Screenshot of VR Museum (Youtube)

The lead scientist for Oculus Rift brought cutting edge virtual reality to campus here in Illinois.

This spring former lead Oculus Rift scientist and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign computer science professor Steve LaValle taught CS498SL: Virtual Reality, a course that introduced UIUC students to the inner workings of VR tech while asking them to propose and create their own VR projects. The results (which include a virtual walk through of a 3,000 year old Assyrian palace in Nimrud, Iraq and a simulated background for a stationary bike) provide a peek our a virtual reality future.

“Virtual reality causes a lot of hype and excitement, and now the barrier to entry matches that,” said LaValle to UIUC Computer Science. “Before, it was unattainable. You had to spend a million dollars on a system, and it still wasn’t very compelling after that.  Many headsets are appearing on the market now, and they are low cost and very compelling.”

About 100 students took the course (which was supported by Oculus and Facebook) and created 33 final projects that addressed topics from exercise to exploration.

One group created a virtual reality setting that simulates what it is like to be on a psychedelic drug, creating a distorted view and enhanced colors in the wearer’s surroundings. Another group created Project TERROR, which takes users through several events and scenes in a haunted setting to take the horror genre to the next level. The students behind Principia wanted to play with perceptions of gravity through VR, so they created a game in which players can walk on walls and the ceiling.

Other groups aimed to integrate the tech into aspects of daily life, such as exercise or culture. One group’s exercise bike application aimed to break up the monotony of stationary biking by providing a virtual landscape for users to navigate. OculuScooter simulates rolling around town on a scooter using a scooter made out of PVC pipes and one foot in a roller skate.VR Museum takes users through a the palace of King Ashurnasapal, a 3,000 year old Assyrian palace in Nimrud, Iraq. Take a look at their demo:

In presenting their final projects, students highlighted some of the challenges working with the new technology. The students behind a virtual museum of illusions grappled with creating natural lighting. Vry Surreal, an application that took users through other-worldly scenes, struggled with head tracking.

“It is interesting how many small things can cause nauseousness,” said Thomas Reese a graduate computer science student in the course. “Professor LaValle taught us throughout the semester just how much the brain ‘auto-corrects’ our world. In order to cope, developers have to augment, reverse, and override many of our brain’s perceptions [in order to] make VR a comfortable experience.”

“We look at the physiology of human vision and a little bit of neuroscience,” explained LaValle. “These kinds of things need to be fused into the engineering of virtual reality systems. I think that makes the course very unique and provides principles that survive the test of time.”

After taking an extended leave of absence from his role as a computer science professor at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to act as head scientist at Oculus in 2012, LaValle told UIUC’s Coordinated Learning Lab in February he splits his time between Oculus and UIUC. The second round of this course will be offered in the fall.