When you think of universities exploring new technologies, you tend to think of big research projects that take years, with students and faculties pulling together in one direction. Then there's San Jose State University's VR Lab, which takes the opposite approach.
San Jose State sits in the aorta of Silicon Valley, and many of its graduates move on to big and small players in virtual and mixed reality, from Microsoft and Facebook to Immerex. So obviously, VR was going to become a big ticket on campus, and it soon began making appearances in different departments. Enter, the VR lab.
The lab, which started in October 2016, was designed to be an open platform, an incubator for students to follow their passions. It's open to anyone on campus, from animation students to filmmakers to journalists. Robert Bruce, a lecturer and head of the VR lab, says he looks around campus for talent in any field, and when he finds someone he asks them what their dreams are; if they align with the mission of the lab he invites them to stop by. There are no obligations, students - once they sign up and join the Slack group - can work on what they want at their own pace.
Ultimately, the lab is designed to make students stakeholders in their own projects, so that they can grow leadership skills and stand out in a way that fits who they are. "I'm not looking for free labor," Bruce says. "When people work on projects, I tell them, 'That's your project, that's your baby, you do it. I'll give you the hardware you need to do your development.'"
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That was certainly the pitch to Ian Hunter, a senior software engineering major who was pointed to the lab by Dan Harkey, director of SJSU's software engineering graduate program. Hunter said Bruce pitched him $8,000 worth of development hardware to work with. He was interested, because buying equipment to develop on the HTC Vive is expensive, but he wasn't sold yet. Well, until he visited the lab one night. Bruce was playing music, "Mediterranean Sundance" specifically, and Hunter was sold on the atmosphere of the lab.
Students are constantly bustling in an out, shooting quick hello's and goodbye's to each other. They check their projects and then head off to their next class.
The roster made up of different knowledge sets; the open structure of the lab; the numerous projects. All of this has fostered a collaborative culture. While Wareable was visiting the lab, Hunter was excited to show off a promo video he had completed for his project, Science Lab VR. The room coalesced around his monitor, genuinely excited to see what he'd been working on. A couple pf moments later, Andrew Ajemian, president of SJSU's game development club, noticed something off in the water animation of Hunter's project, quickly telling him he could help make it better.
Wareable got to spend time inside the VR Lab, demoing a handful of what the students were working on. These are their projects.
Science Lab VR
Hunter's project is built with the advising of assistant materials engineering professor Özgür Keleş. The project is actually a derivative of a chemistry lab VR app from UC San Diego, but Hunter's work goes a little beyond it. First, the app can simulate what it's like inside of a molecule, and in our demo we found it to be more intense than most VR simulations. There are molecules flying all over the place, and it's hard not to feel like you're in a swarm of bees.
The second part of the project is aimed at being a new kind of classroom. Keleş tells us the idea is to get students to learn without being bored or distracted, because it's hands-on learning, but without having to purchase expensive equipment that hands-on learning typically requires
Essentially, you can walk up to a periodic table, grab molecules and slam them together to create polymers and, eventually, see the reactions when molecules interact. But that's not all - there's also a second periodic table that allows for more advanced simulations. "Ideally you could go to the periodic table, you could choose your element you want to test. Like say steel, either in a rod or a flat sheet, then go to the tensile section and then test it there to see the properties of the material," Hunter says.
That's just what Hunter is working on now. In the future, Keleş tells us that they want to add 3D printing into Science Lab VR. "So you can 3D print in virtual reality and then test the material properties of those things," he says. "And if it works, you can then 3D print [the same object] in real life." The idea is to cut down on unnecessary printing and testing, freeing up more resources, and making it far more efficient to build things.
Mary Blair Fountain
Lauren Hanf, an animation-illustration major, took a different approach to VR. Rather than code an app, she wants to use VR to improve the real world. The project, also an entrant into the Paseo Prototyping Festival, which is aimed at improving the quality of life in SJSU, is about re-imaging places on campus.
She chose a fountain she walks by all the time as the centerpiece for her project. At night, Hanf notes, the SJSU campus can be a dark and not-so-friendly place, especially as a female student walking to her car at 11 p.m. Not only is the area dark, but the fountain is being left behind, aesthetically, by new buildings cropping up around it.
"The area the fountain is in is undergoing a lot of redevelopment," Hanf says. "There's a new gym space that's being put in next door, there's a new health center. This fountain is one of the first things people see on this campus."
For phase one of her project, Hanf simply recreated the fountain and its surrounding area in VR and lit it up with some colored lighting. In our demo, the result was impressive, and already better looking than the actual fountain. My reaction, and the reactions of others who have tried her demo, including a San Jose city planner, is why she turned to VR in the first place.
