Every week, student employees in the University Libraries’ Applied Research in Immersive Experiences and Simulations (ARIES) program and their faculty mentor, Todd Ogle, brainstorm in the virtual meeting checkerboard many remote professionals are now used to. Despite the challenges of remote work, they have continued their immersive and virtual reality technology research and projects throughout the pandemic.

Projects like creating a virtual learning tool for veterinary medicine students and building innovative spaces with diversity in mind haven’t missed a beat. Students, such as School of Visual Arts’ creative technologies major Brady Blauvelt, have been able to successfully transition to all virtual work while learning new collaboration skills, time management practices, and resiliency along the way. 

“Luckily, the pandemic hasn’t affected us as much as we initially thought,” said Blauvelt. “Being that most of our work is on the computer, we have been able to continue our work remotely. If we need to do something on the personal lab computers, we actually have options for that as well. Virginia Tech and Todd Ogle have helped us set up a computer program, which lets us remote access to our lab computers. This gives us instant access to the lab from anywhere we can connect to the internet.”

ARIES employs more than a dozen students from a variety of majors in the College of Science, College of Engineering, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, College of Architecture and Urban Studies, and College of Natural Resources and Environment. The program prepares students for the workforce with hands-on, experiential learning opportunities in immersive environments development, gaming for entertainment and learning, evaluation, visualization design, and simulations. 

Blauvelt’s current project is a collaboration with the College of Veterinary Medicine to create a unique desktop computer application to help veterinary medicine students learn horse, dog, and cow anatomy. 

“Using computer and scanning technology, we have created scale models of a dog, horse, and cow skeleton plus their major internal organs,” said Blauvelt. “The students can then use their computer to explore the models and study their bone structure and accurate organ placement.”

Blauvelt and other creative technologies students working for ARIES created a quizzing system for the tool so a teacher can import questions into the program and the veterinary medicine students can respond directly on the model. This tool is designed to replace a traditional physical model that wears over time. 

“I find this project really interesting because it allows students in the classroom to learn like never before. I have heard stories about the different parts of the physical model developing holes or cracks over time. This affects the students’ ability to learn accurately,” said Blauvelt. “Using our program, we can ensure that the model is always pristine, while allowing each student to have their own private viewing.”

Creative technologies major and ARIES student employee Zac Kim is working on web-based virtual reality spaces for the Re-Imagining diVersity initiative at Virginia Tech to create innovative spaces with diversity in mind. 

“We have recently partnered with the Ujima Living Learning Community to create virtual spaces with the goal of illustrating the Black student experience here at Virginia Tech,” said Kim. “I have been working on this project since [spring 2020], and I’m very passionate about it. Not only does it utilize an especially potent form of virtual learning during this time of quarantine, but it takes technological exploration and orients it with an inclusive mindset.”

ARIES students review over Zoom a 3D model of a horse skull in Pixologic ZBrush.

ARIES students virtually review work on a 3D horse skeleton.
ARIES students review over Zoom a 3D model of a horse skull in Pixologic ZBrush.

The students’ lessons learned include technical knowledge and a smattering of communication and collaboration skills. 

“The biggest thing that I’m learning is being a part of a diverse team,” added Kim. “As a creative tech major, I am accustomed to being the sole director, animator, and producer of my personal pieces. However in ARIES, we are constantly interacting and working with people across departments. Engineers, computer scientists, artists, historians, and enthusiasts are all wrapped up in a single lab. This departmental mixing has been extremely educational. I’ve learned how to effectively work with other skill sets different than mine and I hear that skill is invaluable.”

Both Kim and Blauvelt admit that working remotely through the pandemic has its challenges. They say Zoom fatigue is real, and they miss the face-to-face in-person interaction that fuels creativity and collaborative learning.

“The pandemic has affected my time in ARIES in that I no longer have the ability to be in community with my coworkers,” said Kim. “Bouncing ideas off of others in the lab was one of the primary ways I improved, so it has been a bit of a downer.”

Blauvelt also misses seeing his peers in the lab.

“Before, I could walk into our lab and be able to connect and get feedback from my peers,” said Blauvelt. “Changing to online learning has taken that aspect of personal connection away from us. That being said, as a group we consistently meet each week online to not only discuss our project, but also about what is going on with our lives.”

ARIES Executive Director Todd Ogle said that he has encountered challenges as well, but also learned some valuable lessons for engaging students.

“We have always worked with remote collaborators, both domestic and in Europe, so holding meetings where at least part of the team is online is not unusual,” said Ogle. “But I am a hands-on, big-tent person, so not being able to spend time with my students in-person is frustrating. It has been more challenging than I expected to on-board and integrate my new students, and I didn't get to say goodbye to my graduating seniors in person. But I have learned one valuable lesson in remote work; identifying a project that a large cohort of them can get into together helps to form the team bonds that we usually get from our time in the studios together, so I'll take that lesson with me.”

Students have persisted and created projects that are pushing the boundaries of virtual and immersive technologies. Bringing the group’s varied expertise to play on interdisciplinary projects continues to fuel their academic passion.

“To be able to work with such a diversity of majors is super exciting to me,” said Kim. “Innovation is another large contributor. The ability to be on the forefront of technology and be surrounded by people who are excited and curious about it is great. I am always hungry for another challenge and searching for a new skill to learn, so my time in the lab has been wonderful as it satisfies a bit of that hunger.”

Because of these hands-on, minds-on experiences in ARIES, these students will be ready for whatever their professional future holds.

“I know that ARIES will really help me no matter what job I go into. The work I complete in ARIES is real professional work. Showing these types of projects on my website or speaking about them within interviews shows a certain maturity in how I work,” said Blauvelt. “I also know that wherever my future takes me, I will always have to work with others. ARIES has introduced me to so many different people from diverse backgrounds. I really think this has prepared me to work with and understand others, no matter who they are.”

Written by Ann Brown