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Tiger Range: Real Uses of Virtual Technologies at the Institute for New Media Studies

By Gordon S. Carlson, Ph.D., Director, Institute for New Media Studies, Fort Hays State University

As the ability to process and visualize increasingly complex information proceeds, it becomes important to invest time and resources into two types of projects.  One type is the boundary-pushing creation of cutting edge technology such as super computers or autonomous robots.  The other type looks inward and find ways of accomplishing tasks already possible but now available much cheaper or easier thanks to advances in the underlying technology.  This article discusses a program working on the second type.

Institute for New Media Studies

Figure 1:  Institute for New Media Studies (INMS) Logo 

A little over two years old, the Institute for New Media Studies at Fort Hays State University works with partners on campus, in the community, across scholarly disciplines, and in industry.

The term “new media” can sometimes be tricky especially when alongside other concepts like media studies, internet studies, video production, etc.  Our institute reflects an understanding of new media as used in scholarship with special emphases on education, communication, and entrepreneurship.  There will always be multiple ways to interpret new media, so here is how we use the concept:

New Media Studies is the intersection of culture, communication, and technology through a lens of disruption and convergence.  It is a transdisciplinary field leveraging a number of advanced methods to look at the complicated connections between people and technologies, both established and bleeding edge.

We see the purpose of the institute as a transdisciplinary nexus serving the university’s strategic initiatives through the lens of new media.  The institute is modeled on “big research” programs and fusion centers like those used in government and industry. 

The institute serves many interests and stakeholders.  But, at our core the institute has some basic goals: 

  • Provide the resources and environments conducive to rapid development of nationally competitive new media research as applied to any scholarly discipline 
  • Proceed with fundamental new media research as a blue sky “sandbox” rapidly testing and evaluating new ideas before investing institutional resources
  • Promote entrepreneurship by connecting fundamental research and commercial endeavors in ways that serve citizens

As we work towards these goals we have two rules or principles that help direct resources and make decisions about developing projects.

80/20 Rule: We attempt to accomplish work at least 80% as good as private industry for 20% of the cost

Service: Each project supported by the institute must provide at least some level of service to a community, whether a group of students in a class, the university campus, or the community of scholars around the world

Here is a small sampling of completed or ongoing projects at the institute:

  • An interactive 3D model of bovine anatomy for students and classes in Agriculture Studies
  • MRI-based visualizations of each part of the human brain for the Psychology department
  • Immersive marketing experiments that we call Virtual Billboard which allows researchers to test advertising strategies in active environments
  • Next generation smart tables that understand how students are using physical objects to interact with learning experiences rather than just touch screens
  • New approaches to smart classrooms that are affordable for a range of institutions and modular to allow for the diversity of learning experiences in 21st century schools
  • Tiger Cub is our robot that is learning to guide patrons to various resources available in the university library

Tiger Range

Biologists who study tigers refer to their different territories as “ranges”.  As the home of the Fort Hays State University Tigers, this struck a chord with the institute.  We are building a fully immersive virtual reality version of our campus, our own “range”, with a number of applications.

A flagship project for the institute, Tiger Range not only produces interactive models of the FHSU campus, but also investigates the processes through which these models can be quickly and cost-effectively built.  The 3D model of campus will be useful for wayfinding systems, facilities planning, recruitment and retention, marketing the university, and visualizing campus research projects like a local chapter of the Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree Campus USA program.

Working with students and faculty across various programs and departments, each building on the university campus is modelled using industry standard software.  Environmental elements like terrain, materials, and sounds are integrated into the model.  By combining the information into 3D visualization and simulation software, the campus comes to life across a number of platforms.  At the heart of the system is the same software used by leading videogame and simulation companies.

Figure 2:  First Person, Third Person, Building Tour 

An Oculus Rift virtual reality system will be used to transport participants into the virtual campus and allow them to interact with the model.  During the spring of 2016, students in a communication course contributed to the project and presented an early version of the software to a wide-ranging audience of administrators, faculty, staff, students, and community members.

“This project has taught me that we, as communication studies majors, will do things in our careers that we are not going to be comfortable with in the beginning, but we can persevere to create new and innovative projects that will contribute to any culture we find ourselves in,” said Vanessa Resh, a senior majoring in Communication Studies.

Figure 3:  Student Vanessa Resh Working on a Design 

While still under development, Tiger Range will include campus buildings, landscape items, and other environmental objects to enhance the virtual experience of walking across a 3D model of campus. Potential uses for the technology include recruitment, new student and faculty orientation, information kiosks, online tools or mobile apps, and a number of current and upcoming research projects. The project can even be used in conjunction with engineers and administrators to simulate proposed changes to the campus landscape, such as new construction or renovations.  

The Institute for New Media Studies at Fort Hays State University is working hard to develop new technology in support of higher education and encourages students to be pioneers.

Figure 4:  Albertson Hall: Virtual and the Real (inset) 

Figure 5: In-World in Front of Picken Hall 

Figure 6: Sheridan Hall:  Virtual and the Real (inset) 

Figure 7:  Picken Hall: The Virtual and the Real (inset) 

Figure 8: McCartney Hall: The Virtual and the Real (inset) 

Virtual Campus: St. Cloud Technical and Community College

While still relatively young, the institute is an always evolving unit of the university and stays at the forefront of supporting students and faculty to utilize advanced technology in their research and courses.  One example of how the institute combines student learning, research agendas, and service to partner institutions is our latest implementation of virtual campus tools in Minnesota. 

