Vizzers give 'wings' to denizens of interactive virtual realty worlds

Jinsil Hwaryoung Seo

Empowered by virtual reality goggles, patrons of a year-culminating exhibit of visualization student work soared above clouds and performed other superhuman feats in immersive alternative worlds created in an interactive design studio at Texas A&M.

“The students’ main challenge was to augment human capabilities,” said instructor Jinsil Hwaryoung Seo, assistant professor of visualization. “The virtual world has no limitations. I wanted them to create experiences you can’t have in the real world.”

To create their way-out worlds, students worked with a wide array of technology — motion-tracking software, 3-D printers and game engines, digital texturizing software, and virtual reality systems — while adding a heaping helping of their own unrestrained imaginations.

In one project, players become godlike artists, painting the sky with clouds pulled from a bucket as they restfully float in a hot air balloon.

The game’s creators, Liza De Alba, Frank Hicks, Kailey Strack and Jhaenae Dixon, wanted players to feel fully immersed in their world so they enhanced the sensory experience by aiming a fan at participants and augmenting the sound track with wind and bird sounds. According to some of the more height-sensitive patrons, Dixon said, the effort yielded dizzying results.

“It was incredibly challenging to make something impossible feel real,” said Hicks. “The effects were the most difficult part. We had clouds that looked like cotton balls for a while but were able to fix it.”

Another team augmented their VR head gear with a set of light, nylon and wire wings fitted with motion sensors, which the players strapped on and flapped to fly through a Japanese-inspired virtual garden.

Team members Laura Toler, Cecilia Gonzales, Lily Hodges and Stetson Carlile sought to create a serene experience for players as they fly among stylized plants and animals.

“Making a custom physical accessory that would fit anyone, and then writing the code within the game to make the wings move was our biggest challenge,” said Toler. “The wings ended up being a lot of fun and they came out beautifully.”

One of the studio’s best results, Seo said, was the experience in which students placed controls and a motion tracker inside a 3-D printed plane, allowing participants to realize a childhood fantasy — the act of flying a toy around a backyard.

“We wanted this to have a childlike, playful feel to it,” senior Vizzer Maggie Crosby said. “Everyone pretended to fly planes as a kid by swooping them through the air. This is your toy airplane, but you can make it fly and emit smoke.”

Crosby, with team members Brooke Green and Nabil Sunesara, modified a 3-D printed plane, adding the motion sensor and buttons that activate the smoke and control its color. Players navigate the plane through hovering rings and leave smoke trails by manipulating the buttons.

“I’m really proud of what we accomplished in a month,” Sunesara said. “We set a timeline, finished early and were able to refine it. It was a good exercise in project management.”

Sarah Wilson

posted May 5, 2018