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!

Teaching Using Tivoli Cloud VR at Simon Fraser University

Steve DiPaola and Jeremy Turner at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbis, Canada, are using the social VR platform Tivoli Cloud VR to teach courses. SFU News reported on their work:

Virtual teaching has become the new norm at post-secondary institutions during the current pandemic. As instructors adapt, SFU researchers Steve DiPaola and Jeremy Turner see opportunities to push virtual worlds further—as they are doing this semester by enabling their students to become avatars.

Students and instructors are using Tivoli Cloud VR in classes led by DiPaola, a professor in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology, and Turner, a Cognitive Sciences instructor, to set up their own personal avatars and join the virtual classroom. The researchers are using the new, open source virtual reality platform to experiment with advanced and cutting-edge VR techniques.

In the virtual classroom, users can navigate about the room and talk to other users. The platform is built to have fully functional media surfaces, allowing users to display slides, media files, and show videos within the virtual classroom.

CTV News also covered their work (there’s also a video you can watch at that link):

DiPaola, who specializes in virtual reality at SFU’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology, said students “attend” class by logging in to the open source virtual reality platform, or they can stream the class on Twitch.

The technology is also being used to train nursing students in Australia, allowing them to complete their practicums virtually, because they’re not currently allowed in hospitals.

“We’re starting it in Australia where we’ve got approval to do it,” DiPaola explained, “and we’re doing it in simulated ways with simulated avatars.”

What’s next? The professors said it is not out of the realm of possibility for an instructor to recreate environments such as dig sites for an archaeology class, for example.

“We think there’s advantages for all kinds of training,” DiPaola said.

For now, Turner teaches two cognitive sciences classes, each of which has between 80 to 100 students.

Inside Jeremy Turner’s virtual classroom in Tivoli Cloud VR (image source: SFU)

I’m looking forward to see what Steve and Jeremy do next!

Using Social VR to Teach an Emerging Technologies Class at UNC Chapel Hill

Steven King is an associate professor of multimedia journalism and emerging technologies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, holding a joint appointment with the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media and the Kenan-Flagler Business School. In his work, King combines computer science concepts, human-centered design and storytelling to create new ways to present information through emerging technologies, such as virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence and other interactive media forms, such as interactive data-driven graphics.

Steven King uses AltspaceVR to deliver a virtual course (image source)

When the university was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic last year, Steven used both Mozilla Hubs and AltspaceVR to create a virtual classroom for his students:

If you ask a UNC student what their remote classroom experience has consisted of, they will likely tell you about video lectures through Zoom. But for students in Steven King’s class, they are experiencing remote learning differently — through virtual reality.

“I’m always trying to figure out a better way to teach and communicate,” King, a professor at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, said. “I know virtual reality is an immersive experience.”

King built a virtual 3D version of his classroom, which allows his students to walk around in the classroom and break out into groups. 

He said he has tested out a lot of different platforms for hosting 3D classrooms. The first experience, he said, was through Mozilla Hubs. But King said his class will likely stick to AltspaceVR because of how pleased the students have been with it.

A virtual classroom in AltspaceVR (image source)

The Raleigh News & Observer reported:

“When you’re faced with a crisis, these are times to step up and figure things up and make new discoveries,” King said. “We don’t need to limit ourselves to the tools we have. We need to develop new tools to move us forward.”

King sent Oculus Go Virtual Reality headsets to his 28 students to use at home. King and the students built their own avatars, and they are all attending class together in a virtual world as robots, panda bears, ducks and other characters. King chose the superhero Ironman as his avatar.

The emerging technologies class was tailor-made for this type of experiment, King said. Students had become familiar with the technology throughout the semester while learning about artificial intelligence and augmented reality.

