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Engineer aims to make virtual reality practical for researchers, teachers

man records images as another works with virtual reality technology

Image: College of Engineering

Imagine walking into your college classroom and donning a pair of virtual reality goggles to learn the day’s lesson. If Darren Hartl has his way, that will be a reality in the near future. He is one of the faculty members in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Texas A&M University bringing virtual reality, or VR, into the realm of research and teaching.

Hartl was so excited about the possibilities VR lends to research and teaching that he purchased his setup using startup funds when he joined the faculty as an assistant professor in 2016. He also created the Immersive Mechanics Visualization Lab, which is fully dedicated to the tasks and goals of creating immersive and intuitive data environments.

In this lab, faculty and students are developing methods to experience and interface with computational and experimental data across physical fields using augmented reality, VR, and three-dimensional displays (e.g., the ZSpace platform).

To conduct their research, they use the HTC Vive VR system, along with the ZSpace 3-D monitor. Included in the lab is a screen share and projection system that allows visitors and collaborators to share the VR experience with the individual directly using the HTC Vive.

Hartl’s current research involves the development of robust methods for translating solid models (such as those from SolidWorks) and finite element models into the VR environment, and for interacting with such models in an intuitive manner.

His objective is to find reasonable ways to take the experimental and computational data that faculty and students generate, and give them the tools to immerse themselves in the data.

“We have dual-camera systems a few doors down that look at points on a specimen and measure how strain is generated,” Hartl said. “Today we can look at those results in complete 3-D on a computer screen and rotate it around. Why can’t I have that same 3-D data in the room with me and walk around the specimen?”