VRchaeology: Using Virtual Reality to Teach Archaeology Skills at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

I am spending this summer doing a deep-dive into the use of virtual reality (including social VR) in higher education, partly for this blog, and partly to find good examples of such usage for my presentation in September to my university’s senate committee on academic computing.

One such project that got my attention was an interesting virtual archaeology program, called VRchaeology. While it may not be social VR, it is certainly an innovative way to introduce archaeology skills to new students, and much more immersive than textbooks, lectures, and videos!

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

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is using XR to teach archaeology and address the challenges of students finding time and funding for fieldwork, an essential requirement of that discipline. The VR laboratory, VRchaeology, is one such project, funded by a National Science Foundation grant and designed by anthropology professor Laura Shackelford; educational policy, organization, and leadership professor David Huang; and computer science graduate student Cameron Merrill. The virtual experience is based on an actual North American cave site excavated in the 1930s and includes over 110 virtual artifacts, many of which are based on objects in the University’s own collection.

These immersive experiences cover complex activities that comprise the work of a professional archaeologist, from initially mapping a site to creating an excavation grid and using ground-penetrating radar. Students learn how to dig for artifacts, record data, collaborate with each other, and reach scientific conclusions. Importantly, students have the agency to manage their own learning journey. In addition, their possible miscalculations and missteps do not impact the value of the historical artifacts, nor alter the significance of an actual site; instead, they help them develop and apply a deeper understanding to students learning to become expert archaeologists in their own right. With the virtual cave lowering the barriers to the fieldwork requirement, it also opens up the discipline to lower income students who may be unable to travel to an actual site.

Image source: iLRN State of XR and Immersive Learning Outlook Report 2021
UIUC anthropology professor Laura Shackelford; educational policy, organization and leadership professor David Huang; and computer science graduate student Cameron Merrill, the creators of VRchaeology (source)

Much the same as the Egyptian tomb of Queen Nefertari, which was set up in the former social VR platform High Fidelity, one purpose of the VRchaeology platform is to provide access to potentially fragile places and objects that would not be suited to a real-life site visit by hundreds or thousands of students. According to the project’s website, VRchaeology’s use is clearly spelled out:

It is…

• A semester long course to introduce field and lab methods
• A replicable, controlled teaching environment
• A way to introduce archaeology to a new audience
• An active, immersive environment

It is not…

• A replacement for field school
• A complete lesson in methods for Majors or graduate students
• A stand-alone game
• A passive experience

VRchaelogy is used by undergraduate students who might not have the time or money to attend a real-world dig site, and the course it is used in satisfies the field school requirement for those pursuing an archaeology degree at UIUC. An article from the Illinois news bureau about the project adds:

“Field school is a requirement of most archaeological programs across the country,” said Illinois anthropology professor Laura Shackelford, who led development of the class with…Wenhao David Huang and computer science graduate student Cameron Merrill. “But traveling to a field school site can cost anywhere from $500 to $5,000.”

This, and the fact that traditional field school expeditions are often scheduled during breaks, makes it difficult or impossible for many students to attend – cutting them off from the study of archaeology altogether.  

“This class makes it possible for many more students to get an education or explore a career in archaeology,” Shackelford said. The class is also accessible to students with physical limitations who are unable to travel to or navigate a field site…

The students learn the archaeological techniques required in any excavation. They set up a research grid on the cave floor and systematically locate and record any artifacts they find on the surface. They draw a map with all of the surface details and then decide where to excavate. They take photos of special features or finds. They dig. They collect artifacts. They conduct laboratory analyses. They keep track of their progress in a field notebook.

All of these tasks are accomplished in the virtual world.

Here’s a two-minute YouTube video overview of the VRchaeology platform:

If you are interested in learning more about the VRchaeology project, here is a list of academic publications and recent press articles. Dig in! (Get it? Dig in?!??)

It’s Time to Upgrade My Home Computer: Anybody Have Any Good Recommendations on What to Buy for the Best VR Experience?

