Stories of Innovation: How We Started a Virtual Reality Laboratory at RCTC

Guy Hamernik, Multi Media Producer, Rochester Community and Technical College

How We Started a Virtual Reality Laboratory at RCTC

In 2017, Rochester Community and Technical College embarked on a new 21st century journey. A journey that took students from their own 3D drawings and sculptures to the furthest galaxy, all without leaving the institution. These virtual experiences are all part of RCTC’s new Virtual Reality Laboratory. As the RCTC’s Virtual Reality Lab enters its second year of existence, we can look back on the past year and reflect on accomplishments, our current lab utilization, and where its future lies.

The VR Lab started as a result of our college’s Minnesota State Shark Tank Grant for Innovation which awarded us just under $23K to get our project off the ground. Our lab found a home in the RCTC East Hall in an area that formerly was used for nursing simulations. By coincidence, the size of the three rooms matched the space footprint needed for each VR station. Each VR Lab room consists of a desktop computer with advanced graphic accelerated cards and boatloads of RAM, two diagonally mounted sensors on the walls, a VR headset, and two hand-held controllers similar to those used with the Nintendo Wii. Our VR grant group considered both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive systems and decided to go with the HTC Vive due to higher resolution images and a larger area footprint for student exploration.

VR Room 3 HQ 01B

We ran our first learning activity in September 2017.  This was led by John Tacinelli, a faculty member in our science department. John played a crucial role in our campus getting the grant. He could visualize the learning potential of programs such as Titans of Space and Universe Sandbox for his astronomy students, and Google Earth VR for his geology students. It is vital to note, that without faculty buy-in, this fun and cool initiative wouldn’t have gone anywhere. Adding a VR Lab component also meant he had to rewrite lab activities in several classes and had to figure out how to guide groups through the experiences. Fortunately, we hired two work-study students who were very enthusiastic in exploring the potential of virtual reality. One of our work-study students had Tacinelli as an instructor and helped brainstorm ways for students to have group experiences. These experiences included sharing the VR headset while working on the lab assignment in D2L Brightspace. We found that working in groups of 2-4 worked the best. In addition to the science usage, four different Art classes and the RCTC Art Club used Adobe Tilt Brush to create 3D sculptures for class activities.

We believed that students who used the VR Lab for class would enjoy the experience. This generation started working with computers at an early age, and it has played a big part in their lives. You can’t walk down the campus halls without a near-miss collision with a student who has their eyes glued to their phone. It seemed like the lab had a great chance at drawing learners’ attention since technology already played such a huge role in their life. In order to evaluate the effectiveness of the activities taking place, we had to provide data to show that the VR learning activities are engaging experiences that help with retention and student success. Each learner was given a 10 question survey following their lab experience.

What we have learned through our project at Rochester Community and Technical College, is that students that used the VR technology thought it was an engaging experience. 114 learners were surveyed of the 150+ users since October 2017. Of those 114, 100% rated the experience a 6 or better on a 10-point scale that learning in that manner was a fun experience with over 80 scoring it a 9 or 10. 95% of the learners surveyed believed that the VR exercises they participated in helped them better understand the concepts that were discussed in their classes. Although the sample size is small and there was no control group to compare outcomes, the survey results strongly suggest that the students benefitted from their VR learning experiences. This active engagement activity was also rated 100% in experience satisfaction with over half scoring it a 10. The VR lab alone is not going to be the deciding factor in student success. It should be thought of as an area that better explains classroom concepts and puts them in a practical setting, much like a class field trip. The instructor development and presentation of lab activities for their students plays the most crucial role in the success of the students in the lab and the lab itself and allows for students to learn in ways that until now were not possible.

VR Labe 3 HQ 2

As the 2017-18 academic year continued, we made subtle improvements to each lab room. We added 50-inch wall mounted monitors in each room, so everyone in the learning groups could see a first-person view of what the student in the VR headset was experiencing. Indirect lighting was added to brighten up the room without distracting glare on the 50-inch monitor. Tasteful 4K artwork was added on the walls. Our objective through the lighting and decoration was to both provide a useful space for class VR activities, and also to clue the students who entered the VR Lab that they were going to have an engaging and fun experience – kind of like they were at Disney EPCOT or Magic Kingdom. Most of the money from the grant was in the computers though. The HTC Vive addition costs around $500. The programs used in class are ridiculously cheap, varying from $29 to FREE per station.

VR was not for everyone though. Learners that suffer from motion sickness or claustrophobia didn’t feel comfortable with the headsets on but still could participate in the activities with the large monitor providing first-person views. Of the 150 plus users throughout the past year, only two or three fell into this category.

With the grant money, our group also purchased two portable backpack VR units that can be set up anywhere. We usually set up one of these units in a room adjacent to the VR Lab to provide a 4th station so we can accommodate more learners. These portable units have also been used during Homecoming Week and Stress Relief Week so students could play short VR games for fun. Programs such as Fruit Ninja, Space Pirate Trainer, and Beat Saber provided the experience. Our group also worked with the RCTC Marketing department and CMX Chateau Theater in Rochester to set up a manned VR unit in the lobby of the theater for the opening weekend of Steven Spielberg’s VR movie, “Ready Player One.” This drew more attention to our college and raised a few eyebrows from participants that didn’t expect this type of learning at a community college.

The downfall to the current set-up is that only one person at a time can get the full experience. We usually have one person experiencing VR, while the other 2-3 students are asking and answering lab activity questions from their class D2L Brightspace site. We have explored other VR technologies in an effort to increase the number of concurrent participants, and have found mixed results.

VR Lab CMX Chateau.jpg

The Oculus Go can be purchased for less than $300 which sounds like a great option, but each headset is activated through a phone app. For home purchase that’s great, but this will not work for a class of 20. Of the two units we tried out, we had continuous issues with the units turning off for no reason and constant low battery issues. I think some of these bugs and logistics need to be worked out before we try the Go in a classroom setting. zSpace is another product that looks promising, yet there are drawbacks. zSpace uses augmented reality and 3D glasses for programs in anatomy, auto mechanics, and arc welding, among others. It works on an enlarged tablet where 3-4 people can view at the same time. The product videos I have seen online however, are a bit deceiving. Only one participant views the experience in 3D. The other participants just see a higher resolution animation with their glasses on. The real killer for the zSpace is the cost of the licensing. You have to pay annually for the operating system, and then concurrent licenses for every program you have loaded on the system. These run from $1000-$2000 annually. When you add in the tablet cost, the hardwired stylus, and the glasses, you are looking at $4500-$6000 to just get started with one unit. Then next year you are paying the license fees starting at $2000.  Life expectancy for the tablet is only five years. It doesn’t take long to see that economically it is hard to justify that kind of money, no matter how mind-blowing it is visually.

All in all though, I believe our innovative idea is really getting traction on campus. Instructors from last year have contacted us and plan on the same activities this year with some improvements. We have speech instructors looking at using Speech Trainer VR with their students for practice speeches, and history instructors looking at the many historical VR experiences. Instructors on our campus are talking about it, and getting excited about its potential.  I know personally, as I enter my 27th year at the college, this innovation has really revitalized my career and given me another new reason to be excited about working at RCTC. With the support of the faculty and administration, VR has found a home on our campus now and in the future. Thanks to Minnesota State and the Shark Tank group for getting behind this idea. If you are looking at including a VR component on your campus, I would love to hear about it and I will help in any way I can.

Do you have a story about a campus innovation you’ve been working on?  Consider submitting it for publication to “Stories of Innovation”!   Contact Stephen Kelly, Open Education and Innovation Program Coordinator, at for more information.

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