CSUN virtual reality lab provides hands-on experience

Jessyca Dewey

In the early 1970s, the video gaming industry was considered a small and newly developing field of technology. Today, it is hardly so. In fact, the Bureau of Labor has predicted that the growth of software publishing will expand by 67.9 percent between 2002 and 2012. Mike Barnes, CSUN computer science professor, has long realized this increase in demand as an opportunity for incoming students.

In 1993, Barnes attended a conference on virtual reality and was interested enough to bring the idea of a virtual reality lab back to the campus. After sparking interest in some of his computer science students and fellow faculty, the group began brainstorming for ideas and writing proposals for funding and equipment to bring a virtual reality lab to CSUN.

“We were originally just working out of my office,” Barnes said. Original plans for the lab were deterred briefly due to the 1994 earthquake but the current lab, which is located in Jacaranda Hall, was quickly reestablished in 1995.

“The main purpose for this lab is to support the course, Computer Science 565, which is an advanced computer graphics class. It’s a graduate class that upper-division seniors can also take. So that’s one of its main goals. It also supports individual projects at the graduate and undergraduate level,” said Barnes, who is the main overseer of the lab.

“It’s really kind of an open experimentation environment for (students),” Barnes said. He allows the students to work with the lights turned off, listening to heavy metal music, which is different than any of the other labs in the department.

“We actually have a lot of fun in here. We really appreciate the freedom Professor Barnes gives us. It’s really valuable,” said Dinu Proca, a former student of the Computer Science 565 class.

This open environment has helped to encourage the completion of 17 projects since 1997 with more than half of these being master theses for graduate students.

Many of these projects consist of the development or design of a computer game that may, to the average person, seem fairly simple in concept. Such projects, however, are generally anything but simple.

“It’s a huge amount of work and this looks like a chintzy project but we worked for two weeks until four in the morning,” Proca said about one such project, a video game that he and his team had designed.

Barnes has discovered, while grading many of these assignments, that they are sometimes too difficult for even him to play. He said he has to slow down the program just so he can grade it.

The lab offers a plethora of hands-on learning experience for students who may be looking to break into the computer graphics industry. Technology available in the lab varies from stereoscopic lenses, which allow the viewer to experience the computer screen in 3-D, to infrared head trackers, which can be used by a video gamer to adjust the view of the game through head movement rather than the use of a joystick or computer controls.

The lab also contains software and hardware capable of game designing, three-dimensional world building and scientific visualization design, development and analysis.

According to Proca, the class was extremely helpful for those students interested in getting into the video game industry because, due to its hands-on nature, the students were able to learn whether or not they enjoyed working with such technology or if it simply was not for them.