Envision yourself standing inside an ancient cathedral, gazing in awe at its stone walls, beautiful paintings and magnificent sculptures. Or imagine yourself touring a modern skyscraper, admiring its steel construction, dazzling sky lobby and panoramic city views. Whether fueled by academic thirst or by a passion for architecture and history, the educational benefits of such experiences are rich and plentiful. If only they could easily be recreated in an educational environment.
Well, now they can.
Thanks to researchers at UCLA’s Institute for Digital Research and Education, students, educators and lifelong learners soon will be able to explore the world’s most amazing sites on their laptops. Research technologists Lisa M. Snyder and Scott Friedman are working with a small team of computer science students to develop software that allows real-time exploration of highly detailed, three-dimensional computer models of architecturally important and historically significant sites. The software, called VSim (for Visual Simulator), will provide students and educators with the ability to navigate, annotate and construct narratives within the 3D space, creating a virtual learning environment.
Funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, VSim is currently in its final round of programming and will be released publicly this academic year. The software has been developed through IDRE, which supports research that takes advantage of new technologies and encourages collaboration between faculty from departments and disciplines across UCLA. Snyder, an architectural historian, serves as VSim’s conceptual director and Friedman, a computer scientist, oversees its technical aspects.
“This effort is very much in keeping with IDRE’s multi-disciplinary focus. We’re developing the software with computer science students, and the finished product will be available to any faculty working with 3D environments or interested in using them pedagogically,” Snyder said. “So there is a broad swath of people on campus that we can positively impact.”
One of the challenges of 3D content is identifying ways to integrate the technology into the classroom. To that end, VSim differs from its predecessors in many influential ways. Most notably, it allows for imbedded information, including audio, pictures, text, and external website links, to enrich the user’s educational experience.
“This is a way for students, instructors, or any kind of lifelong learner to interact with and share 3D content in a user-friendly manner,” Snyder said.
Think of the narrative portion of the software as a fully interactive Power Point presentation in 3D space – or as a virtual reality tour. For example, the software allows a user to explore a 3D model of Rome’s famed Pantheon, learning about everything from its marble floor to its concrete dome. What kind of marble was used in making the floor? How much marble was used? Of what significance is the floor’s distinctive pattern? The answers would be just a click away.
“This isn’t a super-complicated piece of software,” Friedman said. “But it has potential for exciting use.”
In addition to exploring content that has been created for them, users can create their own VSim narratives.
“Students interested in making their own 3d models can use one of the free software packages, such as Blender, and build a model,” Snyder said. “Or they could download an existing model from Trimble’s 3D Warehouse. Then they can use the VSim to interact with it in a classroom presentation, or share it with their friends.”
Snyder, whose digital reconstructions of historic environments have received national acclaim, first realized the benefits of 3D modeling while teaching architectural history at Woodbury University, prior to her arrival at UCLA.
“I taught for many years to young student architects who had absolutely no interest in pretty pictures of old buildings,” she said with a laugh. “They didn’t buy into slide shows, either. I felt there must be a better way to teach about ancient buildings and architecture. “
Snyder and Friedman previously worked together on UCLA’s Urban Simulation Team, with Snyder creating 3D content such as her ongoing reconstruction model of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and Friedman spearheading the development of uSim, the interface software used by the Team. That experience led to their VSim collaboration.
“VSim is the next-generation uSim,” Friedman said. “It evolved from our work at UST, and wouldn’t exist without that experience.”
The prototype currently is undergoing third-party testing and evaluation, and initial feedback has been positive. After further testing, the next step will be to disseminate VSim to a broader audience of educators and students. And then?
“Ideally we’ll be able to find funding for the development of an online archive of 3D content that can be explored with VSim and that access can databases of primary and secondary resources and a range of academically generated narratives about the virtual spaces,” Snyder said. “That’s my dream.”