Wider Horizons

A new teaching tool at Lethbridge College is creating opportunities and connecting students in profound ways. For some, it takes them to the top of a gusty wind turbine tower. For others, it sweeps them away to the scene of a horrific car crash where they have to put the skills they’ve learned in the classroom – whether as an emergency responder, a police officer or a member of the media – to the test. Still others use it to immerse themselves and their clients into the house of their dreams, showcasing the details and design touches that distinguish their work.

It’s a tool that sounded like science fiction just a generation ago (although it was starting to be used for training and simulations even back then). But today, at Lethbridge College, students can put on a headset and step into a new world – the world of augmented, virtual, mixed and extended reality (also known as AR, VR, MR and XR). They can acquire experiences that typically would take years and countless miles to accumulate, and apply it to the lessons they are learning in the classroom.

Dayne Adam, a 2018 Multimedia Production graduate, used extended reality - or XR - to create his second-year capstone project.

Whether they are taking in the view from the top of Mount Everest or standing on the edge of a high-rise with a virtual welder in their hands, they are benefitting from the best technology has to offer while acquiring skills that will help them stand out as they enter the workforce. It’s a tool as transformative as the telephone and as quickly evolving as the World Wide Web.

It’s changing the way Lethbridge College instructors teach. “Extended reality brings teaching to life,” says Kris Hodgson, chair of the college’s School of Media and Design and an instructor in the college’s Digital Communications and Media program. “How else can you understand how an earthquake affected a community without actually standing on the ground where the tragedy hit? XR brings you anywhere you want to go in the world, and as it does, it creates greater empathy and a better understanding of global events.”

And it’s changing the way Lethbridge College students learn. “It’s not just games,” says Dayne Adam (Multimedia Production 2018), a recent graduate who used XR to create his second year capstone project. “The potential is limitless for learning as well as for entertainment. With XR you will be able to first create scenarios for yourself before trying them for real. This could be huge for many industries from machining to first responders and healthcare professionals to architects and engineers. Interacting with a 3D model in 3D space is revolutionizing the way that we learn.”

Listening to people in the extended reality community talk about their topic is an exercise in understanding acronyms. Detailed definitions can be found on p. 39, but think of XR – extended reality – as the umbrella term that covers all realities (augmented, virtual, mixed and 360-degree video and storytelling) together. The one most used at Lethbridge College is VR, which is a mosaic of technologies using virtual reality headsets to generate immersion using realistic sounds, images and other sensations that replicate a real environment or create an imaginary world.

XR is already a big deal – in economic as well as technological terms. Recent market research from the International Data Corp. forecasts worldwide spending on XR products and services in 2018 will reach $27 billion, which is a 92 per cent increase over 2017. And that market could grow to a $108 billion market by 2021, according to DigiCapital, a company that advises AR/VR and game leaders around the world. And studies by Research and Markets in Dublin, Ireland, show that in the next five years, revenues in VR alone are expected to grow by at least 54 per cent.

Instructors
Lethbridge College instructors (from left) Kris Hodgson, Mike McCready and Cherie Reitzel have integrated AR, VR, XR and/or 360 into the curriculum of the classes they teach.

This technology already has a significant foothold in Alberta. The XR industry in the region includes 103 private sector companies, including 40 game developers, 18 working on 360-video and storytelling, 21 dedicated to VR/AR development, six specializing in VR-focused real estate and five working on VR film development. In the Lethbridge area, the emerging information and culture industry, which includes XR/VR, showed the highest sector growth rate and an employment growth rate of 236 per cent, according to a 2017 report from Economic Development Lethbridge, 2017.

This rapid growth rate is due in part to the network of support provided by the City of Lethbridge, Economic Development Lethbridge, the Regional Innovation Network of Southern Alberta, and the college. In fact, two XR/VR focused companies, Output Media and Neospatial, were incubated and launched in Lethbridge with support from this network.

These numbers are only expected to grow in the decade ahead as technology improves and more and more people and businesses adopt it. And faculty and staff at Lethbridge College have embraced the role of early adopters and are working to be leaders in this young and growing industry. Currently, there are eight program areas where staff members are using or developing 360-degree storytelling or augmented, virtual or extended reality experiences in the classroom. Among the leaders on campus are Hodgson and his fellow Digital Media and Communications instructors Pete Gingras and George Gallant; Multimedia Production instructor Mike McCready; and Interior Design Technology instructor Cherie Reitzel.

