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Kirkwood Community College aims to connect adults, employers to virtual reality tools with new lab
CEDAR RAPIDS — On the surface, one of the newer computer labs at Kirkwood Community College looks just like many others on campus.
But in this particular lab, users are capable of traveling thousands of miles, visiting countless museums, practicing medical skills or even creating their own virtual world.
It’s Kirkwood’s augmented and virtual reality lab — equipped with all of the tools needed to experience and create virtual experiences.
While the terms virtual and augmented reality have drawn the curiosity of children at summer camps for a few years, Kirkwood is eager to entice adults and the area’s tech community with the goal of helping people become more familiar with VR tools and platforms.
They’re also hoping to reach area companies to connect them to the technology and develop future training or learning opportunities.
Kirkwood will host open houses next month to let people touch the technology, while introduction courses are scheduled for November.
“We pulled this all together a few years ago and were all excited, and (then) COVID hit,” said Jasmine Almoayyed, vice president for continuing education and training services at Kirkwood.
“Now we’re at the place where we want folks to know we’ve got this, we’ve kept it updated and we want them to help tell us how they think we can best use it.”
The courses are meant to help beginners and those with experience explore the technology and look at low-code, low-cost software capable of completing projects.
“What we offer here is the ability to go behind the curtain a little bit — it's the behind the scenes where this is how you build something,” said instructor Destery Hildebrand, who designed Kirkwood’s continuing education courses in augmented and virtual reality.
“These fundamental building blocks are the foundation of putting a virtual reality project together. We're kind of laying that foundational knowledge so that if groups or organizations want to come in … they can be like, hey, we want to learn more about this.”
The technology — delivered via the headsets and handheld controllers — is being used for everything from travel to practicing repetitive motions, from how to deliver care to patients suffering from dementia to practicing difficult conversations.
What: Kirkwood Community College will host hands-on opportunities in an augmented reality and virtual reality open house.
The events will be for those who want to experience the technology, understand what children have been using or experience AR and VR before making holiday gift purchases. Instructor Destery Hildenbrand will demonstrate how the equipment works andoffer the opportunity to use the technology in different scenarios.
The open house also precedes longer introductory courses at Kirkwood that Hildenbrand will teach for the first time in November.
When: 6 to 8 p.m., Oct. 13, and 10 a.m. to noon, Oct. 15
Where: Kirkwood Center For Lifelong Learning, 6406 Linn View Parkway, Cedar Rapids.
Cost: The introduction session is $39.
“There are so many verticals you can go in,” Hildebrand said of the potential of VR. “There’s all sorts of training that you can do … the arts, manufacturing, automotive, there's anything dangerous where you can give repetition with less risk.
“Then there's also that storytelling aspect of it that is huge, too.”
VR has been in use on Kirkwood’s campus for years in some tech programs such as welding.
There, students wear a welding helmet with virtual reality goggles. The handheld controllers simulate the stinger used to make a weld.
VR used to assess skill levels
VR tools have come a long way since they were incorporated into the program around 2013, said Sam Stark, an assistant professor with the college’s Advanced Welding Technologies.
“It makes it an easier environment to talk about the terminology, and you’re not out there under the mask, huddled around one welder trying to explain everything,” Stark said.
“It’s great for those introductions where you’re trying to learn how to brace or set body position, or you might have someone who is a bit nervous or not totally familiar with the smoke, spatter, light or the environmental aspects.”
The virtual tools are particularly useful in introductory settings, Stark noted, though it becomes harder to keep a student’s interest after they’ve welded in the physical world.
Some companies — such as manufacturer Vermeer Corp. in Pella — have adopted virtual reality as part of its training and onboarding programming, Stark said.
He believes VR tools could help with onboarding, practicing or assessing skill levels, or to introduce new techniques that require building muscle memory.
“You can assess the level of skill or familiarity with concepts without having to set up a situation where you have to worry about the cost of a lot of consumables or taking up the time to set up a large lab,” Stark said.
While the school’s continuing education lab was ready just as COVID-19 surged, advancements in the technology meant users now will get better headsets, software requiring less coding and the ability to create experiences for different headsets, Hildebrand said.
“You have to be open to hey, there might be some coding,” Hildenbrand said of the introductory courses.
“But we did three days with 12- and 13-year-olds and we didn’t have to code anything.”
Hildenbrand, who works remotely as a virtual learning producer for a Canadian company, sees the lab as a great way to continue to build a stronger local user community to support each other and grow the use of the technology locally.
With less coding and lower price points, Hildenbrand believes the adoption of virtual and augmented technology will increase over the next few years.
“The fewer barriers to entry we have, the more adoption we're going to see,” Hildenbrand said. “We're seeing that on the consumer side already.
“That's what the Metas and the Googles are going to want because they all want to build content to keep us in this digital world. There’s still a lot of questions of what that means and what it would look like — but that’s part of the fun of it.”
Augmented reality: AR mixes the real world with computer generated graphics, but allows the user to maintain a clear distinction of what’s real and what’s virtual. AR typically is experienced through a smartphone or tablet.
Virtual Reality: VR uses a headset to create a fully immersive 3D experience. This experience, for some, can make it more difficult to understand what’s real or not real.
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