tools of his discipline, a set of shared readings (such as the novel Ready Player One (Cline 2012)) and a response essay to the moral and social implications of VR. The class was even separated for two lectures, allowing Bodenheimer to lecture in more detail on C#, and Molvig to offer strategies on how to avoid C# entirely within Unity.
Subsequent offerings of the course, however, allowed us to abandon most of this structure, and to significantly revise the format. Our experience with how the projects and student teams worked and struggled led us to re-evaluate the format of the course. Best practices in teaching and learning recommend active, collaborative learning where students learn from their peers (Kuh et al. 2006). Thus, we adopted a structured format more conducive to teamwork, based on Agile (Pope-Ruark 2017). Agile is a framework and set of practices originally created for software development but which has much wider applicability today. It can be implemented as a structure in the classroom with a set of openly available tools that allow students to articulate, manage, and visualize a set of goals for a particular purpose, in our case, the creation of a virtual experience tailored to their clients specific research. The challenge for us, as instructors, was to develop methods to instrument properly the Agile methods so that the groups in our class can be evaluated on their use of them, and get feedback on them so that they can improve their practices. This challenge is ongoing. Agile methods are thus used in our class to help teams accomplish their collaborative goals and teach them teamwork practices.
We presume no prior experience with VR, the Unity3D engine, or C# for either the CS or non-CS students. Therefore the first third of the course is mainly focused on introducing those topics, primarily through lecture, demonstration, and a series of cumulative “daily challenges.” By the end of this first section of the course, all students are familiar with the common tools and practices, and capable of creating VR environments upon which they can act directly through the physics engine as well as in a predetermined, or scripted, manner. During the second third of the course, students begin working together on their group projects in earnest, while continuing to develop their skills through continued individual challenges, which culminate in an individual project due at the section’s end. For the second and third sections of the course, all group work incorporates aspects of the Agile method described above, with weekly in-class group standups, and a graded, bi-weekly sprint review, conducted before the entire class. The final section of the course is devoted entirely to the completion of the final group project, which culminates in an open “demo day” held during final examinations, which has proven quite popular.
Three-fifths of our students are upper level computer science students fulfilling a “project course” major requirement, while two-fifths of our students can be from any major except computer science. Each project team is composed of roughly five students with a similar overall ratio, and we tend to have about 50 students per offering. This distribution and size are enforced at registration because of the popularity of the CS major and demand for project courses in it. The typical CS student’s experience will involve at least three semesters of programming in Java and C++, but usually no knowledge of computer graphics or C#, the programming language used by Unity, our virtual reality platform. The non-CS students’ experience is more varied, but currently does not typically involve any coding experience. To construct the teams, we solicit bids from the students for their “top three” projects and “who they would like to work with.” The instructors then attempt to match students and teams so that everyone gets something that they want.
It is a fundamental assertion of this course that all members of a team so constructed can contribute meaningfully and substantially to the project. As it is perhaps obvious what the CS students contribute, it is important to understand what the non-CS students contribute. First, Unity is a sophisticated development platform that is quite usable, and, as mentioned, we spend significant course time teaching the class to use it. There is nothing to prevent someone from learning to code in C# using Unity. However, not everyone taking our class wants to be a coder, but they are interested in technology and using technical tools. Everyone can build models and design scenes in Unity. Also, these projects must be robust. Testing that incremental progress works and is integrated well into the whole project is key not only to the project’s success as a product, but also to the team’s grade. We also require that the teams produce documentation about their progress, and interact with their faculty mentor about design goals. These outward-facing aspects of the project are key to the project’s success and often done by the non-CS students. Each project also typically requires unique coding, and in our experience the best projects are one in which the students specialize into roles, as each project typically requires a significant amount of work. The Agile framework is key here, as it provides a structure for the roles and a way of tracking progress in each of them.
Since each project is varied, setting appropriate targets and evaluating progress at each review is one of the most significant ongoing challenges faced by the instructors.
A full list of the twenty-four projects may be found in Appendix 1.
Below are short descriptions and video walkthroughs of four distinctive projects that capture the depth, breadth, and originality fostered by our emphasis on interdisciplinarity in all aspects of the course design and teaching.
Example Project: Protein Modeling
The motivation for this project, mentored by Chemistry Professor Jens Meiler, came from a problem common to structural chemistry: the inherent difficulty of visualizing 3D objects. For this prototype, we aimed to model how simple proteins and molecules composed of a few tens of atoms interact and “fit” together. In drug design and discovery, this issue is of critical importance and can require significant amounts of computation (Allison et al. 2014). These interactions are often dominated by short-range van der Waals forces, although determining the correct configuration for the proteins to bind is challenging. This project illustrated that difficulty by letting people explore binding proteins together. Two proteins were given in an immersive environment that were graspable, and users attempted to fit them together. As they fit together, a score showing how well they fit was displayed. This score was computed based on an energy function incorporating Van der Waals attractive and repulsive potentials. The goal was to get the minimum score possible. The proteins and the energy equation were provided by the project mentor, although the students implemented a Van der Waals simulator within Unity for this project. Figures 1 and 2 show examples from the immersive virtual environment. The critical features of this project worth noting are that the molecules are three-dimensional structures that are asymmetric. Viewing them with proper depth perception is necessary to get an idea of their true shape. It would be difficult to recreate this simulation with the same effectiveness using desktop displays and interactions.
