Stevens Institute of Technology: Headsets and Holograms: Extended Reality Tech Enhances Learning

Extended reality (XR) technology, which includes virtual and mixed reality, is bound to dominate the technological landscape of the future. Now, students and faculty at Stevens Institute of Technology are beginning to use extended reality as a tool for teaching and improving technical understanding.

The recently launched XR Lab grants the Stevens community access to this technology and explores ways to use it in the classroom. Valerie Dumova, senior instructional designer and technologist, and Wei Li, manager of learning technology, work together in the Division of Information Technology and were instrumental in launching the XR Lab. Dumova explained that the lab’s mission is to “work with instructors to explore how they can integrate XR into their courses and transform the way Stevens delivers teaching and learning.” And, as a campus-wide resource, the lab encourages collaboration between different schools and departments.

Last semester, the XR Lab partnered with two departments in the Schaefer School of Engineering and Science to run a pilot program, which integrated XR technology into course curricula.

Biruk Gebre, lecturer and researcher in the mechanical engineering department; and Paola DiMarzio, lecturer in the chemistry and chemical biology department, both jumped at the opportunity to participate in the pilot. Gebre used Microsoft’s mixed-reality headset, the HoloLens 2, with his students in Introduction to Additive Manufacturing — a 3D printing course — and with students in senior design, a course in which students conduct hands-on design projects as the capstones of their undergraduate careers. DiMarzio ran a virtual-reality program on the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive in her course, Cell Biology.

Virtual-reality headsets place the user in a fully immersive, 3D environment, and the Rift and Vive are tethered to a computer. The HoloLens and other mixed reality tech, on the other hand, do not generate full 3D worlds but rather interactive, virtual objects as 3D holograms. Those holograms are projected over what you would normally see, making the environment a collage of physical and virtual imagery. The HoloLens is battery-powered and can be worn anywhere.

“The fact that it’s mixed reality is great because you can see a person standing next to the hologram –– you can see the environment as well as the 3D object. It’s very exciting. I can see many potential use cases for it,” said Gebre. Even though it’s still in its infancy, mixed reality technology like the HoloLens has many practical uses. It can render digital models in a physical space, includes apps for live, in-air drawing and design, and it lays the groundwork for holographic computer interfaces.

Up and running
Mechanical engineering students used the HoloLens to see holographic versions of their senior design projects and 3D printing models. This is practically useful because it gives students a more detailed and realistic experience with their designs than computer-aided design (CAD) software alone. “We’re using this to visualize and communicate our designs. Typically, we use 3D CAD modeling software to create designs and display them on 2D screens, but it’s a completely different experience to interact with those designs as 3D holograms in front of you,” said Gebre.

With what is essentially a virtual prototype, students are better informed to make adjustments to their design before using expensive materials to create a physical version. Nicolas Ipeker ’22 and his senior design team found the HoloLens useful in the process of designing a standing electric scooter. “The team was able to better visualize the scale of the model and adjust the seat, wheel, and handlebar locations without any fabrication,” Ipeker said, noting the opportunity to reduce costs and development time by using mixed reality.

“Especially with 3D printing, we can see digitally what the designs would look like in real-world environments. This is useful for verifying the designs before we use expensive materials to 3D print parts. There are typically a lot of [physical] iterations when 3D printing new designs, so we’re hoping that, by using these types of technologies, that we can cut down on the number of iterations required to produce a prototype,” said Gebre.

DiMarzio’s biology students used a virtual reality program that modeled the process of how CRISPR, a gene-editing technology, is used to treat sickle cell anemia. In that virtual environment, students traversed the human body — from blood vessels to the inside of a cell — and witnessed how the CRISPR technology replaces faulty DNA. “I don’t know if you read The Magic School Bus when you were young, but it’s similar to that,” DiMarzio said. “It’s an inside-the-body experience, where students see different body parts and are led inside the cell to see the CRISPR technology in action.”

Biomedical engineering major Jenna Hassan ’23 emphasized the benefits of visualizing such complicated, organic processes. “This technology is very beneficial for biology or biology-related courses because it allows you to visualize difficult concepts. It could even be used in sciences like chemistry or physics,” Hassan said.

Turning toward tomorrow
These technologies may extend reality and the limits of the classroom, but do they enhance the learning experience? In a survey given to over 120 biology students who experienced the VR simulation in DiMarzio’s course, 92% either strongly or somewhat agreed that the technology enhanced their learning experience in the lab, and 87% found the simulation motivating.

The resounding positive feedback from the pilot program bodes well for the XR Lab’s initiatives and supports Dumova’s vision. “XR is not just bells and whistles or ‘cool-factor,’” she said. “It has pedagogical value, and it allows students to learn and experience things that they can’t in other media. It’s important for students to be exposed to this technology because it’s what they will be using in their future careers, too.”

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