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Virtual Reality Course Brings Students to the Forefront of Technology

6/11/2015 3:20:00 AM By Tom Moone, CS @ ILLINOIS

Putting on the headset, you find yourself suddenly riding a platform that takes you twenty feet in the air as you try to keep your balance, or shooting at angry robots that are a menace to society, or becoming a frog trying to eat bugs before they get past you, or even pay a visit to the ancient Assyrian palace in Nimrud, Iraq. All of this in in an immersive 3D environment—giving the experience a sense of reality not found in standard videos.

Steven LaValle
Steven LaValle

And all of these virtual reality worlds were created by University of Illinois students in CS 498SL: Virtual Reality. This course was taught in the spring 2015 semester by CS Professor Steven LaValle. In fall 2014 LaValle returned to Illinois following an extended leave during which he served as head scientist at Oculus, developer of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. Oculus was acquired by Facebook in 2014 for $2 billion.

The 100 students in the virtual reality (VR) course were taught the latest technology from someone who had helped develop it.

VR is not new. LaValle explained that the technology began in the 1960s, and there was a surge in research in it during the 1990s. But interest in VR waned because the cost of the necessary equipment was so high.

Products like the Oculus Rift have changed that. “In this current wave of technology, things have changed with a high level of quality in a low-cost portable headset,” said LaValle. “Virtual reality causes a lot of hype and excitement, and now the barrier to entry matches that. Before, it was unattainable. You had to spend a million dollars on a system, and it still wasn’t very compelling after that.  Many headsets are appearing on the market now, and they are low cost and very compelling.”

Students in CS 498SL: Virtual Reality demonstrated 33 projects developed over the course of the semester.
Students in CS 498SL: Virtual Reality demonstrated 33 projects developed over the course of the semester.

The VR course focused a lot on issues of human perception and comfort. One important issue is vection, the perception of motion when a person’s body is actually stationary. “If you’ve ever been stuck in traffic before, and a truck starts moving and you might feel like you are moving backwards; that’s an example of vection,” said LaValle. “Your eyes have convinced you that you’re moving backwards and it is sometimes uncomfortable.”

Entering into a virtual world with goggles on, and seeing movement, the brain is receiving contrasting information. The eyes tell the brain that the body is in motion, but other parts of the body tell the brain that the body is stationary. Too much of this can cause discomfort or even motion sickness.

“It is interesting how many small things can cause nauseousness,” said Thomas Reese (MS CS ’15), one of the students in the course. “Professor LaValle taught us throughout the semester just how much the brain ‘auto-corrects’ our world. In order to cope, developers have to augment, reverse, and override many of our brain's perceptions [in order to] make VR a comfortable experience.”

LaValle explained: “We made this course with very strong perceptual psychology, human factors content. We look at the physiology of human vision and a little bit of neuroscience. These kinds of things need to be fused into the engineering of virtual reality systems.  I think that makes the course very unique and provides principles that survive the test of time.”

Nathan Handler (BS CS '15) said, “CS 498SL provided me with my first real experience developing for virtual reality. In class, we got to learn from Oculus's head scientist about the science behind making a pleasant and enjoyable virtual reality interface. We then had the opportunity to practice what we learned by creating our own virtual reality worlds for the Oculus as homework.”

Handler said that, while developing a VR world was relatively simple and straightforward, “creating an application that provides an enjoyable experience while takes full advantage of everything virtual reality has to offer is a much more challenging task.”

The students in the course created 33 projects, mostly in teams of three or four students. Many of them were game related, which fits into the typical use of video consoles. The VR Balance project with the risinn platform would be used particularly for older adults, whose balance reflexes could be markedly different from those of younger people. The students measured head movements as participants tried to maintain their balance while they experience the virtual elevation of the platform. More head movements would indicate more balance issues. This project was designed with the help of Professor Manuel Hernandez from Kinesiology.

The VR Museum project recreating the Assyrian palace of Nimrud was done with the help of Professor Kesh Kesavadas of Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering, and with data came from Learning Sites, Inc., and assistance from its CEO Donald Sanders.

So, while many projects were game based, the uses of VR can move beyond that. “This is not about a platform for video games,” said LaValle, and the interest in students and researchers across campus has been growing. In addition to the kinesiology research aspects, LaValle has heard from faculty from such areas as business, linguistics, nuclear engineering, psychology, and neuroscience who see potential uses in their fields for this technology.

As the course continues to develop, LaValle wants it to accommodate the growing interest in VR technology he has seen across campus. Already, the course proved to be extremely popular. It filled quickly for the spring, and the fall section filled up in an hour. As LaValle said, “Students from all over campus want to take it.”

The projects from CS 498SL can be found on the course website.