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'You can see what you can't imagine': RaD Lab making virtual reality a reality

Creighton graduate student Aaron Herridge tries on an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset.Consider the black hole.

Few but astrophysicists actually do, but just think what could be learned if someone could get close enough to one to study, up close, what really happens in a giant slurp of spacetime.

Or what about an atom? Could we ever drill down to see, up close, the workings of matter’s smallest pieces?

At Creighton University’s RaD Lab, a new initiative involving virtual reality is working closer to giving students a front-row seat to concepts and events heretofore unrealized in the long history of scientific observation and study. Using theoretical physics and astrophysics combined with composite photographs and software savvy, the virtual reality project is providing a glimpse of what it looks like when stars collide, what the view from Mars is like and what it feels like to be down at the atomic level.

“You can see what you can’t imagine,” said Aaron Herridge, a graduate student in Creighton’s medical physics master’s program and a RaD Lab intern who is helping develop the lab’s virtual reality program. “It’s an otherworldly experience. But that’s the great plus of virtual reality. It can take you places that you couldn’t possibly go in real life. And in physics, we always say that if you can’t visualize it, you can’t do the math. It’s going to be a huge educational leap.”

For the past year, Herridge has been at work on creating content for a dozen Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets Creighton received through a donation from one of the virtual reality company’s executives. At about the same time, Jack Gabel, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Physics, approached the RaD Lab looking to give his introductory astronomy students a more robust idea of different objects of space or a new look at those objects.

Using NASA’s public archive of hundreds of thousands of photographs from the Mars rover Curiosity, Herridge stitched together dozens of high-resolution photographs to create interactive photospheres giving students the feeling of walking on the Martian landscape. Additionally, he has built a virtual reality solar system in Oculus that allows users to view Mars, its moons, and other planets from orbit.

“We’re always looking for ways to help students get the real feeling for astronomy,” Gabel said. “Visualizing space from another planet, like Mars, or from Earth’s moon, is a unique experience that goes beyond pencil and paper or a two-dimensional photograph in a textbook. You feel immersed in the environment and you can explore in ways we never could before.”

A view from Mars in the RaD Lab's virtual reality astronomy simulation.In Herridge’s Mars simulation, students can take a 360-degree look at the Red Planet and get an idea of what space looks like from Earth’s neighbor. Looking up, the unimpeded view of the Martian sky affords a glimpse of the Milky Way galaxy and, looking long enough, students can cote the overhead passage of one of Mars’ two moons, Phobos.

On the planet itself, Gabel will have students exploring some of Mars’ creek beds where NASA has also been searching, looking for evidence of water on the planet. He said the virtual reality experiment emerged with a two-fold impetus: to get students excited in astronomy and technology and to then use virtual reality to forge tangible scientific lessons.

“We’re asking the students to be the explorers and to go wherever the experience moves them,” Gabel said. “With what the RaD Lab has created and knowing that we’re just scratching the surface, combining the attention-getting factor with the actual science, the possibilities are limitless.”

Gabel hopes to have a trial run ready for students in introductory astronomy laboratory later in the semester.

Meanwhile, Herridge is at work on similar simulations of the Moon, Neptune and Venus, the creation and life of a black hole and what a binary star system looks like.

After years being largely perceived as an entertainment device, the demand for virtual reality is steadily growing in education.

“Right now, the biggest issue with virtual reality is that everyone knows it’s going to be big but there’s just not very much content out there,” said Steve Maaske, an innovation analyst in the RaD Lab. “Building that content is what we’re trying to do in the RaD Lab and if we can do that, it will prove invaluable for students.”

Herridge and Maaske said they hope the RaD Lab can play a large role in creating content that could then be pushed to other institutions, thereby beginning a process of innovation to open more channels.

“It’s not quite there yet, where universities are working on this content,” Herridge said. “A lot of places have a virtual reality group doing their own thing, but not really sharing it. So Creighton is among the first to start exploring all the possibilities that can come from virtual reality and we think it has the potential to be a real benefit for students and to revolutionize educational models.”

Creighton University is a Jesuit, Catholic university bridging health, law, business and the arts and sciences for a more just world.