UBC students turn Stanley Park into Virtual Reality social experience

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Image via BC Campus.ca.

Anyone in the world will soon be able to take a tour through Stanley Park through virtual reality.

Arthur Gill Green is an Affiliate Assistant Professor in the University of British Columbia and Okanagan College’s Departments of Geography and says this prototype, designed and created by UBC students, uses high-resolution pixels that built an environment as an educational tool.

There are four locations you will be able to explore: Prospect Point, Beaver Lake, the Hollow Tree, and Lumberman’s Arch.

“At Beaver Lake, what we’ve done is create a lever that you can pull, you can sink down and look into the soil horizons and have that explained to you,” he says, adding that there are stories loaded into virtual boomboxes for you. “All of our students are below the age of 22, so I had to go online and find a picture of a boombox to show them what a boombox looked like. On that boombox we have historical broadcasts, local musicians, different educational narratives.”

If you compared the experience to Google Street View, Green says that is more of a wallpaper, not an environment that you can interact with and talk to other people. The project began looking like a street view photo-sphere, but then Green says they added 3D objects and thought it should evolve into an entire environment and drones were brought in to survey the landscape.

“So that people can climb up on walls, people could literally see the flagpole at Prospect Point, people can interact with animals, or music or artwork,” he says. “Our goal was to lower the limits to accessing Stanley Park for anyone in the world. While we’ll never really get the full experience of being there, no matter how far technology goes, I don’t think we’ll ever get that full experience, I see this virtual reality as like impressionism, or pointillism. We’re creating an impression of the environment, we’re working with these pixels and textures that create this very fine version of the environment.”

Students can learn a lot from professor’s field sites, be they in the Arctic to Pacific Islands, though they aren’t often accessible, but if this type of experience catches on, classes could soon be spending any number of field trips closer to home.

Image via BC Campus.ca

Green explains that they are working on a prototype of photogrammetry, which takes 2D images and makes 3D models out of them. They started modelling his car keys and then they were on to modelling landscapes.

Their models are shared online for you to download and you will be able to modify anything they create. “If you want to run a zombie game through Stanley Park, you can do that,” he says.

As for the young team, Green says the students have overwhelmed him with their technical abilities. They are working in an open-source gaming engine while other students learned how to fiy a drone within Stanley Park to take readings, making sure not to disturb any birds. After a snowstorm hampered their drone flying for a couple days, Green says they decided to stick to taking photos on the ground.

Their model of Prospect Point was built from over 2,000 photos meshed into 23 million triangles at its most dense. Green compares this to modern video games with high-details which often have a million triangles.

“We have a lot more detail than we can release, because not all of the platforms can digest the level of detail we have,” he says.

One of the students also developed a custom controller that tells you where you are and lets you teleport to other areas.

“Students organized themselves into graphic artists and groups of coders and groups of people in-between that were doing the technical building of the models,” he says, adding that it was programmed by students to give you that wonky feeling of walking through a park to enhance the reality of it all.

Image via BC Campus.ca.

This experience will have a social element where you can interact with other people around you. Green compares it to a new app called Destinations with locations that you can check out with other people and says in about one or two years it will be pretty common.

“One of the reasons we wanted to get in early on this is, is because it has revolutionary implications of education,” he says. “Understanding how it will be revolutionary and how we can play a part in building good educational practices is central of our efforts. Stanley Park was a part of that choice because it’s a great environment for learning. Not just about ecology, but also about some of the troubled history of settler colonialism in Canada, land evictions, and other First Nations claims that go back into the history of the park and the city itself. When we teach about the place, we need to open up its history and not just superficially. Virtual reality allows us to do that in a social environment.”

Multiple First Nations that have an ancestral land claim to different parts of Stanley Park, but also indigenous knowledge about the natural environment, and information about what was introduced to the park”

We introduced the black squirrel to this environment, we introduced certain types of trees to this environment,” Green explains. “I think that is an important lesson in ecology. It’s a beautiful location. Just amazing to walk around on its own, because of its natural beauty. But we have to ask the question, how is that natural beauty created? That’s where we want to go on our educational experience.”

Once they have proven that the project can work through Stanley Park, Green wants to go and bring other locations to the UBC campus.

You can take a bit of a spin through their models uploaded to Sketchfab.

All of their efforts will be released online in the future and you can keep up with their work through their website.

If you want to see this in action, you can find their display at the Open Textbook Summit May 24th & 25th at Simon Fraser University’s downtown Vancouver campus.