If you were obsessed with Pokemon Go earlier this summer, you know more than you may realize about augmented reality. AR, as it's often called, combines virtual graphics, sound and data with the physical, real-world environment surrounding the user.

But even as millions followed their phones in search of Dragonites and Venusaurs, students across the CSU were hard at work developing real-world applications for these technologies.

The geography department at California State University, Fullerton has already incorporated augmented reality into the classroom in the form of an AR sandbox.

The sandbox allows a user to manipulate real sand to create and change topographical maps made up of interactive mountains, valleys, contour lines, lakes and rivers. The AR sandbox provides a hands-on, three-dimensional demonstration, making concepts that some students find difficult to grasp—like topography and hydrology—more accessible.

The idea for the sandbox was first proposed by CSU Fullerton graduate geography student Greg Beringer, then an undergrad; he spent this past summer in his garage building the table that holds the sandbox. The geography department got equipment and borrowed a computer from IT to help Beringer with final assembly.

The sandbox table is already being used in classrooms at Fullerton and has even been taken to local middle school and high school students to show kids that geography can be cool.

"[Younger students] love the tactile aspect of it, they love being able to get their hands on it," says John Carroll, Ph.D., associate professor in the department of geography and interim director of academic technology. "It gets them excited about coming to college."

Dr. Carroll himself incorporates the sandbox into his Geography 110 class, as well as an upper-division course. Now he and others are now helping Fullerton's department of geological sciences build their own augmented reality sandbox. 


Opening Doors for Students

Further north, at California State University, Monterey Bay, assistant professor Krzysztof Pietroszek, Ph.D., is overseeing construction of a lab that will be completely devoted to virtual reality.

The campus already has six virtual reality computers, which students helped to build. Dr. Pietroszek hopes to expand the VR lab to 20 computers, with headsets, an omnidirectional treadmill, and an AR table; everything should be fully operational by January 2017.

"There are tons of practical applications [for VR] in engineering, the medical field, and just the democratization to access of things that were only available in specialized virtual reality labs," says Pietroszek, who works in the School of Computing & Design. For example, VR could help amputees who experience phantom pain from the missing limb.

Researchers at CSU Monterey Bay are nearing completion on their own augmented reality table, essentially a giant AR tablet that seats up to 12 and might be the biggest in the world.

The lab is made possible by VR Fi​rst, an initiative of tech firm Crytek that selected seven universities in the U.S. and Canada to receive equipment and technical support, with the goal of advancing VR research. Pietroszek applied and was thrilled to have Monterey Bay included.

"This is basically something that normally we wouldn't have access to," he says, crediting colleagues in Monterey Bay's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Center for helping to secure VR equipment and additional funding.

"The game industry is like Hollywood: Getting internships for students is really hard, but working in the Game Research Lab opens many doors for our students, [and] hopefully also internships and job opportunities later on," adds Pietroszek. Any Monterey Bay student, regardless of their major, can work in the lab.

That open invitation to students is already paying dividends. Last year, three undergraduate students went to an international conference to present their VR project; now sophomore Daniel Kharlamov is preparing to present his project – examining how smartwatches can be used to interact with VR environments – at a conference in Tokyo.

Watch a video of Kharlamov's work below:


 

"Students have to learn mathematics and vector calculus if they want to be successful, so they do it because they see a direct connection [between class and VR]," says Pietroszek, who thinks that the groundwork being laid in his VR lab could have profound implications: "They might make the next Google this way."


Growing Fast

Across the CSU, other campuses are investing in AR too: California State University, Chico uses augmented reality to educate an increasingly tech-savvy generation of K-12 students, and California State Polytechnic University, Pomona offers augmented reality walking tours of the campus.

As the power of virtual reality continues to explode – Sony is projected to sell three million VR headsets next year – there's no doubt that those who are prepared to join this quickly advancing field will find plenty of opportunity.

"Computers are finally fast enough," says Dr. Pietroszek. "It's going to be a huge, major market."