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Engineering student wearing Virtual Reality headset in lab

Engineering Students Create Virtual Reality System

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Engineering students pose with Virtual Reality system

Taylor’s Engineering Department gives students countless opportunities to put their course knowledge to work, but one of the most significant ways is through their junior-senior capstone project. Engineering students spend three semesters researching, designing, developing, manufacturing, and communicating about a major project. This year, that project was a complex walking interface for virtual reality.

What is Virtual Reality?

Virtual reality (VR) is a computer-simulated three-dimensional environment which can be interacted with using wearables or handled devices. The goal of any virtual reality system is to allow the user to feel fully immersed in the digitally simulated world, to feel like they are really “there.” Virtual reality is used in gaming and a wide range of training applications, including for the military and workplace safety. 

Virtual reality systems have been used for training purposes since the 1970s. In the 1990s, consumer products came on the market. But a problem has persisted in VR systems: the inability to create an experience that genuinely replicates natural walking and running in a virtual space. Although there are several systems that allow a user to move their legs, they fall short of providing a natural walking sensation and can cause disorientation and nausea. As a result, most systems today use “teleportation” to allow the user to move in the virtual world. In this approach, the user points to a new location in the virtual space and clicks on a handheld device, and their perspective “teleports” directly to the new location.

The Walking Interface

For the last two years, 11 Engineering and two Computer Science students have worked to build a new approach to walking in virtual reality. They wanted to create a VR system that was fully immersive and created a deeper virtual experience, where you could walk infinitely in the virtual world without fear of walking into a wall in the real world. 

The VR interface, dubbed “New Worlds,” is located in an Engineering lab in the Euler Science Complex. The system is a first-generation prototype designed to prove their ideas. To keep costs and complexity down, this prototype is a simplified version of what they envision for the final system and only allows walking forward and backward. Turning to the left and right and climbing up and down are not possible with this prototype.

New Worlds consists of four major subsystems: Physical Interface, User Tracking, Controls and Safety.

The physical interface consists of two mobile footpads mounted on long rails. The footpads rapidly move beneath the feet as the user walks or jogs. These footpads act as the walking surface for the user and switch between moving forward (to remain underneath the feet) and backward (to simulate the ground) as a person takes steps. The pucks roll along rails that provide a smooth, low-friction motion along a single-axis.  

The User Tracking subsystem gathers information on the state of the user: tracking the position and velocity of the user’s feet, detecting foot contact with the foot pucks, tracking the user position in the system workspace, and communicating this data to the Control subsystem.

The Control subsystem turns the user-tracking data into motor control commands in order to achieve a user experience that feels like natural walking and running. To accomplish this, the subsystem ensures that the foot pucks always remain beneath the feet and that they contain the user within the physical limits of the system. In order to provide an immersive experience, the subsystem must accommodate the nuances of human movement, including positive and negative acceleration, different gaits, and stride anomalies due to mid-stride decisions. 

Finally, the Safety subsystem monitors the other subsystems for faults or failures. In the event that a subsystem has a problem or the user begins to fall, the safety subsystem shuts New Worlds down to protect the user.

The Impact

New Worlds is an ambitious and exciting project that has real-world applications. But more importantly, it’s an opportunity for students to learn and grow.

“The best education is one that requires application of learned theoretical principles to a real-world problem,” said John Pugsley '22. “We were working to achieve a difficult goal, applying classroom principles and learning much more along the way.”

With so many complex, interworking parts, this VR project was ambitious from the start, and students faced many issues in the process. 

It’s been hard to believe you're so close to finishing a part of the project, only to realize that there is another thing you missed, so there is more work to be done,” said Kaylee Bozarth '22. “This happened a lot with figuring out calibration of the foot tracking. There were so many little details that caused problems.”

Still, the team’s tenacity and varied skill sets made it come together. In addition to the technical application of their engineering knowledge, working as a team taught them how to allocate work, communicate effectively, and maintain team morale when dealing with challenges. 

I learned a lot about working as a team to accomplish something really cool. It was great to see how everyone's talents could work together so well. When I was struggling with something, there was always someone I could ask for help,” Bozarth said. 

Creating a Virtual World

In addition to the 11 Engineering students working on creating the walking interface with their skills in electrical, mechanical, and computer engineering, the two Computer Science students created a virtual world that interfaced with the system.

Because the system is limited to moving in one direction, options for possible virtual worlds were somewhat limited. But the computer science students came up with the creative idea of a mineshaft-themed game that puts the entire system to work. 

“You’re in a narrow mine shaft lined with burning torches, which you can pick up and hold,” said Dr. Peter Staritz, Associate Professor of Engineering who oversaw the project. “At one point the tunnel opens up and you walk across a river of lava on a narrow bridge. Then you lift rocks out of the way to get out of the cave.” 

Beyond the Lab

Using VR for gaming is fun, but the team sees uses for this system that reach far beyond entertainment. Staritz wants to see this technology used to help train soldiers how to clear buildings of enemy combatants. 

“Clearing buildings is one of the most dangerous jobs in the military, and one of the hardest to train for,” Staritz said. “It’s also difficult to replicate this high-stress environment in real life. Eventually, we’d like to adapt the footpads and rails to allow for more complex movement that would make this kind of training possible.”

Bozarth will be moving on to graduate school next year, with the goal of eventually becoming an engineering professor herself and shepherding students through other ground-breaking engineering projects. Teagan Heinger, who was also a member of the student team, plans to use his engineering experience to solve problems in the construction industry. 

“Each stage of this project, from design to testing to machining has been a blast. My favorite part has been the 3D CAD (Computer-Aided Design) design that I have gotten to work through from start to finish,” he said. 

Turn Your Engineering Passion to Reality

Taylor’s Engineering program will give you the skills to design and build cutting-edge technology, and solve real-world problems as an undergraduate. Get started now by scheduling a campus visit. You’ll get to see our labs, meet faculty and students, and find out if Taylor’s Engineering program is right for you. 

The Engineering team would like to give special thanks to the Women’s Giving Circle which funded this work over the last two years.