I’ve got my eye on this little number by Acer, which is currently in stock, although I’m wondering if I should upgrade the RAM from 16GB to 32GB…

*sigh*

I’ve held it off as long as I can, but it’s time to face facts: it’s time to upgrade the four-year-old desktop computer I use at home. I bought it in December of 2016, based on the computer specifications at the time for my trusty Oculus Rift, and it still met the minimum specifications when I upgraded my Rift to a Valve Index earlier this year.

But the Vive Facial Tracker that I eagerly bought makes my Intel Core i5-6600 CPU running at 3.30GHz cry, so it now sits sadly in its little box on my computer desk. The final straw was when I kept crashing while in NeosVR today (sans facial tracker) while Joris Weijdom was giving me a guided tour of the interesting, postmodernist immersive theatre work projects he is involved with at the HKU University of the Arts Utrecht. After several successive embarrassing crashes, we had to resort to using video chat on Discord!

So yes, it’s time (at least, if I want to continue using NeosVR, which I do). The recommended specs for the Valve Index are brief (and no, I am not aiming for the minimum; I want whatever I buy to last me for at least three years):

Minimum

  • OS: Windows 10, SteamOS, Linux
  • Processor: Dual Core with Hyper-Threading
  • Memory: 8 GB RAM
  • Graphics: Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 / AMD RX480
  • Network: Broadband Internet connection
  • Additional Notes: Available DisplayPort (Version1.2) and USB (2.0+) Port required

Recommended

  • Processor: Quad Core+
  • Graphics: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 or better
  • Additional Notes: Available USB (3.0+) Port required for Headset Pass-Through Camera

Fortunately, I already have a computer store picked out (the same place I bought my last PC from, a suitably übergeeky place where all the salespeople can comfortably and confidently sling computer acronyms with the best of them. The shortage of computer chips caused by the current boom in cryptocurrency mining might cause some problems, though; most of the higher-end gaming machines I have my eye on are back ordered, according to my preferred store’s website. I’ll probably drive across town tomorrow and see what they have in stock that meets the recommended PC requirements for my Valve Index. There’s not really a rush; the only platform I am having problems with right now is NeosVR.

But I decided to write this blogpost and ask you, my readers: what Windows PC specs do you recommend for a higher-end virtual reality setup?

If you have any recommendations (or links to helpful resources to help me draw up my shopping list), please leave a comment on this blogpost, drop me a line via the Contact Me page, or ping me on the RyanSchultz.com Discord (or any of the other social VR/virtual worlds Discord servers we might have in common). Thanks!

FundamentalVR’s Fundamental Surgery: A Brief Introduction to a Multimodal Virtual Reality Platform for Training Surgeons

Fundamental Surgery is a VR platform by a company called FundamentalVR, consisting of several components, and a sterling example of social VR used for a serious, practical purpose: the training of surgeons. The training program has been accredited by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) and the Royal College of Surgeons England.

Here’s a one-minute video overview of all five components of Fundamental Surgery:

The components are:

  • HapticVR: deep simulation and procedural surgical rehearsal with kinesthetic haptic feedback (you can see a bit of this in the first video up top);
  • @HomeVR: procedural walkthrough, anatomy and environment familiarization and testing, using a standalone VR headset;
  • Teaching Space: a social VR-based virtual training space (see image below);
  • Data Insights: a central data dashboard to track progress; and
  • MultiuserVR: a collaborative/social VR platform for surgical training (see video below).

This is an animated GIF demonstrating the Teaching Space, complete with a shared whiteboard:

VRScout reported on Fundamental Surgery last September:

Teaching Space [is] an unlimited multi-user virtual classroom designed to help medical schools around the world who’ve been impacted by the pandemic; a virtual space where they’re able to get that crucial hands-on training while working other students in a collaborative virtual environment.

COVID-19 has presented big challenges in the medical field when it comes to surgical training. In many cases, it has completely disrupted traditional training programs, which have always relied on actual face-to-face classroom environments. Zoom and Skype conferencing do provide alternative learning environments, but they’re limited. 2D platforms can’t fully replace the teaching and learning opportunities offered by in-class training.

This new VR learning space provides a safe environment for instructors to meet with trainees, no matter where they are located.