Steven wrote about his experience developing and delivering the course in a four-part series of Medium posts (here’s a link to part one). He described how he acclimated his students to AltspaceVR:

To help the students prepare for class. I gave the students an assignment to be completed before the first class hosted in AltspaceVR. I asked every student to signup for an account, go through the tutorial in their home space, and to go to the InfoZone, which is a tutorial in the form of a social fair about going to events. The final step of the assignment was to send me a friend request. I also recorded a video on how to enter the room/event…

This assignment was critical to the success of the next class. I needed the students to work through any technical issues on their own and to feel confident in another social VR environment. Once I got a friend request, I added them to the group so they could see the private event…

Most students arrived early and were ready to go. I let them spend several minutes interacting and exploring the space. There was lots of personal chatting, like I would see before an in-person class, which has been absent in my Zoom class.

The pandemic provided a golden opportunity which professors like Steven used to good advantage to provide their students with an introduction to social VR used for educational purposes. You can find out more about Steven and his work via his personal website.

The University of Michigan’s XR Initiative and the Extended Reality Nuclear Reactor Laboratory Project

The University of Michigan‘s Center for Academic Innovation founded an XR Initiative in September 2019, to work with all the U of M’s schools and colleges to fund new projects and provide consultation on the use of VR/AR/MR technology to support teaching and research.

The State of XR and Immersive Learning Outlook Report 2021 (available to download here), recently published by the Immersive Learning Research Network, describes one such project:

At the University of Michigan, the Center for Academic Innovation seeded six new XR projects in spring 2020 as part of an ongoing effort to fully embrace immersive education. One upcoming project explores the challenges of working within nuclear reactors. The school’s Ford Nuclear Reactor in Michigan permanently shut down in 2003 and was decommissioned in the years following, leaving the top-ranked university program without a research reactor. This XR project will develop an Extended Reality Nuclear Reactor Laboratory simulation where students can virtually walk around the reactor, look into the core, and interact with the control panel.

As Brendan Kochunas, project manager and assistant professor in the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences described it (2020): “In reality, one does not simply walk up next to an operating nuclear reactor core, but in virtual reality one can. We can also overlay simulation results on the virtualized physical systems allowing students to experience neutron fields or temperature fields visually, where in reality this is not possible.”

The faculty and staff newspaper UM Record provides some more background:

The College of Engineering is home to the No. 1 nuclear engineering program in the country. For several decades up to the early 2000s, the program included training at a physical nuclear reactor. The Ford Nuclear Reactor, originally established as a WWII memorial under the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project, permanently shut down in 2003.

It was decommissioned over the next four years, leaving U-M as one of the only programs without a research reactor, both in the Top 5-ranked university programs and the Big 10, said Brendan Kochunas, project manager and assistant professor in the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences.

The Extended Reality Nuclear Reactor Laboratory simulation would allow some retired courses that used the Ford Nuclear Reactor to be taught again to upper level undergraduates and graduate students.

“I hope to gain experience and insight into how to apply XR technologies in a practical way to enhance education and research in the field of nuclear engineering,” Kochunas said. “I think XR has such potential for this area of science, or really any area of science where the reality is you have a physical system that is expensive or potentially hazardous.”

An article by Sara Norman on the University of Michigan College of Engineering website describes the project in more technical detail:

Over the past year, a project team within the U-M Department of Nuclear Engineering & Radiological Sciences (NERS) has been working with the XR Initiative in the Center for Academic Innovation to develop the Extended Reality Nuclear Reactor Laboratory—a virtual representation of the now decommissioned Ford Nuclear Reactor (FNR) that was once the center of the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project (MMPP).

Yuxuan Liu, a member of the project team and an Assistant Research Scientist within NERS, has received a Simulation Grant from the Office of the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education (ADUE) to develop a simulation of heat transfer in the original FNR. Understanding the heat transfer in a nuclear power reactor is essential to its operation and maintaining safety, making this virtual experience an important lesson of the NERS Extended Reality Nuclear Reactor Laboratory course. The other member of the project team is NERS Prof. Brendan Kochunas.

The XR Initiative is a good example of a university-wide program to make XR technology more accessible on campus and encourage its use in higher education, working with university faculty to actively look for new ideas and opportunities to support immersive learning projects, and enhance students’ learning experience. I look forward to seeing other such initiatives spring up on university campuses!