UPDATED! Studying Supernova Explosions Using Collaborative Virtual Reality at Purdue University

Dr. Danny Milisavljevic has been using VR headsets to immerse his Purdue University students in the study of supernovas. (image source)

The only experience better than the act of discovery, is the experience of sharing that experience with someone.

— Danny Milisavljevic (source)

Danny Milisavljevic, a Purdue University astrophysics professor, is using an innovative, collaborative VR platform to help students explore models of star explosions in 3D. In a May 3rd, 2021 article published on the Edscoop website, titled Purdue students are using VR to explore the cosmos, remotely:

Over the last year, Milisavljevic — an astrophysicist at Purdue University who was formerly a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University — has taught the study of exploding stars with the aid of virtual reality. Exploding stars leave trails of fragments and other clues around them, much like the debris patterns of explosives. But rather than looking at photos or through a telescope, students in his class can walk around a virtual classroom and examine 3D models of supernovas from every direction by strapping on a VR headset. Milisavljevic said his students act like an astronomy-focused “bomb squad,” reviewing how different stars exploded and citing their previous astronomical classifications.

The 3D models and the VR simulations were a perfect match, and Milisavljevic quickly realized there are two primary benefits of examining the models using virtual reality. One is the ability to study them with another researcher or student in the same room, who was also wearing a headset. The second is that a VR environment can host multiple models on the same program. Because students can walk back and forth between models, he said, it prompted more insightful questions and a more effective understanding of the complex detective work he was asking his students to perform.

According to a recent press release from Purdue about the project:

The first technology of its kind to allow connection by students in different locations — rather than on the same Wi-Fi network — the headsets are also based on lightweight, relatively inexpensive and commercially available hardware. The technology was used for the first time last month in his Intermediate Astronomy II class.

The virtual reality environment allows students to fly through and around astronomical objects including stars and supernovae, and manipulate them to observe how they have changed over time, something that is possible thanks to enormous quantities of rich 3D modeling information and analyses. The system emphasizes scientific fidelity, giving a clear and accurate depiction of datasets. 

A photo collage showing the students interacting with each other while exploring various 3D models of supernovae (a screen capture from the above YouTube video)

It took a significant amount of work to build this platform, according to the professor teaching the course, but it was judged to be worth the labour. Edscoop reports:

Danny Milisavljevic, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Purdue University, told EdScoop that creating content in virtual reality can take years, but that it’s often worth the effort.

“I see this as a vital, complimentary way to teach,” Milisavljevic said. “There’s just some topics that cannot be conveyed properly with the traditional lecture format, and this platform provides a way to be able to share those experiences.”

Milisavljevic used VR over the past year to teach his students about supernovas, working with Purdue’s Envision Center, a simulation and computer graphics-focused lab on campus, to create a platform to display his 3D models of exploded stars. It took two years, even with graduate students assisting, he said.

A shot of the avatars (shown wearing different coloured astronaut helmets and hands) standing in front of several supernova models (a screen capture from the above YouTube video)

As the Purdue press release notes, “Similar systems eventually could allow students to study other topics including looking at microscopic or cellular data, anatomy, geospatial terrains, historical locations or even complex animated machinery.”

UPDATE August 11th, 2021: I exchanged emails with Danny, and he told me a bit more about his platform:

Yes, I plan to continue using our Collaborative Astronomy VR platform in future classes. Presently we are developing a new version that can eventually scale up to ~100 users. One of the limitations of the current version is that we can only support approximately 10-12 users simultaneously before hitting performance issues.

We built our own infrastructure because existing VR infrastructures are either 1) too focused on social interaction for large audiences and lack options to appropriately visualize and explore scientific data in a scalable format, or 2) lack multiuser connectivity and instead focus on specialized individual experiences for use on high-end devices.

Thanks, Danny!