Today@Sam Article

Students Spearhead Innovative VR Collaborations

Oct. 23, 2023
SHSU Media Contact: Mikah Boyd

Organizations on campus can take on many forms; some are service-oriented, others foster community and acceptance. The Virtual Reality (VR) Club throws another element into the ring, research.

The group evolved from a research lab that was established by Ulan Dakeev when he was first hired as a professor at Sam Houston State University. As his research continued, his students were able to practice the skills they learned in class while contributing to research into virtual reality’s potential. In 2019, students wanted to work on larger projects and were even willing to work outside of class. Their drive inspired Dakeev to use his new hire stiped to purchase equipment for his students to dive into their work with the best possible technology.

From left; Chris Rabe, Gabriel Hardy, Yannis Lagrosa, Keishala Brown, Kennedy McFarland, Lain Sowell and Ulan Dakeev.

“The good thing about this program is everything is custom developed in-house by the students and us,” Dakeev, who serves as the group’s faculty advisor, said. “Whenever we take VR to different places, we specifically try to develop projects related to that industry. There is an academic side, there is research, there is student club activity and industrial partnership. So, there’s everything in there.”

With this equipment, student members of the club have created numerous virtual and augmented reality spaces. The applications of these creations range from a Halloween-themed game called “Sammy Land” to a virtual robotics lab featuring a robotic arm seen in one of the labs of the Engineering Technology Department. Members of the club can divide up the work on these projects based on their specialized skills, such as coding, 3-D modeling and animation.

This year will mark the club’s second time creating a VR experience for the Campus Activity Board’s annual Fall Takeover. Last year, they created “Sammy Land,” which took players on a haunted carnival ride with creatures lurking around every turn. As for their new frightening game, the group shared it would be called “Sammy’s Road” and draw inspiration from Demon’s Road in Huntsville.

On top of their work with the Campus Activities Board, VR Club has also partnered with professors and colleges to enhance the student learning experience. One of their first partnerships is with Dakeev’s class, Introduction to Virtual and Augmented Reality, where club members help the students during the lab section of the course. By connecting with the students and showing them that they can expand their knowledge even more by joining the club, they hope to drive up recruitment. Yannis Lagrosa helps a student from SHEBuildsHouston use a VR headset.

The College of Osteopathic Medicine (COM) has also worked with the club to create a simulation showing students how to do physical manipulation and use the proper amount of pressure before they work on actual patients.

“We’re also planning on gathering data from professionals so we can gamify it,” Yannis Lagrosa, VR Club president, said. “Then, based on that professional data, they can lighten how much pressure they’re applying.”

Partnerships extend beyond the university, as well. The club worked on a program that will allow people to scan common OSHA hazard labels and see an animation demonstrating what the label means. Lagrosa explained that through this program, those who learned the symbols to get certified can refresh their knowledge unhindered by language barriers. They created a similar demonstrative program to help educate new hires at Maersk on how to operate a drill control unit that is used on Maersk’s offshore oil rigs.

Through their work on these projects and the many others they have done, current and former members of the club have found that their work has set them apart. One project, in collaboration with NASA, had the students demonstrating the expanse of their knowledge by creating a simulation of the Coriolis Effect. Longtime member and senior agriculture engineering and computer software double major, Lain Sowell, has a job lined up with SITECH, a construction technology provider that works with Mustang Cat. Lain Sowell speaks to a group from SHEbuildsHouston.

“When I went in for an interview, they looked at my VR stuff and I thought that they would want to hear about agriculture engineering, but I probably spent a good hour to an hour and a half talking about just the stuff I’ve done with VR Club,” Sowell said. “I would say that the VR Club actually got me hired.”

He is not the only one. A former member of the VR Club, Y Luong, participated in a summer internship at Tesla and blew away her supervisors, leading the company to extend a job offer to her when she graduated. Luong's success opened the door for her peers from the club to have similar opportunities, establishing a strong Bearkat presence at the company.

Kennedy McFarland, a software engineering major and sophomore, is the current vice president of the club and has experienced first-hand how their projects build up their knowledge. 

“It’s been a learning experience because I came practically knowing nothing about VR,” McFarland said. “But since you get handed a project, it really allows you to learn freely. I would say it’s boosted my experience in programming and coding a lot because I’m a computer science major and I’m getting experience outside of my classes.” 

Kennedy McFarland and Keishala "KiKi" Brown provide host a table for VR Club at a campus event.McFarland and her peers also have benefitted from the networking and public speaking opportunities the club has provided them as they have presented their work to numerous partners on and off campus. On top of this, the students are gaining experience in working with collaborators from different backgrounds. When building out a VR room, Gabriel Hardy uses his knowledge of engineering design technology to build out the 3-D models that are then coded into the program by Lagrosa, McFarland or Sowell, the program then comes to life thanks to Keishala “KiKi” Brown’s animation skills.

“During our meeting times, we'll establish some of the big projects throughout the course of the semester,” Lagrosa said. “Then we'll have people work on multiple projects or multiple people work on different projects. Then we'll go to events like the PC Takeover on October 31 and present our work to get campus engagement up.”

The group is hoping that their upcoming VR program at the Fall Takeover in the Lowman Student Center will drive up engagement and interest in the group from both students and faculty. Dakeev and members of the club believe that their VR programs can enhance student learning in any course and are making outreach attempts to get more professors on board.

“Technically this is applicable in every class, especially in engineering, because all of our labs are hands-on,” Dakeev said. “So we want students to get muscle memory, including biology and chemistry, to improve hands-on experiences, or in animal science for how to give injections.”

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