Curious about virtual reality? Get hands-on and learn how the technology is being used today at UAB

Written by 
rep liblab hololens2 550pxAn Oculus Quest 2 headset and controllers, available for any Blazer to check out from UAB Libraries. "The students we are teaching now will be working with these technologies when they enter the workforce," said Cori Perdue, Ph.D., director of Professional Education in the Collat School of Business. Perdue is working on a pilot project using virtual reality training for delivery drivers at Buffalo Rock Company.
Photo by STEVE WOOD / University Relations

A recent UAB News story and video explained how surgeons in the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery are using virtual reality headsets to prepare for delicate procedures and explain the operations to patients. On Feb. 28, the UAB Marnix E. Heersink Institute for Biomedical Innovation hosted a Metahealth Symposium exploring how UAB is using virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality (see definitions in this box) to educate patients, create training simulations and redefine online classes in the Heersink School of Medicine.

It may seem that widespread adoption of virtual reality has been touted as “just around the corner” for years now, but the technology has reached the point where it has some intriguing use cases beyond gaming and specialized applications such as surgery. That is the impression gathered by Cori Perdue, Ph.D., director of Professional Education in the Collat School of Business, and Dorothy Ogdon, associate professor and head of Emerging Technology and System Development for UAB Libraries, who attended the major Immerse Global Summit conference in Miami in December 2022. At the conference, leaders from Microsoft, Amazon Web Services, AT&T and dozens of other organizations shared how they are creating and using augmented reality and virtual reality in a range of industries.

Coming to a company, and classroom, near you

“The students we are teaching now will be working with these technologies when they enter the workforce,” Perdue said. One example: Companies such as home improvement giant Lowe’s are creating digital twins of their stores that faithfully match the real versions, down to the exact number of items on the shelves. “That way, you can see what’s in stock before you drive down to the store,” Perdue said. 

Perdue’s Professional Education team is pioneering virtual reality training in Birmingham. In addition to face-to-face, online and blended career advancement courses and certificate programs, Collat Professional Education provides employee education and training services for a number of companies in the region, including Buffalo Rock Company, the beverage and food company. Perdue, Ogdon and Collat’s senior instructional design specialist, Jonathan L. McNair, are now working on a pilot project to help train Buffalo Rock’s delivery drivers on the proper techniques for loading drinks in store coolers. McNair recently attended the Adobe MAX conference in Los Angeles in October 2022. At the conference, Adobe touted advancements in artificial intelligence and XR. The idea is to use a virtual reality headset, such as an Oculus Quest 2, which allows users to interact with generated images in a virtual 360 store so that employees can learn proper techniques while loading virtual drinks into coolers. “To make sure access to virtual reality headsets is not a barrier, the immersive learning we are developing also works on a range of desktop and mobile devices where employees can interact with the training using a touchscreen or a mouse,” Perdue said. “The UAB team is planning a mix of training with a gaming twist, including a leaderboard of top times.”

Perdue recently organized a workshop for faculty in the Collat School of Business to share interesting approaches in education, including virtual twins for campus tours and simulations as hands-on training tools in particular classes. Collat’s study abroad program is finding creative ways to use extended reality as well, Perdue notes.

Check it out for yourself

The entire virtual reality/extended reality/augmented reality space has been “growing very rapidly,” Ogdon said. That means there are exciting possibilities, but also means that it can be difficult and expensive to select the right hardware for a particular project, she notes.

This is one reason UAB Libraries created its Virtual Reality Studio at Lister Hill Library in 2019, Ogdon says (see a story and video from UAB News here). The Virtual Reality Studio is open to students, faculty and staff by appointment or on a drop-in basis and is always staffed with student workers to assist users. It features wired VIVE PRO headsets equipped with a number of applications, including 3D human anatomy, a virtual tour of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and an interactive scale model of the solar system. The UAB community can also reserve two VIVE PRO workstations in the LibLab (formerly the UAB MakerSpace) at Sterne Library.

Story continues below box

rep liblab tools for checkout 550px
Photo by STEVE WOOD / University Relations

Get a start in digital media creation at LibLab

In addition to VR/AR headsets, LibLab lets anyone with a BlazerID use and check out a range of what it calls specialized technology. This includes a vlogger kit with microphones and lighting, podcasting equipment, a Nikon DSLR camera, and Arduino for connected-tech projects. “We have a growing collection,” Ogdon said. “People can borrow them, use them in projects and bring them back to the library when they are done.” See the complete list here.

Although virtual reality can be an individual experience, it has a place for groups as well. One of the most popular applications for students at the Virtual Reality Studio is 3D Organon VR Anatomy, Ogdon said: “They will schedule a small group session and quiz each other: ‘Point to this. Now point to this.’ They can work together and keep studying in a new, interactive way.”

rep liblab checkout 550pxChecking out an Oculus Quest 2 headset from the LibLab at Sterne Library.
Photo by STEVE WOOD / University Relations
Libraries now allows students, faculty and staff to experience the tech in their own space. Anyone with a BlazerID can borrow one of several different headsets that Libraries has made available from the LibLab, including the Oculus Quest 2, Merge 2 AR/VR, HoloLens and, soon, the HoloLens 2. (See a full list of available technology here.) “You can try out the equipment as well as get a feel for what you can do with it,” Ogdon said. “It is interesting how different devices appeal to different people.” The Libraries metadata department has catalogued the loanable headsets “just like books,” Ogdon added. “You can search ‘oculus quest’ in the search box on the library site and see how many are available to check out.”

Students, faculty and staff can also create their own augmented reality experiences using Adobe Aero software, Ogdon says. Aero and more than 20 other apps and services are available to the UAB community at no charge through the university’s Adobe Creative Cloud license. Ogdon has noted several interesting possibilities in the literature, including “a few different ways to put chemical models into research posters,” she said. “I am getting together a research workshop to share more on this soon.”

What reality?

rep liblab oculus quest 2 550px
Photo by STEVE WOOD / University Relations
Generally, virtual reality uses fully immersive headsets that take up the user’s entire field of vision, such as the heavily advertised Oculus from Facebook parent company Meta.

Mixed reality headsets such as the Microsoft HoloLens (shown at left) allow users to see computer-generated 3D models, called holograms, but also see their surroundings.

Augmented reality has a variety of meanings, but often refers to experiences based on a user’s existing smartphone or tablet, rather than a separate headset. The terms augmented reality and mixed reality are increasingly being used interchangeably to refer to headsets and glasses from Lenovo, Magic Leap and Microsoft.

Return to story