Taking VR for a Spin
One weekday in December on the cusp of the winter holidays, a handful of students with an appreciation for art history and a taste for novel experiences joined our research group at Lafayette College’s William Arts Center. We gathered in a lecture hall to introduce them to their new partners in learning for the next half hour or so:
an assemblage of virtual reality headsets.
Our group of curious peers were there to participate in our first trial of a virtual reality model of the New Sacristy of the Basilica di San Lorenzo, the Florentine church which had been our object of focus for months. The event represented the exciting culmination of our research, which began with a trip to San Lorenzo undertaken by Lafayette senior Mallory Brown ’22 and Professor Eric Hupe.
From the beginning, it became apparent that our team would need to experiment with techniques to become successful in photogrammetry: the process of deriving accurate metrics of objects based on photographs. With only a few short days of exclusive access to the San Lorenzo site, Mallory and Professor Hupe were dismayed to review the photos from their first day of photographing the New Sacristy, many of which they found to be blurry and unfocused. Tweaking the shutter speed of their cameras allowed for much more successful shooting in the following days.
The same adaptation attitude characterized our research in the coming months, as Meredith O’Neill and I joined Mallory, Professor Hupe, and Caitlyn Carr to construct models based on the photographs. Caitlyn watched hundreds of YouTube videos and played with the settings on various photogrammetry programs. We read through user manuals and sorted through and edited photos until our minds were filled with nothing but pixels and contrast settings.
Finally, it was time to pilot the model so much energy had been channeled towards. The student researchers and I put on the headsets to configure the settings for our student trial group, and as I slipped on the device, I was greeted with an eerie view of the classroom, rendered black and white through the headset. Shortly thereafter it was time to head over to the large entrance of the arts building, where we handed over the headsets to our volunteers
As our volunteers found themselves transported into the lofty marble space of the Sacristy, they greeted their view with “oohs” and “ahhs”. They occupied this virtual space as digital avatars interfacing with the avatar of Professor Hupe, whose real-time lecture was projected through the headsets’ internal sound system. As the participants eagerly began to amble around the virtual Sacristy, we student researchers guarded staircases and corners of the entrance hall, ensuring that the trip hazards elided by their VR headsets would not pose a problem.
“It truly felt like I was in the space because I had the ability to ‘walk around’ and ‘transport’ over to an exact spot and see it clearly,” commented Lafayette junior Renee Mercereau of her experience in the Sacristy.
She continued: “...as someone who is new to VR I found it to be really intuitive. I think one of my favorite aspects was being able to be ‘in the room’ with other students and Professor Hupe via the avatars of other people in the room because I was able to listen to Professor Hupe give a lecture and even view a PowerPoint that pops up in the space. At a time like this when traveling to historical sites such as these tends to be inaccessible to many, I think this project is changing the ways we think about accessibility by bringing art up close to people who may not otherwise be able to see it…I am really looking forward to seeing more places through Zeuxis VR!”
-Maya Nylund '24, Research Assistant