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Jan. 26, 2017

Experience architecture students making virtual reality accessible to all

Walking the Great Wall of China or exploring the Parthenon without leaving the classroom may seem like something out of a sci-fi movie; however, senior Tommy Truong and junior Eric Martin, both experience architecture majors, are researching new ways to use virtual reality.

The project began with a request from the Detroit Institute of Arts, which wanted to create a free method of modeling art exhibits. Using Microsoft’s Kinect, Martin and Truong developed an interactive art exhibit that, in turn, inspired them to begin applying the concept of virtual reality to their own education.

“What we were getting at was an accessible and affordable way to create environments and simulations for education,” Truong said. “We wanted to create a platform for faculty in the humanities that allows them to think about virtual reality and how it can benefit their own pedagogy.”

With the help of faculty adviser Jon Frey, associate professor of classics and art history, Martin and Truong began focusing their research on how to make hands-on learning accessible to every student and less on the technical skills that go into the virtual reality process.

“Due to student or faculty economic situations or time constraints, they may not be able to travel the world to view different locations or events, but we can rebuild those as simulations and they can see it for themselves,” Truong said. “And it’s not just through the interpretation of a filmmaker or a photographer; it’s a 360-degree immersive environment they can interpret for themselves.”

Since beginning their research, Truong and Martin have presented at the Undergraduate Research and Fellowships Conference, two LOCUS conferences at MSU and the SIGDOC Telecommunications and Design Conference in Washington, D.C., where they placed third in the student research competition. Most recently, the pair presented at the Making Learning Accessible Conference at MSU in December.

Above all, the pair is proud of the potential impact their project can make on society.

“One of the best things I’ve learned from all of this is how to help people build empathy,” Truong said. “We can’t experience everything, but by being able to use virtual reality, we have the opportunity to see the world through someone else’s eyes, whether that be a simulation, a game or some kind of story. I want to use this experience as a way to extend my ability to tell stories and build empathy.”