A small team of students led by myself, the Director of the institute, won a bid to design a customized interactive, virtual reality model of St. Cloud Technical and Community College (@SCTCC).  Planning, creation, and implementation of the project took roughly seven months.  The team visited SCTCC’s campus in St. Cloud, Minnesota, only once for three days.  Combining nearly 35 gigabytes of photos and videos along with blueprints, building plans, and laser measurements taken during the visit, our team constructed a model of the school’s campus accurate to within just a few inches.  Communication Studies graduate student Brittney Funk and Applied Technology undergraduate student Caleb Scholz worked to deliver the model and visualization tools.

Figure 9: Aerial View of VR Model of the Campus 

Figure 10:  Welcome to the Virtual Campus Landing Page 

Figure 11:  A VR Model of a Campus Building 

Figure 12:   About the Virtual Campus 

Using platform-independent tools, the team developed waypoint software for the school that integrates visual information provided in the 3D model with campus knowledge provided by SCTCC staff.  In kiosk mode, the software provides information services for students and guests.  It can visualize detailed walking directions to each department or relevant office on campus as well as aerial views of campus traditionally requiring expensive drones or airplane flyovers.  The kiosk is designed to be installed on large touch screen devices around campus or used on personal computers in any office.  Future plans involve a GPS-enable mobile app and web versions of the tool.

Figure 13: Navigation to Virtualized Offices and Departments 

Figure 14:  A Path to the Campus Dental Clinic 

Beyond the traditional kiosk use, our software also supports first- and third-person perspective modes that will seem familiar to players of videogames or simulations.  These modes allow a person to run around the campus as fast or slow as they wish.  The software can even direct users to learn certain things about campus by directing their attention or movement in particular directions.  A feature, still in development, allows the school to create gamified scavenger hunts for orienting new students and fire drills for training new employees to deal with safety issues.

Figure 15:  St Cloud Technical and Community College’s Virtual Entrance 

The institute presented this project at the STEMtech Conference in Philadelphia, November 2016.  I presented alongside Joyce Helens and Vi Bergquist, the President and CIO of St. Cloud Technical and Community College.  The annual conference is a national gathering of the League for Innovation in the Community College, a group that supports and showcases advanced technology approaches for colleges across the United States and abroad. 
According to Bergquist, “The virtual campus project has so many potential uses, from wayfinding, to security training, to making prospective students familiar and comfortable with the layout of the campus.” 

The relationship between FHSU and SCTCC allowed us to continue developing the Tiger Range tool for our campus.  More importantly, we have significantly improved our own workflow in developing these types of 3D environments.  Before working with our partner in Minnesota, completing a building took a small team of students almost a month.  Recently, one student and I were able to complete a building design in under one week.  As we apply our improved pipeline to developing the virtual campus experience at our own school, we have also agreed to continue sharing our improvements with SCTCC so they will benefit from our own persistent growth and development.

Figure 16:  A Variety of Viewpoints and Interaction Options  

Figure 17:  Heartland

Figure 18: An Attention to Details to Reflect Campus Pride 

Figure 19:  The Campus Childcare Center

Figure 20:  An Expansive Virtual Horizon 

Applications of Virtual Campus

The following video provides a brief overview of the virtual campus project and samples of its use.  

Video 1:  "In the Works:  Tiger Range Development Video #1" 

After the completion of the project, we hope to have a toolkit for rapidly developing and deploying virtual spaces in a multitude of contexts.  These can be marketing, information kiosks, training tools, security measures, mobile navigation devices, entertainment hubs, orientation systems, or any other front-end for location-aware information visualizations.  As we continue to develop our techniques and make the process available to others, the knowledge and cost of deploying these projects across a broad spectrum of applications should drop dramatically.  

Museums, classrooms, government programs, and even individual homes will benefit from this work.  We have already begun implementing more advanced versions of the tool.  By using spatial-awareness technologies, we have a prototype that allows users to control virtual spaces with nothing more than the wave of a hand or simple verbal command.  Through standardizing the tools and formats of our work, we can continue sharing project outcomes and leveraging more advanced interfaces.  

The Institute for New Media Studies is always looking for new partners and the next great idea.  If you are interested in collaborating with us on a project, please don’t hesitate to contact us.  

For more information about these projects and the Institute:

Gordon S. Carlson, PhD
Director, Institute for New Media Studies 
Assistant Professor, Communication Studies

Institute for New Media Studies
Fort Hays State University
600 Park Street
Malloy Hall 106
Hays, KS 67601 

About the Author

Gordon S. Carlson, Ph.D., is the director of the Institute for New Media Studies and an assistant professor in Communications Studies at Fort Hays State University.  

Dr. Carlson completed his Bachelors and Masters degree in Communication at Oregon State University.  He completed his doctorate in New Media Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago while working in the Electronic Visualization Laboratory.  Having taught in Chicago, Hawaii, and Kansas City, Dr. Carlson is currently at Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas.  An Assistant Professor in the Communication Studies Department, he focuses on understanding how new media interact with rhetorical constructions through disruption and convergence.   He is the founding Director of the Institute for New Media Studies which engages in a number of transdisciplinary projects, many of which revolve around 3D visualization of complex concepts and new approaches to pedagogy and learning.  

He may be reached at  

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