At the end of December 2021, Dr. Roy Magnuson, associate professor of music composition and creative technology at Wonsook Kim College of Fine Arts, to Craig Jackson, director of infrastructure operations and networks at the Office of Technology Solutions, about a course he planned to teach in the first half of the spring 2022 semester. The course, titled Exploring Creativity through Game (World) Design and Virtual Reality in the Unity Game Engine, was one of the Honors Exploration options for the semester. Honor Explorations are five-week, no-credit learning experiences open to 25 Honors students from a variety of majors and school years. The goal of the course was for each student to create a working VR simulation from scratch in just five weeks.
Magnuson had previously taught a similar version of the class, based at the Milner Library, and had students work on their personal laptops. He had to give them access to the Unity software on their personal devices, which could sometimes be impractical. For this course he decided to reach out to Tech Solutions, who he had worked with on previous projects, to see if there were any options that could benefit his students and their class if they had a space with 18 devices available ?
Jackson brought the idea to his colleagues at Tech Solutions, who first considered the Digital Innovation, Graphics, and Gaming Studio (DIGGS) division. This was ultimately abandoned in favor of 113 Julian Hall – it had the space, most machines, and enough horsepower for all students to use the Unity program simultaneously. It wasn’t until Magnuson began teaching in the room that he realized how amazing it was to have such infrastructure built into the room. He said it “completely changed what the class is pedagogically.” All students were able to access files online or create files within the program without experiencing lag or system overload. The space also accommodated demo room (integrated for virtual reality) and an instructor station and was a flexible space that could be set up with input from Magnuson. Kevin Hand, Interim Executive Director of Business Administration and Communications at Tech Solutions, shared, “This project allowed us to align pedagogy and technology in a visible way. You go in and everything works.”
Another benefit was that Endpoint Support, a division of Tech Solutions, was nearby as a backup. Endpoint helped with everything from testing the devices before the class started, to making sure all the software was up to date, to stepping in when the audio wasn’t working. According to Richie Szaflarski, Manager of Endpoint Support, the biggest challenge was finding six additional computers that matched the technology needs of Magnuson’s class before the semester started. The room had 12 Alienware Aurora R7 desktops, which are “more powerful than our average customer’s workstation.” But there would be 18 students in the class. Luckily, they were able to rent six Acer Predator Orion 3000 desktops from a partner company just in time!
The students had positive feedback on their experience on this course and not only did they complete their VR experience at the end of the five weeks, but they also pushed themselves to try side projects or think of ways this could be used in the future. Magnuson shared that the students took part in their own created bowling lanes and even a parkour course.
Katie Friemann, junior acting major, added, “As a theater major that focuses on performance, I don’t often get involved with technology or the technological side of things. I’ve learned that the possibilities of game design and VR are endless if you have the time, creativity and patience. In the future I’d like to try to create a kind of interactive gallery for artists like me to showcase and get community feedback on monologues, songs, visual art and other art forms. I would love to bring VR technology to the world of theater and entertainment and this exploration has shown me that this transition is much easier and more realistic than I ever imagined.”
All in all, this partnership between Dr. Magnuson and Tech Solutions as a pilot project for future possibilities between the academic and technology areas of the university. The hope is to develop a template for reserving these and similar rooms, and train students in newer technologies so they can get involved in giving their peers access to rooms and resources. Magnuson emphasized how “Honors and I are deeply grateful for this opportunity. It was so crazy to have this room and machines ready for our classes with all the plumbing and hand cut wires. It was fantastic. Also, the students could see the real-time value of their experience.”
“When we’re approached with an innovative idea, we’re here to do our best to say yes,” says Hand. Magnuson is already using the space for a graduate class this fall, and Technology Solutions is open to hearing from other faculty and staff on how our campus spaces can be used or even reconfigured to meet student needs and the computer labs of the future to become .