New virtual reality lab allows Altoona students to 'travel' around the world

Students and Joe Scott speak with engineer before working on 360-degree video in Europe

Recent graduates Tyler Talarico-Yunker and Dakota Kistler, along with campus instructional designer Joe Scott, speak with Alzbeta Prokopova, an application and support engineer at Amberg Technologies. Shown is part of the Hagerbach Test Gallery in Flums, Switzerland, one of several locations where the students captured 360-degree video.

Credit: Bryan Schlake

Thanks to a new virtual reality initiative at Penn State Altoona, recent graduates in the rail transportation engineering (RTE) program have traveled to Europe to create immersive learning experiences for future students.

During the spring 2018 semester, Bryan Schlake, instructor in RTE, paved the way for this and future interdisciplinary opportunities at the Altoona campus through the creation of a new virtual reality learning lab. In that time, he instructed students on how to use the 360-degree camera equipment to capture footage, and he tested virtual reality headsets that would complete the lab in the fall. To help kickstart the lab, the campus was awarded a $15,000 grant from the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association.

"I have a friend from Eastern Kentucky University who always used to say, 'Never tell a person what you can show a person,’” Schlake said. “A lot of students are visual learners, and they can read in a book about what catenary wire looks like -- which is the power lines that power electric trains -- but for them to actually see it, see what it looks like, see how it's put together, it does a lot more than what I could do trying to explain it. Or for them to see how a station is set up, for them to actually enter that environment virtually, they are able to see the future that they will be designing."

Schlake, along with Joe Scott, an instructional designer at the Altoona campus, and a group of students from the RTE program, recorded 360-degree video at various railroad locations in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Schlake said they collected videos of the trains, railroads, yards, terminals, and even footage from the operator’s cab on several trains. The trip was sponsored in part by Leica Geosystems, of which Schlake said him, Scott, and the students were extremely grateful for the support.

Schlake said, "Students will take those videos back and process them, and then next year, we'll be able to step into our virtual reality lab and use the headsets -- we have several different types of virtual reality headsets for students to put on and wear and enter into this environment to kind of take a virtual tour of those railway systems that don't even exist in North America. It gives them an opportunity to still learn about those systems and operations from right here in Central Pennsylvania."

Upon returning to Altoona, Scott has been helping Schlake and his students develop online course content using the 360 videos. Scott is also exploring the use of 360 videos for other courses, and he said the trip to Europe was an excellent proof of concept both for virtual video creation and for capturing video in an international context.

"I’m interested in using the trip and associated videos to create digital storytelling experiences that immerse students in unique environments and deliver meaningful curriculum content," Scott said. "The resources created can be used for course content and attracting potential students to the program."

Currently, the VR lab has an Oculus Rift system, a Google Daydream, and a Samsung Gear VR platform, and Schlake said they will soon purchase additional headsets to make a total of seven to eight headsets for the lab. Additionally, the lab will have several other systems, including a virtual welder trainer and a locomotive simulator for students to learn how to operate a locomotive. Students have already begun to use the virtual welder trainer to practice shielded metal arc and gas metal arc welding in the RTE 404 (Railroad Mechanical Practicum) course.

Students try on VR headsets

From left, Tyler Talarico-Yunker, Dakota Kistler, and Stephen Harvey test virtual reality headsets in the new lab.

Credit: Marissa Carney

Students who will create the 360-degree video have been very excited about the opportunity. Even though Stephen Harvey, of Sarver, Pennsylvania, has not used the virtual reality equipment much, he said he thinks it will be a great opportunity for future students.

"The VR equipment is very interesting and we've never been exposed to it, so it's a new experience,” Harvey said before going on the trip. “It should be a great experience for all the new students coming in to see the videos that we're making."

Dakota Kistler, of Williamsburg, Pennsylvania, said that even though he was graduating he may still use the experience on his resume and possibly in the future. "What I think is going to be pretty cool is that now I have first-hand experience with virtual reality equipment and [with it] becoming more popular later on in my career, I can say 'Yes, I can actually use it' and maybe go on and use the skill in my everyday life."

Another recent graduate in Schlake’s spring class who took 360-degree videos of the high-speed rail systems in Europe is Tyler Talarico of Media, Pennsylvania.

"I think one of the cool things with the VR is just that it kind of takes your 2-D world with your projection in class and puts it into your normal 3-D so you're able to manipulate the video with the headset itself,” he said. "I feel very honored to be able to maybe leave my mark for future classes and really build up the program in a good way."

During the spring, Media Commons at Penn State aided in getting the VR lab underway. Schlake said the staff from Media Commons purchased the 360-degree cameras for the Altoona campus library and Dan Getz of the Penn State Immersive Experiences Lab provided training on how to use the cameras and the Adobe Premiere software, which will be used to process the videos.

Media Commons consultant Nick Smerker said immersive learning experiences like this are important because they allow students to dive into worlds that they could not otherwise easily get to. With an up-close view of a fundamental process or preview of potential employers, students get a sense of place in a way that traditional video cannot replicate.

“I see a lot of potential for using 360-degree video with all things international at the University,” Smerker said. “As someone who has been fortunate enough to travel, I definitely know that it’s true that the perspective gained by leaving the country (to say nothing of language learning opportunities and more) is invaluable.”

Implementing immersive experiences in campus programming, such as ones centering around a country of focus, like the EDGE program does at Penn State Beaver, or in classes, make it possible for students to gain a sense of being on the ground and engaged with a particular foreign culture without the associated costs of actually being on location. Otherwise, costs make these experiences very prohibitive for many students, Smerker said.

Schlake has high hopes that this project will have a big impact on students while also educating people about rail safety.

"We're hoping that this will really inspire students all across the country but also all across the world to explore railway transportation,” he said. “It's a field that people don't think a lot about but really it's the backbone of our economy in North America."

He added that freight transportation is seeing a large growth, especially in cities.

At the Altoona campus, there has been a lot of support and interest in immersive learning experiences from the administration, along with students and faculty from other disciplines, such as electro-mechanical engineering technology, psychology, and communications.

Faculty or staff who are interested in getting started with 360-degree video and/or virtual reality at their campus can contact Media Commons at [email protected].