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A collection of avatars attended a ribbon cutting event for a virtual University of Iowa April 6, where students will be able to go on campus tours and take advantage of unique educational experiences.
The first business school in the Big Ten to unveil a dedicated metaverse, university officials hope it will be the first iteration of a tool to recruit international students unable to tour campus in person. They also hope it’s useful for current students who could benefit from a different approach to learning.
Attended by University of Iowa president Barbara Wilson, Sen. Zach Wahls and Rep. Carter Nordman in digital form, the ribbon cutting ceremony gave insight into the UI’s motives behind launching the space and unveiled a number of buildings and spaces on campus.
“This is a space where students can socialize, attend class, even participate in entertainment events or potentially social events related to politics,” said VictoryXR CEO Steve Grubbs during the ribbon cutting. “This campus is live 24/7, persistent and can be accessed by university students for a number of purposes.”
Digital twin campus
Described as an identical digital twin campus, users can create their own avatar (that don't have to look like them) and roam the Pentacrest or walk through academic halls.
“It incorporates the outside of a number of buildings on campus, the first floor in the Pappajohn Business Building, a couple of classrooms and Pat’s Diner,” said Jim Chaffee, COO of Tippie College. “This is as far as we’ve gotten so far.”
Plans include adding more floors of the Pappajohn building in the next year, and evaluating which aspects of the metaverse are most used.
UI chose Davenport-based VictoryXR as its educational metaverse builder because the university needed a company to build everything from the ground up, they were looking for a partner that understood the education space and they valued the training VictoryXR provides faculty on how to navigate and manage the metaverse.
While the graphics more closely resemble the early 2000s virtual world video game Second Life rather than a blockbuster movie or TV show today, Mr. Grubbs said this won’t always be the case.
“Over time, the technology will improve where we’ll actually be a holoportation of our own bodies,” said a digital Mr. Grubbs. “I actually talked to a company about that this week and the technology that they have is shockingly good.
“But the fact that all of this is occurring right now is impressive because I think all of us have a headset that has a Qualcomm XR2 chip,” he added. “That chip is basically the same graphics chip in your iPhone or Android. What that chip is doing as we speak is taking all of us (who are in different locations), our movement and voice is traveling up to a network and then down to all of our headsets. That little chip is processing every movement for every person in here…The processing power of these chips is getting more powerful, and as it does, graphics will improve and other functionality will improve as well.”
It’s not the first time the UI has invested in the concept of digital twins.
On Aug. 31, the Iowa Technology Institute hosted its seventh International Digital Human Modeling (DHM) Symposium, followed by the third annual Iowa Virtual Human Summit (IVHS), where they presented Santos and its female counterpart, Sophia.
The U.S. Army has used Santos, a biomechanically accurate digital avatar, to evaluate how strenuous the different aspects of the Army Combat Fitness Test is for its soldiers. Santos was initially developed in 2003 through Department of Defense funding.
“Santos has a very focused virtual reality environment where they’ve really got a very clear mission,” he said. “We’ve got very clear missions.”
Safety a priority
Within one week of launching Horizon Worlds, Meta’s VR metaverse space, a woman reported she was sexually harassed, according to MIT Technology Review.
The multibillion dollar venture by Facebook's parent company had not managed to eliminate offensive and dangerous actions toward women in its VR space, just as its comparative predecessor Second Life faced criticism years ago.
Mr. Thomas believes the Tippie metaversity is less likely to face these troubles because of the closed nature of its virtual universe, opposed to the sprawling, expansive worlds Facebook created.
“We’re able to control for that kind of experience where you will need to be in a class to enter into that class because we’ll have a link to that,” he said. “I appreciate that this is a real concern in these virtual environments. I think what we’re doing is much more curated in general. The more open we make this though, the more that becomes a potential reality.”
If the world becomes more open, he said the college will determine whether more moderation is needed.
The two major driving forces behind the Tippie College managing a metaversity space is to recruit new students and provide additional learning opportunities.
This allows an international student who may be interested in going to the University of Iowa to take a truly guided tour and meet faculty and admissions directors via audio chat.
The two professors also said they hope the online MBA program will benefit from the new metaversity.
“If you think about our Iowa MBA program, which is open to anyone anywhere, or our international business program, this really gives those people who aren’t here…a connection to the campus and the Tippie College of Business,” he said.
Mr. Thomas added that there is a scientific basis indicating some students learn better in VR environments, and these classroom environments let students physically answer questions on a whiteboard inside the metaverse, for example.
For prospective students who don’t have access to an appropriate headset, they can access a two-dimensional environment through a Mac or PC.
Research in the virtual reality space has taken place for years inside the Tippie College.
A webinar from October hosted by Andrea Luangrath, an associate professor of marketing, centered around her research studying whether retail businesses can benefit from virtual reality offerings, where customers see a virtual hand touch a product.
Her research concluded that those who viewed a hand touching an item reported being willing to spend money 32.5% more of the time than those who did not.
Mr. Chaffee said that top businesses in Eastern Iowa, including Collins Aerospace and John Deere, are strong adopters of virtual and augmented reality, so there is no reason not to include this technology in course and research offerings.
Students currently use VR to walk up and manipulate 3D data in a data visualization class. In the future, UI professors want to offer trading rooms for various types of financial trading where physical space is often limited, and a soft skills environment for management students to practice negotiation, interview and public speaking skills.
“These are the kinds of things that we need to be experimenting with so that we are relevant right into the future,” said Mr. Thomas, echoing Mr. Chaffee’s thoughts. “If we're not experimenting and ready with these technologies, we fall behind and are not meeting the needs of our students.”