First-Ever Virtual Reality Camp an Adventure for Tech Fans

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When the Library introduced a virtual reality console to its Digital Creativity Center last year, Jeannette Lehr wanted to do more than just demonstrate its entertainment value.

“We didn’t want people to think of VR as something to passively consume, or just some tech novelty,” said Jeannette, who coordinates programming for Level Up at the Main Library. “We wanted them to think creatively and practically about the possibilities of virtual reality, and incorporate it into their own projects and ideas.”

And so, armed with a plan to offer a hands-on VR development camp at the Library, she did what anybody next door to a major university would do—she sought out the experts. Soon Jeannette forged a partnership with UITS Research Technologies (RT) at Indiana University, where staff, as it turns out, work in different aspects of VR development every day. They agreed to lend their expertise to help plan and execute a four-day camp at the Library in early June, which drew about thirty participants.

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"People chose one of two tracks. There was photogrammetry, which is basically taking photos to be viewed as 3D objects,” Jeannette explained. With the help of RT’s Tassie Gniady, this group used a 360-degree camera to photograph downtown Bloomington—and, thanks to another partnership, a number of artifacts in the Monroe County History Center Museum’s collection.

The other group were the programmers, led by Bill Sherman and Ed Dambik of RT. “The campers on this track learned how to create a virtual 'downtown' environment, and laid in the 3D objects the others captured at the Museum,” she said.

The result, a VR landscape that blends familiar downtown sights—the Courthouse, the History Center—with not-so-familiar museum objects like giant vintage toys, was unveiled to the public at the demo campers gave on June 10 at the Library. Using a VR headset, players navigated the digitally-enhanced world, finding secret portals and exploring a new Bloomington.

See all the 3D objects rendered at the Library's Dev Camp at Sketchfab

All in all, according to Jeannette and Research Technologies, the camp was a big success. For some campers, like Hina, a fourteen-year-old who attended with a friend, it was all about having a good time. Hina said she didn’t know what to expect at first, but found customizing the photos she took to be “really fun,” echoing the feedback several others gave after the camp.

For Mark Bell, a teacher at Bloomington’s Harmony School who attended, the camp was more about VR’s educational possibilities. “I wanted to see how it was introduced to beginning students, and the hardware setup and space requirements,” he said. Virtual reality is an ideal way to take students through time and across geography, Mark added, making it a powerful way to engage them in subjects like history.

vr-camp-programmers.jpgBill Sherman, who’s taught virtual reality at IU since 2000, says that thanks to shrinking costs and ever-improving technology, we’ll soon see amazing developments on both fronts. “The headsets will become less clunky, and won’t even be full headsets at some point,” making VR gaming less restrictive, he said. And as science and medicine continue to utilize virtual reality, the benefits of being “inside” the worlds under study have led to new discoveries and innovations. “Even statisticians are doing more informed research by literally seeing their data from different angles, and psychologists are already treating things like phobias with VR, by exposing people to virtual heights and snakes and things in a controlled and safe way,” said Bill.

So while it’s hard to say exactly where VR technology will take us in the future, it’s clear that our community will play a role in shaping its future through opportunities like the Library’s Virtual Reality Development Camp. “We’d definitely want to offer this again,” said Jeannette, “and based on the response we got this year, plus the growing overall visibility of virtual reality, I think it’ll get more and more popular.”

See upcoming virtual reality programs at the Library