The virtual classroom environment includes a virtual whiteboard that instructors can use to present additional notes as they discuss procedures with their class. From there you can hop on over to Fundamental Surgery’s virtual operating room where you can run demos of surgeries and get even more hands-on experience. 

Here’s a short video showing you what the MultiuserVR surgical experience looks like:

In addition, surgeons in training can take their lessons home with the @HomeVR program:

@HomeVR expands the Fundamental Surgery platform, offering an easy route for residency programs to integrate the latest educational technologies into their curriculums. It supports consistency in training delivery and assessment across a cohort, and can be used to enhance the effectiveness of an institution’s curriculum…

The @HomeVR product is used on standalone headsets and can be taken home to use whenever and wherever the user would like, providing flexibility of learning. The @HomeVR product serves as a great introduction to the HapticVR product, which supports full skills development.

As the VRScout article states,

Think of FundamentalVR’s medical training system as a ‘flight simulator’ for both medical students and their instructors. If you’re going to make a mistake, this is the environment to do it. Because the experience is fully immersive—using realistic audio, video, and haptic feedback—the emotions that you experience are real.

Who knows? The next time (God forbid!) you go under the surgeon’s knife, she might have had part of her training in virtual reality!

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

For more information about FundamentalVR’s Fundamental Surgery product, visit their website, or follow them on social media: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or check out their videos on YouTube (there’s also a ton of videos here on the Fundamental Surgery website). And I will be adding Fundamental Surgery to my ever-growing comprehensive list of social VR and virtual worlds.

UPDATED! Nanome: A Brief Introduction to a Social VR Platform for Exploring Chemistry

Nanome: “The Future of Molecular Design” (VRFocus)

Virtual reality is finding application to many fields, and among them is chemistry. For example, in the spring of 2020, Harvard University used Oculus Quest VR headsets in an undergraduate-level biochemistry class to help students to observe, manipulate, and build molecules and explore the shapes of proteins and drug compounds. (Here’s a link to the recently-published paper in the Journal of Chemical Education. Unfortunately, you’ll have to buy the full-text article, or get a copy via your local public or university library. Remember, librarians are your friends!)

VR use in chemistry is not just for students learning about the basics of chemistry, however; it also has application to research scientists working in the laboratory. A good example of how social VR can be used in cutting-edge, collaborative chemistry research is Nanome, a startup co-founded in 2015 by some engineering students at University of California San Diego, who saw a need for 3D visualization tools to help medicinal and computational chemists and structural biologists reduce their time to market and increase the efficacy of new drugs (a process that can cost billions of dollars per drug).

Nanome recently announced the closure of a successful funding round raising $3 million from several venture capital firms:

“Since our founding, we’ve had a compelling vision about what scientific collaboration should look like and a goal to equip our real-life superheroes — scientists who are discovering ways to combat disease, address climate change and improve people’s lives — with an intuitive virtual interface where they can experiment, design and learn at the nanoscale,” said Steve McCloskey, Nanome CEO and Founder in a statement. “We made huge strides toward realizing that vision in 2020, and this funding gives us firepower to increase our impact, support more research initiatives and continue to revolutionize biotech and scientific research.”

Initially starting as a visualization tool to facilitate research and development by medicinal and computational chemists and structural biologists, Nanome has grown as an open platform for virtual collaboration. During the pandemic organizations have used Nanome’s platform “to assess candidate molecules’ ability to bind viral proteins in 3D,” the company notes.

In fact, Nanome became the first American company to join a coordinated supercomputing project funded by the European Union (EU) Commission to screen chemical libraries for potential activity against SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19! (Here’s the press release.)

Nanome is being used in the search for drugs to fight COVID-19

And the best part is, you can try Nanome out for free! Nanome is free to download for personal use via Steam, Viveport, SideQuest, and the Oculus store, supporting the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Valve Index headsets. For academic or commercial use there are various licensing structures; for more details, visit the pricing page on their website.

For more information on Nanome, visit their website or follow the company on social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, or YouTube. I will be adding Nanome to my ever-expanding comprehensive list of social VR and virtual worlds.

UPDATE July 9th, 2021: Here’s an interesting article about Nanome, from a website called LabCompare: VR for Science: Drug Discovery and More in the Virtual World, with some great illustrations!