McCready says his program area is a natural fit for XR, as it prepares students to create content and experiences that incorporate a variety of media, including video, 3D, animations, graphics and more. “XR is the epitome of multimedia,” he says. “A compelling XR experience uses all of these media formats and more. It’s important that we properly prepare our students for cutting-edge technologies – including XR.”
For Reitzel, XR allows her students to immerse themselves (and their clients) in the spaces they’ve designed to help visualize the finished products. After seeing their designs come to life in XR, “students feel as though their designs have been experienced. For us, this is the greatest in experiential learning on the market.” And it is an experience and knowledge that benefits students as they launch their careers and the college as it distinguishes itself from other post-secondary institutions around the country.

AR, VR, XR, 360…What’s the difference?

 

AR – or augmented reality – uses technology to create an enhanced version of reality.

  • AR creates an overlay of virtual content, but can’t interact with the environment.
  • When you use AR, you are still seeing the real world, but with extras added. (Think of Pokémon GO or special Snapchat filters like the ones the college uses for Convocation or special events.)
  • You can experience it using your cell phone and use it to explore the world around you.

VR – or virtual reality – uses technology to create a simulated environment.

  • VR immerses you into a completely virtual environment.
  • That virtual world can be artificial (an animated video game) or an actual place that has been photographed (the top of a wind turbine or in the middle of a herd of cattle).
  • VR requires closed visors or goggles to block out the room and virtually take you somewhere else. You can move around and look in every direction and explore places you have never been.

XR – or extended reality – is a far-reaching, inclusive and flexible term that brings both AR and VR realities together.

  • The “X” represents a variable that is not fully known, intentionally suggesting an open ecosystem that will continue to expand.
  • XR encompasses the entire spectrum from real to virtual, and is a still-evolving industry.

360 – or 360-degree storytelling – is a new and immersive approach to one of the oldest learning models around: telling stories.

  • 360-degree video is live footage collected from a real-life event or place that can transport you to the middle of where a story is taking place.
  • It is similar to video you would watch on your TV, except you can now experience it as if you were in the middle the story, and not standing on the outside looking in.

XR is also used for 360-degree storytelling by students of Hodgson, Gingras and Gallant, instructors in Digital Communications and Media who specialize in video production and filmmaking, including 360-degree video production use. This last semester, DCM students quickly learned that 360 works well for feature stories and taking a viewer to a new place to experience a story – but it doesn’t work as well for breaking news. “It immerses the viewer in a different environment, and it gives you a view you couldn’t get with just a picture or traditional video format,” Hodgson explains.

One story that worked particularly well was a feature on the Lethbridge Therapeutic Riding Association. “The students took a 360-camera and put it in the middle of a horse enclosure, and at one point, a horse walked up and put its mouth on the camera,” Hodgson recalls. “It gave a view of it you could never get with just a picture or traditional video format. You saw what you would see if you were sitting in the middle of a pasture.”

As a tool for journalists, 360-degree storytelling can be truly life-changing. “It provides the freedom to look anywhere you’d like,” says Hodgson. “With 360, you can experience what it is like in the middle of a Syrian refugee camp, which can lead to greater compassion and greater empathy as you are truly putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.”

With expertise and dedication coming from across campus, college instructors and students organized what ended up being the world’s first full-day VR/AR conference held entirely in virtual reality on April 26. Students planned the Merging Realities: An Event of Multiple Perspectives event, which featured speakers from the VR/AR industry in Alberta and abroad. The event garnered the support of a variety of partners, including the Virtual Reality Augmented Reality Association, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Regional Innovation Network of Southern Alberta, the college’s School of Media and Design, and industry partners from across the province and the globe.

The event kicked off with a virtual welcome from Alberta’s Minister of Advanced Education Marlin Schmidt. “I was very pleased to be able to participate in Lethbridge College’s Merging Realities conference and to see the innovative ways the college is on the cutting edge of these exciting new technologies,” he says. “Our government is working with the post-secondary education sector and industry to make sure we are expanding the number of high technology opportunities for students as we work to strengthen and diversify the economy.”

