A little more than a year ago, Mano Barkovics didn’t know much about virtual reality. He thought it was interesting, sure, but didn’t believe in its ability to truly immerse a person in a virtual world.
That all changed with a class at the University of Washington’s iSchool and a project to create a virtual reality underwater submersible.
Barkovics, who intends to major in Informatics at the iSchool, took INFO 466 with Lecturer Ran Hinrichs. The class is conducted entirely in the virtual world, using the Second Life platform.
“I learned how much I loved VR in that class,” Barkovics said. “It gave me a passion that has turned into a hobby and into my life’s work.”
He enjoyed it so much, and has such an aptitude for the skills needed, that he now helps teach the VR class as a teaching assistant to Hinrichs.
To conclude the class, students tackle a real-world project. Mano and his team found a particularly intriguing challenge. Thanks to James Reichert, who works in Microsoft’s HoloLens department and had been advising students on marketing and selling virtual reality creations, Barkovics and his team connected with OceanGate, a company based in Everett, Washington, that has created a small ocean submersible called Cyclops.
Barkovics and his team wanted to see what they could do with a VR submersible.
The Open the Oceans team in front of the "real life" Cyclops submersible. (l to r) Adonay Lebeneh, Christian Sarason, Tri Luu, Nam Nguyen, Yassin Bahid and Mano Barkovics.
With the help of the staff at OceanGate, they visited Cyclops and documented it carefully. They interviewed the Cyclops team, including pilots, engineers and the executive director of OceanGate.
The students then created a 3-D model of the sub using Maya, a 3-D animation and simulation software, and exported it into Second Life.
With a lot of creative problem solving, the team created a realistic 3-D model that behaved as the real Cyclops would, and yet still worked within the constraints of Second Life. In about two weeks, most of the work was done.
The students had created a virtual submersible that could navigate the virtual oceans, making a user feel like they were truly exploring deep underwater.
It wasn’t easy. They had to consider many factors: how the ship behaved, but also considerations such as the opacity of seawater would affect how things looked. The students created the environment to look like Puget Sound, with seaweed, jellyfish and other ocean creatures.
The project was extremely well received, both by OceanGate and by the fellow students.
“The students built credibility,” Hinrichs said. “They were able to establish a trust in the immersive world.”
Hinrichs has seen a shift in his students over time. It used to be that, when students started his class, virtual reality was completely new to them. Now, though, virtual reality has arrived, Hinrichs says, and there’s no disputing that. Some students come to his class already familiar with VR and excited to learn what they can do with it.
Hinrichs was impressed, but not particularly surprised, by how quickly the students brought the project together. He says the collaborative, immersive abilities of VR make it easy for teams to create a project quickly.
“You can log in at any point in the process and at any time, from anywhere,” he said. “It becomes truly immersive. “We focus on the psychological effectiveness of working together online.”
By working with a real-world customer, students gained valuable skills, Hinrichs said.
“When they take on a customer like this, they have to think holistically,” he said. “They have to think of all the elements: Design, marketing, script, filming, uploading. They tend to form little micro companies.”
The knowledge the students had already collected from their time in the iSchool also helped them pull the elements of the project together.
Lightweight VR lenses can be used with smartphones, similar to using a Google Cardboard viewer.
Barkovics said that two classes were particularly helpful: Design Thinking and User Experience / Information Architecture. He said those classes helped him learn how to carefully reflect on his ideas, rather than just go straight into designing. Over time, he discovered the importance of carefully building products from scratch, with time given for analysis and reworking.
“Most importantly I learned to always reflect and record my work, that way I could refer to my previous ideations. This helped me to envision, explain, and evaluate solutions to a wide range of human problems involving information and interaction that I came across in my journey,” Barkovics said.
For the OceanGate project, that meant the team started by building simple objects, just to see how they appeared in the virtual underwater environment.
“Our original submersible was nothing but an oval wooden shape, but it truly helped us to plan our concept from sticky notes to ‘reality’,” Barkovics said.
For the final project, the students took their audience on an expedition in the virtual Cyclops, to show off its capabilities. They explored shipwrecks and undersea volcanoes. They observed marine creatures and fixed the leak on an underwater pipeline.
Christian Sarason, the executive director of OceanGate Foundation, a non-profit partner of OceanGate, was invited to observe the students’ final presentation. The foundation is dedicated to using ocean exploration as a hook to get students interested in math and science. Sarason wasn’t involved in the students’ initial work and attended the presentation not knowing what to expect.
"I thought, sure, that sounds interesting. I'll hang out and watch and give feedback on what it looks like and whether it could be useful. It seemed like a really intriguing project,” he said. “So I got online and started watching and I was blown away."
Sarason said the students did a great job of tying the different pieces together. It made him look at virtual reality in a new way.
“I had never thought of using a virtual world as a way to do that kind of outreach,” he said.
Sarason’s job and passion is to get other people excited about oceans. He says that virtual reality could be a powerful way to reach people.
“As the executive director for education outreach, I wondered how the OceanGate Foundation might use that to extend our message. One of the challenges we have overall in oceanography, across the board, is it is really challenging to have people understand the size and breadth of the ocean and the impact that the ocean has on life on Earth."
“I saw what they had pulled off and started thinking about the ability to use virtual technology as a way to get better engagement with students around ocean issues,” he said.
Around the same time iSchool students were working on their virtual reality project, Sarason was working with Seattle Central College students who were building a 360-degree camera to show what a trip in Cyclops looked like. Those students submitted a proposal and were invited to present on a panel at the Oceans16 conference.
Sarason also invited Barkovics and Hinrichs to join them at the conference. Barkovics presented on a panel about the work he and his team had done.
Barkovics said it was exciting to participate on the panel. He appreciated the chance to show how virtual reality has so much potential: to make training or expeditions more affordable and to show people around the world how Cyclops works without them needing to visit the actual submersible.
Sarason said it was exciting to see virtual reality presented in a new way for oceanography.
While OceanGate has drastically lowered the price of entry for those looking to explore the deep sea, operating these vehicles is still not cheap. Sending people out in submersibles for training and demonstration purposes is a time-consuming and expensive process. However, with an effective virtual simulation, OceanGate could reduce the costs of training, create better-prepared pilots, and more closely monitor which areas of preparedness need attention before high-stakes missions in the physical ocean.
“Virtual reality has been around for a long time, particularly in ocean work and scientific visualization,” he said. “But this is a new way of thinking about using consumer-style technology to solve business or science problems in a new way.”
Sarason said he can see virtual reality becoming an extremely powerful tool for team building and problem solving—beyond it’s already powerful use as a way to scientifically visualize a specific process.
“This approach turns virtual reality into a tool that helps build excitement and expertise and sparks interesting questions that teams can work on to solve ocean problems,” he said. “And that lines up nicely with what OceanGate is doing.”
Sarason said the teamwork of the group impressed him. It was clear to him that the team members found a way to make the most of every member’s strength, and that really improved the presentation.
“It really speaks highly to the culture that Ran is building and the freedom he gives the student teams. They're all taking it seriously and doing a great job,” he said. “It's pretty clearly that the skills that they are getting, or already have, are going to be in high demand."
Hinrichs agrees that virtual reality skills are going to be valuable for students, and he also stresses that just as important is having a wide base of knowledge, like students are gaining in the iSchool.
“Virtual reality skills are going to bring in top dollar, but you have to be able to do it all: Learn many different software packages almost instantly, design with a client in a collaborative environment, and of course have that wacky skill — the one where you'll build a submersible in a virtual world."
By: Jessi Loerch, ECO Contributing Writer