The Daily Gamecock

USC faculty members look to use virtual reality as a new method of teaching: It has 'untapped potential'

The player enters the game. 

A message tells them to explore a building whose blueprints and creation can normally only be viewed on paper. As the game goes on, the player learns more about the architect behind the building's majestic columns and detailed interior. 

The player completes the game, removes the headset and comes back to reality after being fully immersed in a new kind of learning — one that involves the use of virtual reality.

The game, Piranesi’s Worlds, shows how 18th-century Italian architect Giovanni Piranesi created his own version of the Pantheon. Jason Porter, one creator of the game, said by turning Piranesi’s engravings into a virtual reality (VR) landscape, the player can interact with a part of history they may not be able to visit in real life.

“You can explore his maps in ways that are more interactive than just staring at them on the wall," Porter said. "I'm interested in that because it's creating a space that you can't really make, and you can only do in a made-up VR world.”

Since developing this game, Porter, who is also an instructor in the visual communications department at USC, wants to bring more of a VR element to his classes. 

“I want to teach them how to use the tools to tell stories on (VR),” Porter said. “So my challenge is, how can I develop a class that provides equipment and resources to have students explore what they can do and how they can communicate ideas and stories using this type of stuff?”

Porter is not the only faculty member at USC who wants to incorporate VR into the classroom. Media arts professor Evan Meaney already has a game design class where students have access to a VR lab in McMaster School and choose to create their games using VR.  

“Virtual reality has a lot of really interesting — yet soon to be tapped — untapped potential,” Meaney said. “And I think there's an artistic and expressive and creative version of immersion that happens in VR and AR that is literally unparalleled.”

Meaney also worked on the Piranesi project alongside Porter, creating the concept design and the initial design document for the game. Two others, alumni Diem Dao and Michael Whitehead also contributed. Dao worked on the 3-D modeling and Whitehead created the code for the game.  

Dao graduated in May 2021 with a Bachelor of Science in computer information systems and began working on Piranesi’s Worlds when she was a sophomore at USC after seeing a poster advertising help on the project. She said she had only a little bit of exposure to VR before joining the project. 

Since she was little, Dao has worked with 3-D modeling. For her, the project combined her passion of the art form with the ability to develop more skills in VR.

Whitehead joined the project right after he graduated from USC in 2019 with a Bachelor of Science in computer science. During his final semester of senior year, Whitehead took one of Meaney’s classes that allowed him to create and design his own game with VR. 

After graduation, Meaney approached him with the opportunity to work on the Piranesi's Worlds project — an offer Whitehead said he couldn't refuse.

"It was very nice to hear from him, and it was also nice to hear if that kind of opportunity, specifically, the opportunity to work in VR, because that was something that I had not done before," Whitehead said.

Despite their different introductions to VR, both said they believe VR can be a tool to help further education within the university. 

“There's so much that can be learned and so much that can be done with this technology," Whitehead said. "And I hope that the work I've done and the work my team members have done, help inspire others to make projects just like the digital Piranesi.” 

Other faculty members in different colleges across USC have also been looking into how VR can fit into a classroom setting. According to Aisha Haynes, the assistant director at the Center for Teach Excellence (CTE), she has seen interest everywhere from faculty in nursing, anthropology, education and sport and entertainment management.

One professor, she said, has a class on the Olympics where he uses VR tools to showcase the environment.

“So instead of students needing to go to the Olympics to engage and interact with the Olympics, then they can put on the headset and engage that way, so we've seen a wide variety of people utilizing it in different disciplines,” Haynes said.

However, not all professors believe that VR can be the most beneficial technology for their classrooms. 

Associate chemical engineering professor Edward Gatzke said he believes the use of augmented reality (AR) would better suit the educational needs of students in the College of Engineering and Computing. AR puts images into the participant’s own reality rather than fully immersing them like in VR.

“Ninety-five percent of what you see is real because you’re looking through the clear screen, but then it will put pixels where it needs to, to each eye to see (an object), so that when you move, the virtual object stays there,” Gatske said.

In addition, he said using AR can be less disorienting for the participant because when they move, they aren’t as easily sick from the moving images since they are not fully immersed. 

Gatzke said he has also had trouble using educational relevant material with VR because a lot of the math his students learn is very two-dimensional. Meaney also said not every student’s learning needs are going to be met by VR.

“VR is an awesome tool for students of art to create artwork with. Do you necessarily need VR to teach arithmetic? Probably not,” Meaney said. “I think AR has some great use cases in classroom as a pedagogical mechanism, and as a teaching tool.”

For now, he said he thinks the university can help meet students' needs for VR by providing opportunities and materials for them to work with VR. 

Haynes said while the Oculus Quest 2 headsets they use in the CTE have become more accessible in recent years, the overall cost still varies, depending on the amount of VR headsets a class needs for its curriculum. Right now, these Oculus headsets start at $400.

Despite concerns over cost and other limitations, Porter said he believed it is still necessary for students to work with this type of technology in order to be prepared for the future workforce.

“The speed of technology right now is moving so incredibly fast that if we're not thinking about how to use these tools, by the time we start thinking about it, they're already going to be there and it’s already going to be a thing,” Porter said.


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