He also got a thrill out of using a virtual reality headset and technology to communicate with the participants at the event – and he’s not alone in enjoying the XR experience. The first time Dayne Adam put on the goggles and stepped into another world, “it blew my mind. I had never seen anything like it, and I immediately knew that I wanted to be involved with it in some way.” Sarah Westfall (Interior Design Technology 2018) also loved it. “Everything appeared so real and it didn’t take long to forget that I was sitting on a chair in the classroom.”

But Stephanie Savage (Digital Communications and Media 2018) had the opposite reaction. “I hated it,” she says. “It was such a departure from what I had done previously and the tech really does take some getting used to. After a while it got easier, but man, the first couple of times were tough. There is a definite learning curve when using this new technology.”

Stephanie Savage, a 2018 Digital Communications and Media graduate, spoke about best practices in 360-degree journalism at the Alberta Weekly Newspapers Association

The most compelling part about using XR for Westfall is the ability to give life to her designs. “It’s exciting to become a part of an emerging industry and community of XR experts. Virtual reality is starting to take off, and it’s cool to be a part of that.” It also led to a deeper understanding of her field.

“Because XR is so immersive, it provides a more robust understanding of design principles,” says Westfall. “We have the ability to step into our designs and actually see why a particular configuration or finish won’t work, as opposed to only hearing it in a lecture. It allows us to visualize the outcome, which makes us better designers.”

Despite the steep learning curve to the technology, Savage is now a huge advocate for XR and 360-degree storytelling, which she says is “giving me a leg up in the industry. We are one of the only colleges in Alberta that has started to explore this giant world of XR and 360, so being able to enter the industry with that dynamic skill definitely gives me another tool in my toolbox and sets me apart.”

Adam says he appreciated how XR gave students a hands-on approach they may not have had otherwise – and he was grateful for the opportunity to learn it. “The XR industry is only going to get bigger in the next few years,” he says. “If you are interested in it, now would be the time to get involved.”

Sarah Westfall, a 2018 Interior Design Technology graduate, knew she wanted to use XR in her profession from the moment she first experienced it.

MERGING REALITIES

On April 26, Lethbridge College hosted Merging Realities, the college’s (and world’s) first full-day conference held entirely in virtual reality. The event exceeded everyone’s expectations, with participants coming online or in-person from:

  • 5 continents
  • 16 countries
  • 84 cities

Additionally, the event prompted:

  • 712 live views and a total of 12,690 minutes watched on the live streaming video platform, Twitch
  • 1,509 unique visits to the Merging Realities webpage
  • 2,957,726 impressions of the #mergingrealities2018 hashtag

“Merging Realities was the beginning of something truly transformative. Presenting a keynote to hundreds of people around the world with all types of media – slides, audio, video and 3D models in VR – without having to take one flight is a game changer!” says Alan Smithson, CEO, MetaVRse.

 

LC LEADING THE WAY IN XR

Students and staff are leading the way in the quickly evolving XR industry. Highlights include:

  • Kris Hodgson, chair of Media and Design, who presented Best practices in 360-degree journalism at the Radio Television Digital News Association national conference and awards gala in May.
  • Multimedia Production instructor Mike McCready, who was named chapter president of the Alberta chapter of the VR/AR Association (VRARA). He was also invited to speak at VRARA’s Global Summit in Vancouver in September.
  • Cherie Reitzel, Interior Design Technology instructor, who was a sponsor exhibitor at the Art of Leadership for Women in Calgary in June and presented on VR.
  • Recent Digital Communications and Media grad Stephanie Savage, who discussed the best practices for 360-degree journalism at the Alberta Weekly Newspapers Association symposium in early June.

XR IN THE CLASSROOM

In addition to the college’s Corporate and Continuing Education courses, the following programs currently use or are developing 360-degree storytelling or augmented, virtual or extended reality experiences in the classroom at Lethbridge College:

  • Criminal Justice – Policing
  • Digital Communications and Media
  • Emergency Medical Services
  • Interior Design Technology
  • Multimedia
  • Nursing
  • Welding
  • Wind Turbine Technology
Wider Horizons
Story by Lisa Kozleski | Photos by Rob Olson
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