Virtual Reality room explores new technological frontier

Although some students may see Sawyer Library as a second home, many are unaware of all the surprises their familiar study spot has to offer. One such hidden gem is the virtual reality (VR) room, located beyond the Office of Information Technology (OIT) desk on the second floor. The room itself is humble: roughly 100 square feet with a desk, a computer and couple of chairs. Put on the VR headset, however, and boot up one of the many available games and experiences, and a little hall closet in Williamstown, Mass. becomes a whole different world.

The mystical aura of the VR room begins before the headset is even switched on. Students must first approach the front desk and request the “keys to the room of requirement” (a reference to a similarly mysterious room from the Harry Potter series) and the “wands” (the special name for the two handheld controllers with which the user controls the virtual world). There is no tutorial or training session; with keys and wands in hand, students are free to explore the myriad of worlds to their hearts’ content. I went with Chris Kim ’20, Anhui Huang ’20 and Nkem Iregbulem ’20 to try our hands at the futuristic technology.

We started with The Lab, a game developed by Valve (the same corporation that produces Steam, the software distribution platform from which all the VR games are launched). The Lab featured a variety of smaller set pieces — from an interactive comedy scene to a simulated hike up a virtual mountain to a spaceship-combat game to a walkable 3D model of the solar system. It was created to showcase all the possible applications of VR in entertainment and education and does an amazing job of capturing the variety of possible VR experiences. “It’s another level of video games” Iregbulem said. “You feel so much more in the moment.” Kim described it as “a much more personal experience, being able to see everything in the game as you’d see it with your eyes, as if you were really there.”

After building some confidence in The Lab, we decided to branch out and try a handful of the other independently developed games in the Steam library, with which we had varying degrees of success. With this technology still in its infant stages, independent offerings vary in quality and polish. A parkour platformer called Climbtime suffered from touchy, confusing controls and crash issues, and a sword-and-sorcery adventure game called Spell Fighter, although interesting in concept, had too many map glitches to be enjoyable. One independent game that stood out, however, was an archery tower-defense game called QuiVr. The vibrant graphics and intuitive controls created an exciting, immersive experience as the player fended off waves of enemies with a bow and arrow. “That powerful position of standing with your bow drawn is what makes it so real,” Huang said. “On a computer it doesn’t have that feeling.” Indeed, the visceral sensation of whipping an arrow out of your quiver and burying it in a distant enemy was a thrilling experience, and it showcased VR gaming at its finest.

However, the potential of VR reaches far beyond video games. I talked to Michael Amann, Classroom Technology Specialist in OIT, who had a major hand in bringing the VR room to life. Although the College has had VR in some capacity or another for years, the VR room as we know it today was only installed this past fall. Last semester, the computer science and English departments used the room as a part of their curricula, and this semester psychology is looking to use it as well. In the future, according to Amann, every department will use VR in some way or another. “What VR does very well is provide perspectives that are otherwise difficult or impossible to have in normal human experience. Imagine shrinking yourself down to the size of a molecule and seeing your chemistry project in three dimensions and adjusting time to better understand chemical interactions,” Amman said. “Another experience could be traveling virtually to a refugee camp and seeing the conditions and faces of the people in real time to better focus resources,” Amann said, referencing The Displaced, a recent VR documentary on refugees produced by the New York Times. “The possibilities are incredible.”

Despite all the excitement surrounding this new technology, widespread implementation remains just out of reach. With hardware setups like the one in Sawyer still relatively rare, incentives for software developers to invest in VR remain significantly less than those to invest in more mainstream 2D platforms. As interest grows, however, the College can hope to be on the cutting edge of the newest movement in media technology. “VR is a technology that’s very hard to explain. To understand its potential as a human interface technology, you need to experience it,” said Amann. “To better understand it, come give it a try.”