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CCGA professor, students develop high-tech programming with new Oculus Rift
Posted 03/31/2016 09:33AM

By Anna Hall, The Brunswick News

German Vargas barely had time to make introductions. He was too excited to begin outlining an advanced, high-tech project he and three students at College of Coastal Georgia have been working on for more than three months.

"I'm sorry to just jump into this, but this is huge. The project we've taken on is very advanced," said Vargas, assistant vice president for academic student engagement and associate professor of mathematics at the college.

In January, Vargas began leading three of his math students through a multi-tiered, highly detailed and technologically progressive project tagged the MATLAB and C# Seminar. Enrolled in the independent study course are college junior Jaki Bonds, and seniors Austin Benton and Jedidah Lindborg.

What exactly is a MATLAB and C# Seminar?

It's a bit complicated, Vargas admits.

Centered on the new tech toy, the Oculus Rift, which only became available to the public Monday, the goal of the course is to create a truly 3D graphing calculator contained in a virtual reality setting.

While 3D calculators have been used for educational endeavors for years, none produce what would be considered a truly 3D graph, Lindborg said.

"When you look at what we've called a 3D image in a textbook or on a page, our brains pull that image out as a 3D representation when it is really still 2D," Lindborg said. "What we wanted to do was create a truly 3D graphic."

And now, the trio of math wizards have done just that.

Through the Oculus Rift virtual reality head-mounted display, students first created a platform for the graphing goals, developing a unique technological programming language and system of checks and balances to work cohesively to create a model that can be duplicated by other Oculus Rift users.

After only several weeks of development, the three students had the foundation they needed to plug in equations and graphing options to begin using the head-mounted monitor, which is paired with infrared and LED cameras, a Unity 3D platform, Leap Motion sensor, pinpoint positioning systems and other elements of advanced technology.

All those elements will be used to create what they describe in their abstract of the project as a "user friendly environment that allows you to control and create new and unique graphs, or gain a deeper understanding of classic ones. The graphs can be manipulated by the user not just by inputting changes in the UI (user interface), but by simply reaching out one's hand and moving the graphs. The end result is a harmony of technology and creativity to bring an old concept into the 21st century. Now we can experience truly three-dimensional graphs in an immersive environment that compels our understanding to a new depth."

Slipping into the head-mounted display, a virtual world appears where the user can pick from one of six equations, which then creates the 3D graph. Users can touch the graph, so to speak, and can even toss around the blocks which make up the waves of graphs that float in a gravity-free world.

"When we showed off the project last week (at the college's SOURCE presentation), that was everyone's favorite thing, destroying the models the equations make," Bonds said.

The three students also get a kick out of roughing up their own virtual graphs, Lindborg said.

"It's great stress relief," he said.

While the MATLAB project plugs in six equations users can select in the current system, they hope to further those options in coming months. Eventually, the students want to develop a pad of mathematical options that users can select from to create their own graphs and develop a variety of equations and other models, Benton said.

For now, the Oculus Rift program they have created will be ideal for advanced calculus, graphing and other math-based academic courses, but further down the road, it can also be used in a multitude of fields, such as in architectural renderings and for medical purposes, as well as in general virtual world gaming systems, they said.

Vargas noted that he was able to obtain an Oculus Rift before it was available to the public because gaming programmers are often allowed early access to such devices to develop programming before the tools hit the shelves.

"This is high-level technology and high-level work, and it is all right here at the College of Coastal Georgia. This is cutting-edge technology and we had it even before it was available to the public," Vargas said.

In coming weeks, Vargas plans to upload his students' model for using the Oculus Rift to the program's social media outlets to share what his students have created. Hopefully, it will receive high praise and become an example for what other academic and technology experts can do.

Watching as his trio of math mechanics showed off their new tool and program, Vargas couldn't wipe the smile off his face as he beamed with pride. Clearly, he was amazed by the hard work, dedication and creative design implemented by his pupils.

"These students are brilliant, just amazing," Vargas said. "And what our students created, this is a model for what others can do with this awesome new technology. What they have created is genius."

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