In the midst of the friendly, relaxed conversation you would expect during the social hour of a conference, a participant approached Jeremy Nelson, organizer of the University of Michigan’s XR summit in April, and said breathtaking summer.
“He told me it was his first time on campus,” Nelson said of the UM student who had just finished his freshman year in college, learning at a distance due to COVID-19.
The student’s admission was even more remarkable as this inaugural visit took place in a virtual re-enactment of UM’s iconic Diag, and he, Nelson and more than 200 other people around the world were online avatars discussing the with each other.
“I spoke with people from Jordan, London, Hong Kong and Colombia, to name a few,” said Nelson, director of the UM XR Initiative at the Center for Academic Innovation.
Nelson adds that the center then hired the student and another one he met at the virtual event as fellows.
One of the benefits of attending conferences, workshops and the like is meeting other people and sharing information in informal sessions. With most of the events going virtual in recent years, these networking opportunities have become a challenge.
As the Center for Academic Innovation prepared for its first annual XR Summit, Nelson had an idea: to create a virtual representation of the Diag for people to meet, using the technology that was at the center of the event.
So one Friday he challenged one of the centre’s XR fellows to think about how to provide attendees with a unique reception that would take place on a virtual UM campus. On Monday, George Castle, a student at the Stamps School of Art & Design, had created a prototype using Google Earth maps.
With the help of Nicholas Di Donato, a graduate student at Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, the rough depiction of Castle was refined into an exact replica of the Diag. Armed with Rhinoceros, a design software that converts surfaces and solids into precise 3D models, they set to work reconstructing the Diag for use as an online social platform, with help from several offices in the campus.
The couple drew heavily on academic resources to help them put together enough information to reconstruct reality. Lauren Plews of the university’s architectural, engineering and construction departments became a key player throughout the development. Di Donato also enlisted the help of Ray Garret of the Facilities and Operations office, who maintains GIS (Graphical Information Systems) data and plans for every component of the campus landscape, down to individual trees, and every campus structure, old and new.
For what wasn’t available or for outdated designs, Di Donato took a trip to the Central Campus, filling in the missing pieces with fresh, field-based imagery.
The immersion of the central campus of Di Donato, for example in the asymmetry of the western E-shaped hall, was vital in creating the final digital experience. One building at a time, he used the skills learned in the architecture program to recreate the smallest structural details.
Castle then assembles the pieces into a cohesive puzzle, using Blender, open source graphics software to create VR worlds.
“He would take my buildings and put them in his overall model. He put in all the lighting and vegetation, as well as all the texture palettes, ”said Di Donato. “He really brought the world together. “
The result was a versatile and realistic rendering of the core of the central campus.
“All the trees are in the right place,” Nelson said. “The students were the creators. I gave them a vision and they ran with it.
Although Virtual Diag is a technological achievement in itself, the virtue of the project is its ability to foster social interaction in real time, he said.
One class used it to “meet” during the winter semester, and Nelson sees possibilities for other online learners around the world who would never get a chance to come to UM. He also sees the potential for admissions, alumni and other groups to use it for an introduction to UM or a nostalgic return to campus for activities, or for registered students to use it for s ” immerse yourself in the offers of the campus.
“This is not a virtual reality experience with box-shaped headsets or people awkwardly searching for virtual objects; there is no sophisticated and expensive equipment used. Instead, users enjoy a more intimate personal interactive social experience in this virtual environment, ”said Nelson. “It will only get better. Technology will improve, avatars will improve and develop a greater ability to sense things. “
Achieving privacy and accessibility is possible using AltspaceVR, the project’s host platform, which offers both a Windows and MAC desktop client. Without additional equipment, users design their own avatars that move in the direction of other nearby “standing” users. By simply pressing the arrow keys, users engage in socially distant conversations.
The team is already busy working on the North Campus Grove Reading Room and Law Library to create a virtual copy of the entire Ann Arbor campus.
Nelson hopes that Virtual Diag becomes a sustainable open source style project that many students will work on with the centre’s XR team. It takes developers, designers, artists, sound engineers, storytellers, accessibility experts and more to bring photorealistic virtual reality projects to life, he said.
“It makes sense to include people from all walks of life to help build,” he said.
Written by Hannah Triester, Center for Academic Innovation