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Students at Howard County’s Application and Research Lab test new virtual reality gear

High school students at the Applications and Research Lab are using state-of-the-art virtual and augmented reality equipment to immerse themselves in their virtual creations as part of classroom instruction in the school’s visual arts and architectural design academies.

The new classroom equipment comes from a $150,000 donation made by Brendan Iribe, a 1997 graduate of Atholton High School and co-founder of Oculus VR technology company. Managed by Howard County public schools’ educational foundation Bright Minds, donation funds were used to purchase 22 Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets and touch controllers – about $450 per set – as well as Alienware computer hardware – about $740 per console – that is used to run the program.

In addition to Iribe, Oculus VR was founded by Palmer Luckey, Michael Antonov, Jack McCauley and Nate Mitchell.

Iribe, 38, said he got his start in computer programming in the early 1990s at Clarksville Middle School when he received his first personal computer from his family. A video game fanatic, Iribe graduated from Atholton High and then attended the University of Maryland with plans to major in computer science.

After two semesters, Iribe dropped out with Antonov to work as a freelance programmer and later co-founded Scaleform user interface technology in Laurel. Once Autodesk acquired Scaleform, Iribe joined Gaikai technology, which was acquired by Sony Interactive Entertainment in 2012.

That same year, Iribe and Luckey started a Kickstarter campaign for the Oculus Rift, raising $2.4 million, exceeding their $250,000 goal. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg acquired Oculus VR for $2.3 billion in March 2014, two years before the Oculus Rift was released, making Iribe rich.

“We dove into this thing because we were excited about it,” Iribe said. “We had no idea what it would really turn into. … I feel very lucky to have been a part of it.”

Iribe donated $31 million to the University of Maryland in 2015 to help fund the construction of the Brendan Iribe Center for Computer Science and Innovation after he said he visited the campus and found the former computer science building in poor condition.

The Brendan Iribe Scholarship in Computer Science was created with $1 million of the total donation.

Iribe joined state and Howard County officials, teachers and students at the Applications Research Laboratory Nov. 27 to celebrate the technology’s use in the visual arts and architectural design academies.

About 100 people attended, including Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, school system Interim Superintendent Michael Martirano and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who was invited by Iribe.

John Cservek, an animator and interactive media instructor alongside Tina LeBaron at the ARL, said the Oculus Rift headset, which looks like high-tech goggles, and right- and left-touch controllers are tracked in real time by a set of infrared cameras placed around the user to create a 360-degree point-of-view.

“[It’s] essentially putting students inside a video game,” Cservek said. “The hand track controllers allow you to sense your own hands in that virtual space and you can interact with objects and throw things. It gives students and other users a much greater sense of presence in the game.”

Before receiving the new technology, LeBaron said, students were viewing their three-dimensional video games on a computer screen. The two-dimensional outlook and lack of equipment limited students’ abilities to interact with their work.

The academies were familiar with Oculus technology, she said, but only had one set available to students.

“Most of our game development was done with a standard issue control, like when you play Xbox or PlayStation. You can press about four buttons on it and that really limits that inner activity,” LeBaron said. “You’re always playing it on a screen and seeing it that way. Now, we can put students in a physical VR space. Their ears and eyes are connected, so instead of looking at it on a screen, they’re looking at it in a reality.”

Theo Jack-Monroe, a student in the animation and interactive media academy, said his game, Food Fiesta, is similar to that of table tennis, but swaps white balls for different foods. Using the Oculus Rift, the 17-year-old Oakland Mills student said he felt transported to “a whole other world” when playing his game.

“You forget being in the space where you actually are,” he said. “It’s a unique experience that you have to try out for yourself to even know what it’s like. It’s an advancement for us as 3-D artists to be able to interact with our work and see it in a game format. To be able to code it and add interaction is really unique.”

Architectural design instructor Terry Walker said the new Oculus technology is used in his classroom to put students inside the buildings they’ve created. Rather than estimating what it might be like inside a virtually constructed home, students can put on the headset and stand inside any room within their home to get a sense of a ceiling’s height or the room’s overall size.

Walker said one of his students recently used the Oculus Rift to experience her creation, only to learn its scale proportions weren’t modeled correctly.

“She’s walking around in her project and she couldn’t reach the handles to her cabinets because she modeled it way too tall,” Walker said. “She went back and modified it, reloaded it and retried it. The experience is that we can actually view the architecture and get a sense of the space.”

Glenelg High graduate Sidharth Golinath said he returned to Walker’s classroom Monday to use the Oculus Rift to revisit a project he completed when he was enrolled in the architectural design academy. Golinath originally created a camp with five different buildings, including cabins for visitors. While he didn’t have the Oculus Rift during his time at the ARL, Golinath said it adds a new layer of understanding one’s architectural design.

“When you’re doing a sketch, it’s really hard to get inside and feel around you,” Golinath said. “With Oculus, you’re inside of the room.”

Caroline Walker, the school system’s director of school improvement and curricular programs, said bringing the Oculus Rift technology to ARL is about giving the students the opportunity to use real equipment that is found in real jobs.

“Often times, we’re trying to simulate work environments,” Walker said. “We’re trying to do things that are close to what real life looks like. It’s always nice to give kids access to things and having our community partners help us reach that access for students is a gift.”

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