"I'm very interested in using VR as a way to create concept art so designers can have a more effective workflow with their clients. A lot of times when you're an artist and you're trying to share your vision people can't imagine what it is you want to create for them."
The next phase is to remodel the fountain into a working play space dedicated to Mary Blair, an SJSU alumnus who was one of the few female animators in the 1940s animation industry. While she's known for her work on Disney movies, which include Dumbo, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Lady and the Tramp, and Fantasia, she's probably best known for the look of Disneyland's It's a Small World ride.
Once the new demo is done, she plans to show it off to SJSU officials in an effort to make her Mary Blair Fountain a reality. Beyond that, she's already thinking of other places on campus she could use VR to redevelop.
Andrew Ajemian, a computer games science major, wanted to build a game. But not just any game, he wanted to make a first-person shooter where audio influences the gameplay. By relying on audio, he could get rid of the HUD. "In a VR experience you don't want a HUD cluttering your screen, so there is no HUD in this game," he tells Wareable.
The game works like this: You upload a song of your choice - in our demo it was a track from one of the old school Zelda games - and the level is customized to the song. The world pulses, weapons fire, and enemies attack, all to the beat of your music.
When you're damaged by enemies, the music's tempo increases to kick up the stress level. When you kill enemies and collect the sweet gems that spew out of their dead bodies, you slow the tempo down. Each level is as long as the song, and the goal is to make it to the end of the level before the song is over. To minimize people just running through, Ajemian says he's considering making the timer go faster, just like the music, when damaged.
Right now, Ajemian is working on procedurally generating the levels based on your music choice. "There are three milestones for procedural generation. The first milestone is it procedurally generates something every time. The second milestone is it procedurally generates the level based on the hash of the song, and maybe some of its metadata. The third milestone is it actually analyzes the entire song before playing it and then uses that as the seed to generate the level."
The game is still a couple weeks away from completion, but Ajemian says he wants to spend lots of time polishing the assets and making sure it's the best it can be before uploading it to a storefront like Steam.
Xulu's game world
Xulu is a virtual world and social space that sounds a lot like Second Life, but in VR. You can create your own avatar, interact with people, drive vehicles, play games, do battle and more.
Xiao Li "Shelley" Wu, a senior computer science major, is working on documenting APIs for the Xulu world for future developers in SJSU's VR Lab to work on. And not only that, but she's porting the Xulu world, which currently runs on Oculus, for HTC Vive.
Student Petr Khromov isn't working with virtual reality directly. Instead, he's been looking for ways to apply computer vision to various scenarios. Like when he was sick during Spring Break and found a maddening Flappy Bird-like game on Steam. He grew so frustrated with how simple yet hard it was that he created a bot that could play the game better than he could.
Or how him and a group of students, last semester, created a website that masked the faces in videos you uploaded to it. In our demo, we were shown a short 27 second clip from That 70s Show uploaded to the site. The website was able to detect the faces in the clip and map them in a couple minutes.
That project has since been passed on to other students this semester, while Khromov moves on to his big project: Waldo. In three days, he was able to build real-time face detection and avatar animation. It's like a faster version of a Snapchat filter. You look at a webcam and it instantly picks up your basic facial layout, moving and adjusting at the same time your real face does.
While Waldo doesn't directly tie into VR, it could eventually be used in a VR game, maybe one built by the game development contingent in the lab, for social interactions. Or it could be used in more of a social world, like Xulu.
The project is currently on hold as Khromov deals with his busy school schedule, which doesn't yet allow him to embark on the research needed for the next phase of Waldo. Though Khromov isn't yet thinking about how far his tech could go. "I'm a proper introvert, I don't think about people using my stuff. It's just for sport."
Beyond the lab
The lab is a way for students to pursue their passions in VR with other people who are doing the same, and Bruce's job is to keep it going so they can focus completely on their work and not the bureaucracy that could surround it. "I want to give students the ability to do the things they wish to achieve, and I don't want politics, and departments, and fighting to get in the way of that," he tells us.
The lab room feels like it's bursting at the seams when more than four people are in it, which is a problem for a lab that has 99 members. Harkey tells us they want a bigger space, but room on campus is currently at a premium.
Collaboration is pervasive in the lab, whether it's the lab enjoying one student's bot created to beat a difficult game, or excited by a game that uses your music to build its levels, or an animator looking to rebuild a fountain with VR. Each student is eager to show off their project to their peers, and is equally eager to help push and collaborate on making other projects better.
As students crack away on their projects, Bruce toils away in the background applying for grants and building opportunities with companies like Microsoft for his students.