KALAMAZOO, MI — “Watch out behind you, bro,” one Western Michigan University student yelled across the room to another.
Both armed with controllers, wearing headsets and unaware of their surroundings, the men fought each other inside of the virtual world of video games.
Reality and technology are merging at Western with the installation of a new Virtual Reality Lab.
Lahon’e Kendrick, 22, swung his arms, punching and shooting weapons fully immersed in “Killing Floor: Incursion” while fellow Bronco Austin Rhett returned fire on the other side of the room in Waldo Library on Western’s campus.
“It’s extremely realistic,” Rhett said of the VR experience.
Kevin Abbott, interactive media specialist for the WMU Office of Information Technology, said the emerging technology is changing rapidly.
“It’s important for us as an institution to say, ‘How can we take advantage of this?’ both for fun and education,” Abbott said.
The new lab, in room 305 on the lower level of the Waldo Library, includes six “high-end PCs,” Oculus Rift headsets and Oculus Touch hand controllers. The computers are equipped with over 20 games and activities, according to a press release.
The lab, which opened mid-January, was created through a collaboration between the Office of Information Technology and the WMU Library, Abbott said.
“It was a perfect match,” he said of the virtual reality lab needing a classroom-type space and the library wanting to grow their options for student entertainment and education.
Colin Ceisel, a mechanical engineering student who works in the VR Lab said the technology is “obviously applicable to the future.”
He described the VR experience as “quite immersive,” adding that it is a “whole different experience where you’re literally putting yourself inside of a new world.”
The Virtual Reality Lab is a separate space from the eSports initiative the university announced in January. But, while there are not many eSports that utilize the VR technology, Abbott said he does see possibility for a collaboration between the two programs as the technology advances in the future.
Abbott said the lab was first introduced as a way to teach faculty about the new technology so they could begin to use it in their curriculum. But the idea progressed to now include students’ education and recreation, he said.
“Exposure is number one,” Abbott said about allowing faculty and students to experience the technology.
The six computers are also equipped with software that will allow students to create their own uses of VR technology, but the educational opportunities extend outside of those in the technology industries.
Abbott said a few of the supported VR programs include an anatomy activity that allows students to experience the human body, a digital sculpting program that can connect to a 3D printer to allow art students to create digital sculptors and a Google Earth program that allows students to “fly all over the world.”
“It can spread across all content,” Abbott said.
Abbott estimated the total cost of the new lab as under $20,000. After seeing a decrease in prices of the industry, he said the university saw it as a good time to invest in the technology.
He said the library paid for renovations to the space, while the Office of Information Technology paid for the equipment and software, which was about $2,000 per station.
According to the press release, virtual reality has grown into a billion-dollar industry in three short years.
“[It] has significantly disrupted the gaming and entertainment industries while opening up new educational opportunities in fields such as military, space, flight, archaeology, medical, engineering, architecture and the fine arts,” Tom Wolf, chief information officer for the Office of Information Technology, said in the news release.
The lab is hosting a grand-opening event from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 15.
The lab is open on a first-come-first-serve basis at various times daily. See wmich.edu for open hours and a list of the available programs.