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Designing 21st Century School with Virtual Reality

By Joe VanHoose

September 22, 2015


As technology develops within the US military, the quality of life and safety in America improves. While security remains the number one priority of the Department of Defense, a more recent technology has a slightly different mission. In order to provide our military families with comprehensive education, the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) has emerged as a leader using virtual reality technology to fully immerse users in their facility before it is constructed. The Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset, allows users to visualize the DoDEA schools before they are built, enhancing the facilities as a whole for generations to come.

To create a 3D environment for administration and faculty to “walk through,” designers begin with a modeling software, like Autodesk Revit. With this software, designers create all of the architectural, structural, and mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems of the building in three dimensions. This model is then transferred into a program called Unity 3D, a video game platform. This software allows designers to create the interactive virtual reality experience that cannot be achieved in the design software. Once the “scene” or virtual world is processed in Unity 3D, it can be exported as a standalone program for a virtual experience. The program can be played on any computer with the Oculus Rift plugged in.

By opening classroom doors from hallways and walking into a classroom, administration and faculty are fully engaged in the look and feel of the proposed facility, which enhances their understanding of the school, rather than viewing floor plans on paper. As the DoDEA replaces aging schools, it continues to explore 21st century curriculum and instructing designers to create spaces for this new learning environment.

The 21st century curriculum focuses on creating many different learning modes to meet group and individual needs. These modes include individual study, one-to-one, as well as small and large group activities. Unlike the standard 30-by-30-foot classroom, the new neighborhood concept combines multiple classrooms or studios to create a flexible learning environment. Through movable partitions and space overlap, all of the learning modes can be addressed.

While teachers and administrators are familiar with a standard school layout, the new types of flexible learning environments can be difficult to understand. Using the virtual environment, faculty are immersed in the new space and can immediately understand things that are not perceived on 2D drawings. Items, such as scale, lighting, field of view, and even how someone may move through the space, are all examples of how virtual reality brings the space to life.

The DoDEA most recently used this technology as part of a design charrette for the proposed Lejeune High School in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. In September 2014, RS&H led a week-long design charrette and virtual reality was used throughout the process. From the first day, teachers and administrators were walking through what would be their new commons. The experience was real enough that users would reach out to try and touch items in the model or point to something in the distance. Through this process, we gained a new insight to what the user liked and items that should be modified. By the end of the week, they were able to walk through a cutting-edge facility that addressed their comments and met their needs.

The response received at the design charrette substantiated the benefits gained through virtual reality. This system will continue to help build a consensus among groups of clients on difficult projects. RS&H is now taking strides to gain more knowledge of this system, as well as expand it to include additional technologies to enhance the experience. The goal is to use this sophisticated technology to continue to provide the highest level of education to the families of our military.

Tim Geiger is a registered architect and focuses on the Aerospace and Defense industries. He has 10 years of experience working with federal clients, planning and designing facilities worldwide. Tim has introduced virtual reality to our clients to bring a new level of understanding to unbuilt design. He can be reached at tim.geiger@rsandh.com.

Topics: Insights, Emerging Technologies, Aerospace & Defense, Defense

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About the Author

Joe is a storyteller with more than a decade of experience in media relations, with particular specialty in writing and promoting. He can be reached at joe.vanhoose@rsandh.com.

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