While issues of efficiency and effectiveness in chemical pedagogy drove our mentor’s interest, the student creators and demo day users were drawn to this project for its elements of science communication and gamification. By providing a running “high score” and providing a timed element, users were motivated to interact with the objects and experience far longer than with a 2D or static 3D visualization. One student member of this group did possess subject matter familiarity which helped incorporate the energy function into the experience.
Example Project: Vectors of Textual Movement in Medieval Cypress
Professor of French Lynn Ramey served as the mentor for this project. Unlike most other mentors, Prof. Ramey had a long history of using Unity3D and game technologies in both her research and teaching. Her goal in working with us was to recreate an existing prototype in virtual reality, and determine the added values of visual immersion and hand tracked interactivity. This project created a game that simulates how stories might change during transmission and retelling (Amer et al. 2018; Ramey et al. 2019). The crusader Kingdom of Cyprus served as a waypoint between East and West during the years 1192 to 1489. This game focuses on the early period and looks at how elements of stories from The Thousand and One Nights might have morphed and changed to please sensibilities and tastes of different audiences. In the game, the user tells stories to agents within the game, ideally gaining storytelling experience and learning the individual preferences of the agents. After gaining enough experience, the user can gain entry to the King’s palace and tell a story to the King, with the goal of impressing the King. During the game play, the user must journey through the Kingdom of Cyrus to find agents to tell stories to.
This project was very successful at showcasing the advantages of an interdisciplinary approach. Perhaps the project closest to a traditional video game, faculty and students both were constantly reminded of the interplay between technical and creative decisions. However, this was not simply an “adaption” of a finished cultural work into a new medium, but rather an active exploration of an open humanities research project asking how, why, when, and for whom are stories told. No student member of this group majored in the mentor’s discipline.
This project is ongoing, and more information can be found here: https://medievalstorytelling.org.
A video walkthrough of the game can be seen below.
Example Project: Interactive Geometry for K–8 Mathematical Visualization
In this project, Corey Brady, Professor of Education, challenged our students to take full advantage of the physical presence offered by virtual environments, and build an interactive space where children can directly experience “mathematical dimensionality.” Inspired by recent research (Kobiela et al. 2019; Brady et al. 2019) examining physical geometrical creation in two dimensions (think paint, brushes and squeegees), the students created a brightly lit and colored virtual room, where the user is initially presented with a single point in space. Via user input, the point can be stretched into a line, the line into a plane, and the plane into a solid (rectangles, cylinders, and prisms). While doing so, bar graph visualizations of length, width, height, surface area, and volume are updated in real-time while the user increases or decreases the object along its various axes.
Virtual Reality as an education tool has proven very popular, both amongst our students and in industry. No student member of this group specialized in education, but all members had of course first hand experience learning these concepts themselves as children. The opportunity to reimagine a nearly universal learning process was a significant draw for this project. After this course offering, Brady and Molvig have begun a collaboration to expand its utility.
A video demonstration of the project can be seen below.
Example Project: Re-digitizing Stereograms
For this project, Molvig led a team to bring nineteenth-century stereographic images into 21st century technology. Invented by Charles Wheatstone in 1838 and later improved by David Brewster, stereograms are nearly identical paired photographs that when viewed through a binocular display, a single “3D image”  was perceived by the viewer, often with an effect of striking realism. For this reason, stereoscopy is often referred to as “Victorian VR.” Hundreds of thousands of scanned digitized stereo-pair photos exist in archives and online collections, however it is currently extremely difficult to view these as intended in stereoscopic 3D. Molvig’s goal was to create a generalizable stereogram viewer: capable of bringing stereopair images from remote archives for viewing within a modern VR headset.
Student interest quickly coalesced around two sets of remarkable stereoscopic anatomical atlases, the Edinburgh Stereoscopic Atlas of Anatomy (1905) and Bassett Collection of Stereoscopic Images of Human Anatomy from the Stanford Medical Library. Driven by student interest, the 2019 project branched into a VR alternative to wetlab or flat 2D medical anatomy imagery. This project remains ongoing, as is Molvig’s original generalized stereo viewer, which now includes a machine learning based algorithm to automated the import and segmentation of any stereopair photograph.
Two demonstrations of the stereoview player are below, the first for medical anatomy images, the second are stereophotos taken during the American Civil War. All images appear in stereoscopic depth when viewed in the headset.
This course has numerous challenges, both inside and outside of the classroom, and we have by no means solved them all.
