Virtual Reality in Education: The Sheffield University Approach to Technology

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The Media Team at Sheffield University has recently installed its first ever fully interactive, fully immersive & virtual Sheffield School of Architecture Student Exhibiton.

Available to all for free and accessible on any device anywhere in the world, the exhibition has been several months in the making. Starting with the acquisition of new equipment and technology this concept from verbal pitch to a fully polished, professional product.

The virtual exhibition is a complete, self-contained digital environment based on the concept of the virtual tour, which won’t be new to many (examples include Google street view, museums etc…).  As closely as possible the aim was to re-create the experience of visiting the student exhibition, giving virtual visitors the same sensory cues of sounds, visuals and detailed content that a physical visitor would enjoy. At a basic level the virtual exhibition is made of of many 360 degree photographs, videos, images and documents that make up both the physical space and the students’ exhibition content. This data is then combined into an HTML5 web interface, giving the viewer a resource-light, responsive experience compatible with any device, and on virtually any internet connection (5mbps minimum recommended speed).

The Virtual Exhibiton

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What makes this virtual tour different is  the quality of the photography, its uncompromising approach to immersion and most importantly its ability to preserve context.  Each scene within the virtual exhibition has been captured using a panoramic gigapixel robotic mount from Swiss Photographic company Seitz. This rig precisely captures many full-sized photographs for later composition into a single 360×180 degree spherical photograph. The lowest quality scenes are made up of 150 RAW photographs shot at 16 megapixels each, producing a scene of 253 megapixels in size. The highest quality scenes are made up of 935 images and produce an image just over 1 gigapixel in size. These are images over 50,000 pixels across. All scenes are also shot in a +2 bracket for higher dynamic range.  This quality is more than an experiment in possibilities. From the first pitch of this project, Architects and academics alike cast doubt on the ability of digital representations to reveal detail possible to see with the naked eye, and as such any digital version of the exhibition would be a poor neighbour. With these interior gigapixel images, it is possible to resolve incredible detail on zooming in to displays, models and even while looking out of the window at the view! This ability gives the virtual visitor real opportunity to say ‘I’ve been there’ and assess a student’s work equally to those who could visit in person.

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The image above shows an actual 100% crop of one of these scenes for context.
Immersion is important. Atmosphere can change mood, and give important context to a display or a exhibition space. What a space sounds like, what it looks like can change minds. That’s why the virtual exhibition focuses equally on the space and the content of the exhibition. The virtual visitor sees the entire space, 360 degrees, worts and all. They hear recorded sound from the opening night and they can access video and image content related to each display, enhancing the physical, preserving it for the future. That is the final key advantage of this approach to documenting the physical. Preservation without cost. The Universtiy faces a a yearly battle to efficiently use its spaces. The pressure to remove old student work is overwhelming, but understanding the hour and hours of hard work that goes into each model, each drawing, to see this work lost can be difficult. The virtual exhibition is a marketing tool, an exhibition tool and an archival tool. Everything you see in the virtual exhibition is self-contained and can be preserved indefinitely.  If this project is repeated for subsequent exhibitions, an archive of past work could be built up, further enriching our student’s craving for newness and difference as they will be fully aware of what has gone before.

Of course as the virtual exhibition becomes more embedded within the school’s yearly cycle, the more it is expected that students come up with new and innovative ideas as to how their work can be best presented and communicated using this unique platform. It is the university’s hope that this will become a truly collaborative process that develops in scale and value with each year, because, just like the exhibition itself, students at Sheffield lead the way.

This article was contributed by the Media Unit Manager for the Sheffield School of Architecture. If you’d like to find out more you can contact the Media Unit here.


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VR & AR World, 19-20 October 2016, ExCeL London

Taking place this October,  VR & AR World gives you the opportunity to learn more about the latest in virtual and augmented reality technologies and how they can help you to grow your business. The event will see over 100 expert speakers across two days, exhibitors from leading VR and AR companies, and offers the chance to network with hundreds of VR and AR professionals. You can find out more about the event, and book your tickets on the official VR & AR World website.

 

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