Exploring Virtual Reality / A-Frame using the HTC Vive

Charles using the HTC Vive

Recently, our team has been exploring different ways in which we can create Virtual Reality (VR) environments for use in online learning initiatives.  Specifically, we’ve been creating 3D objects using Blender (an open source 3D creation suite) and placing them into a VR environment created in A-Frame (an open source web framework for building VR experiences in your browser).  Our goal is to create immersive learning environments by leveraging the web browser.  In other words, rather than requiring expensive equipment, users will simply use an internet browser and their preferred device (mobile phone, computer, tablet, etc.) to access VR content.

In order to explore this more, we contacted Chris Stubbs (Multimedia Manager at Teaching and Learning with Technology / Penn State) to share some of the new techniques we've been implementing.  Chris leverages new and emerging technologies regularly, so we reached out to see if he could score us some one-on-one time with the HTC Vive (located at the Dreamery / Penn State).   The HTC Vive is a sophisticated VR setup using a computer, headset, control- paddles, and room-mapping sensors to create ‘arguably’ the best VR experience available right now.  As someone who has never experienced the power of VR, I was eager to strap on the gear.

Our primary goal was to explore the Vive’s functionality as it related to some of the 3D objects / VR environments we had recently been creating.  Specifically, we wanted to explore concepts like: Could we successfully move around our VR environments?  Were we able to manipulate and/or move the 3D objects we created using the control-paddles?  Finally, is this technology scalable; is this something we can merge into our existing projects and initiatives?

The afternoon revealed a number of amazing discoveries, the largest being that we will be able to incorporate this VR framework into our existing projects.  For example, our group has been developing online learning tools using web component architecture since February of 2017.  A-Frame allows us to carry those web components into the VR environment while also preserving the accessibility attributes that are tied to them.  This discovery alone could be the catalyst for building complex learning environments online that are accessible to everyone, including those with difficult laboratory setups and/or detailed learning requirements.  Overall, the experience was pretty amazing.  Not only were we able to successfully test some theories we had been developing, but we were able to collaborate with Chris and TLT to demonstrate something completely new for their group as well.

While this discovery is significant and we are excited for future possibilities, VR is currently in its infancy, so there is a lot more research to be done.  That said, I can offer that my first VR experience had a lasting impact.  The environments were extremely detailed and moving around within them felt seamless.  With Flash coming to an end in 2020, VR could very well provide the solution that would propel online-learning into the next frontier.

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