Virtual Reality Space Lets Students Experience Big Data

[In the past few years there have been two movements that have not intertwined – Big Data and Redesigning Learning Spaces. In this Campus Technology article you’ll discover a new space that immerses people in Big Data. It’s a fascinating concept that may change the way we look at both learning spaces and data.]

A new facility at Virginia Tech uses large-scale visuals and sound to immerse users in vast amounts of data.

Virginia Tech’s Cube (photo courtesy of Virginia Tech)

Imagine walking through a black room four stories high, 50 feet wide and 40 feet deep, populated with speakers. As you move through the space wearing a head-mounted display (no mouse, keyboard or joystick needed), you’re immersed in vast amounts of data — both visually and aurally — collected from an actual storm that took place a little more than two years ago. As the recorded data shows the formation of some kind of supercell, your ears detect something distinct from every other sound that permeates the space — akin to hearing your name being spoken across the room during a lively cocktail party. You turn and move toward the sound to explore it further. Before your eyes a gigantic tornado forms. Your experience — and the exploration sparked by it — could result in a better understanding of how to interpret the data generated by tornados such as the one that hit Moore, OK, in May 2013, killing two dozen people and injuring hundreds.

That’s the thinking behind Virginia Tech’s Cube, an adaptable space for research and experimentation housed in the campus’s Moss Arts Center. A joint project of the university’s Center for the Arts and the Institute for Creativity, Arts & Technology (ICAT), the Cube officially opened for business in January but has already hosted numerous performances as well as events in big data exploration and immersive environments.

According to Ben Knapp, director of ICAT, the Cube shows the potential for immersive environments to help remake learning, design and collaboration. “That’s the amazing thing about being immersed in visual and aural and sonic environments — that ability to do what we’ve done for the history of human beings and primates: use our hearing to detect change, to pull things out from patterns and then use our vision to turn around and look and explore that. That’s what the Cube is really able to do.”

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