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This July XR Terra launched a pilot program “Intro to Virtual Reality” for high school students. The program was created with financial support from the Eastern Bank Charitable Foundation and an outreach partnership with The Calculus Project. Twelve students enrolled in the 6-week live, online course that focused on building Virtual Reality (VR) applications from scratch using industry-standard tools such as Unity 3D.

 

“I had been taking Zoom classes since March and while it went well enough, I asked myself, do I really want to take another Zoom class in the summer?”  

Samira Lopez, Westwood High School, Class of 2021

While she had some experience with augmented reality (AR), (Pokemon Go was a lot of fun!) and her dad surprised her with the purchase of the Samsung Gear from Oculus to use with her phone, which broadened her access to VR. Samira says that she had never considered being able to create in VR. Until now, she had really only been a consumer of some cool VR or AR  experiences. 

However, after a 6-week intensive course, Samira proudly shipped a complete file to family and friends with a message, “Check out my game!” 

High School students can build in Unity?

Samira had just started taking a computer science course this spring when COVID interrupted her learning Python; but, it was not a barrier to getting started with Unity, one of the two major platforms upon which augmented and virtual reality experiences are built. For the purposes of the course, students learned some basic coding and also learned to create their own 3D models – to be able to build a complete interactive 3D experience.

Beyond building interactive experiences, students learned and practiced patience, perseverance, and troubleshooting – all skills that will serve them well in their academic and professional lives. Developing in a 3D platform requires a level of attention to detail that is unlike anything many teens have encountered before. For the virtual experience to work, it is contingent upon executing on a number of tasks in the code and assembly of the visual assets. There is no gray area – it either works or it doesn’t. Colton Smith, a classmate of Samira’s, described his learning.

“It was a new experience for me to be deliberate with planning and outlining my ideas with story boarding, sketching, and more so that they were easier for me to follow and make a reality. …I learned to start simple and get the fundamental parts of the game put into place first, then add to it.”

Clinton Smith

Virtual Reality Skills and Projects

Samira proudly declares her skills significantly improved over the summer. She learned how to use Unity and shares, “Many people can’t say that.” She recalled having downloaded programs like Blender before and not knowing where to start. Through this class, she not only has a handle on the Unity interface but was also able to add two projects to her growing portfolio of successful projects. Using 360 video, she developed a virtual reality experience that is meant to be emotionally disorienting for the viewer, going from a fiery car accident scene to a serene lakeside complete with chipmunks and crickets.

 

 The second product is the game referenced above, a satirical quiz game with a disgruntled robot who urges the participant to move quickly along. It presents the participant with questions and penalizes him or her for wrong answers by dropping them through multiple stories of a building. Even when the questions are answered correctly, the robot can still be dissatisfied and wishes for peace and quiet. Samira derived satisfaction being able to tell a story, use humor and get the mesh rendering to work correctly.

Instructor Support

Samira greatly appreciated the off hours tech support from her instructor Greg, though she worries that she might have “broken him” with her last request. It was on a late night before her final assignment was due and the recording feature in Unity wasn’t working for her. She tried everything and just needed to get this project over the finish line. Desperate for a solution, she messaged him over Slack to see if he was available. Getting a second set of eyes on her screen, Greg made a slight adjustment with a tab and miraculously resolved the recording issue.  These kinds of unexplainable glitches are common in development and Samira learned to take it all in stride, with humor and patience. She frequently stayed after class to troubleshoot with her instructors.

Career Aspirations? 

Samira has her sights set on a career in tech and is planning to enroll in an engineering program after high school. She loves robots and dreams of building prosthetics or medical devices that can be implanted and address disease. Given how many use cases there are in healthcare for AR and VR, she’s glad to add this skill to her set of experiences. Even if Samira decides on another career path, she now has the foundation to pursue this as a hobby – as a creator and not just a consumer. Samira enjoys magic and fantasy and for her, technology is the second-best thing where she is able to make the impossible, possible. 

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