By Tara Roberts
A person passing a tree in a meadow may notice its height, the shape of its leaves or a chipmunk scurrying among its branches.
A person passing the same tree in a virtual world could see endlessly more – the tree’s age, its molecular makeup, every organism that calls it home, its fire vulnerability, the pH of its soil, its timber value, its role in the forest ecosystem and even poems written in its honor.
“In this way a virtual world can be more real than the real world,” says John Anderson, an assistant professor in the University of Idaho Virtual Technology and Design Program.
“You can uncover so much information from a single tree,” he says. “We’re interested in revealing everything connected to it.”
Massive amounts of data exist about the physical world. Virtual worlds help unite these data and illuminate the novel relationships among disparate information, Anderson says.
He, his colleagues and their students have used virtual technology to facilitate a number of interdisciplinary projects at U-Idaho.
They’ve created virtual worlds showcasing parasites, viruses and bacteria for biologists, designed traffic simulations for civil engineers and worked with the Center for Nuclear Space research and the Idaho National Laboratory to visualize nuclear powered robots hopping across the surface of Mars.
They’ve applied their work to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, helping young students learn concepts by interacting with virtual environments. One of Anderson’s recent projects involves building a virtual world to help eighth-grade girls learn common-core algebra concepts while simultaneously being exposed to the world’s environmental and social problems.
U-Idaho virtual technology and design researchers’ work also extends into education, history, business, psychology, theater and more.
“We have a multitude of other designs to explore and research,” Anderson says. “There’s a richness you can’t uncover from any one discipline alone. We need to be fully integrated.”
In another significant effort, the researchers are investigating new software platforms to build virtual realms that are accessible and useful to multiple disciplines.
“Data is very malleable. It can have many different outputs,” Anderson says. “What we’re trying to do is essentially create a science platform where we can facilitate conversation and investigation.”