Securing support for co-teaching is not always easy. We began offering this course under a Provost level initiative to encourage ambitious teaching collaborations across disciplines. This initiative made it straightforward to count co-teaching efforts with our Deans, and provided some financial support for the needed hardware purchases. However, that initiative was for three course offerings, which we have now completed. Moving forward, we will need to negotiate our course with our Deans.
We rely heavily on invested Faculty Mentors to provide the best subject matter expertise. So far we have had no trouble finding volunteers, and the growing community of VR engaged faculty has been one of the greatest personal benefits, but as VR becomes less novel, we may experience a falloff in interest.
This is both the most rewarding and most challenging aspect of this course. Securing student buy-in on the value of interdisciplinary teamwork is our most consistent struggle. In particular, these issues arise around the uneven distribution of C# experience, and perceived notions of what type of work is “real” or “hard.” To mitigate these issues, we devote significant time during the first month of the course exposing everyone to all aspects of VR project development (technical and non-technical), and require the adoption of “roles” within each project to make responsibilities clear and workload distributed.
Virtual reality is a rapidly evolving field, with frequent hardware updates and changing requirements. We will need to secure new funding to significantly expand or update our current equipment.
Conclusions and Lessons Learned
Virtual reality technology is more accessible than ever, but it is not as accessible as one might wish in a pedagogical setting. It is difficult to create even moderately rich and sophisticated environments, without the development expertise gleaned through exposure to the computer science curriculum. A problem thus arises on two fronts. First, exposure to the computer science curriculum at the depth currently required to develop compelling virtual reality applications should ideally not be required of everyone. Unfortunately, the state of the art of our tools currently makes this necessary. Second, those who study computer science and virtual reality focus on building the tools and technology of virtual reality, the theories and algorithms integral to virtual reality, and the integration of these into effective virtual reality systems. Our class represents a compromise solution to the accessibility problem by changing the focus away from development of tools and technology toward collaboration and teamwork in service of building an application.
Our class is an introduction to virtual reality in the sense that students see the capability of modern commodity-level virtual reality equipment, software, and these limitations. They leave the class understanding what types of virtual worlds are easy to create, and what types of worlds are difficult to create. From the perspective of digital humanities, our course is a leveraged introduction to technology at the forefront of application to the humanities. Students are exposed to a humanities-centered approach to this technology through interaction with their project mentors.
In terms of the material that we, the instructors, focus most on in class, our class is about teamwork and problem-solving with people one has not chosen to work with. We present this latter skill as one essential to a college education, whether it comes from practical reasons, e.g., that is what students will be faced with in the workforce (Lingard & Barkataki 2013), or from theoretical perspectives on best ways to learn (Vygotsky 1978). The interdisciplinarity that is a core feature of the course is presented as a fact of the modern workforce. Successful interdisciplinary teams are able to communicate and coordinate effectively with one another, and we emphasize frameworks that allow these things to happen.
Within the broader Vanderbilt curriculum, the course satisfies different curricular requirements. For CS students, the course satisfies a requirement that they participate in a group design experience as part of their major requirements. The interdisciplinary nature of the group is not a major requirement, but is viewed as an advantage, since it is likely that most CS majors will be part of interdisciplinary teams during their future careers. For non-CS students, the course currently satisfies the requirements of the Communication of Science and Technology major and minor.
Over the three iterations of this course, we have learned that team teaching an interdisciplinary project course is not trivial. In particular, it requires more effort than each professor lecturing on their own specialty, and expecting effective learning to emerge from the two different streams. That expectation was closer to what we did in the first offering of this course, where we quickly perceived that this practice was not the most engaging format for the students, nor was it the most effective pedagogy for what we wanted to accomplish. The essence of the course is on creating teams to use mostly accessible technology to create engaging virtual worlds. We have reorganized our lecture and pedagogical practices to support this core. In doing this, each of us brings to the class our own knowledge and expertise on how best to accomplish that goal, and thus the students experience something closer to two views on the same problem. While we are iteratively refining this approach, we believe it is more successful.
Agile methods (Pope-Ruark 2017) have become an essential part of our course. They allow us to better judge the progress of the projects and determine where bottlenecks are occurring more quickly. They incentivize students to work consistently on the project over the course of the semester rather than trying to build everything at the end in a mad rush of effort. By requiring students to mark their progress on burn down charts, the students have a better visualization of the task remaining to be accomplished. Project boards associated with Agile can provide insight into the relative distribution of work that is occurring in the group, ideally allowing us to influence group dynamics before serious tensions arise.
This latter effort is a work in progress, however. A limitation of the course as it currently exists is that we need to do a better job evaluating teams (Hughes & Jones 2011). Currently our student evaluations rely too heavily on the final outcome of the project and not enough on the effectiveness of the teamwork within the team. Evaluating teamwork, however, has seemed cumbersome, and the best way to give meaningful feedback to improve teamwork practices is something we are still exploring. If we improved this practice, we could give students more refined feedback throughout the semester on their individual and group performance, and use that as a springboard to teach better team practices. Better team practices would likely result in increased quality of the final projects.