Virtual reality allows students to complete site visits for class projects from the safety of their homes.
When he arrived at Texas Tech University last fall, Muntazar Monsur immediately began creating a new laboratory to explore immersive technologies, such as virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality to identify their potential applications in landscape architecture instruction.
Little did he know his efforts would go from planning to implementation in just six months, and not because it came together that quickly. The situation dictated it.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced colleges all across the U.S., including Texas Tech, to shut down for the rest of the spring and part of the summer, making students finish the spring semester through online instruction. For a course in landscape architecture, where visiting construction sites and analyzing their design potential require being outside, staying home makes it almost impossible to complete.
"A site visit is an integral part of the site analysis, which is the groundwork for creating a site inventory to identify different design opportunities and constraints of the site," said Monsur, an assistant professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture in the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources. "Landscape architecture is one of the very few design professions where the designer, with his or her commitment to protecting the environment, works hard to produce the best design outcomes with minimum alteration of the natural environment. This kind of design sensitivity cannot be taught without taking students on pre-construction site visits."
Monsur, along with instructor Jared Horsford, had to find a way for the students in their LARC 1412: Design Studio II course to be able to complete projects that require site visits without visiting sites.
That's where Monsur's lab setup came into play. Through the use of virtual reality (VR), Monsur's and Horsford's students were able to do virtual site visits, giving them the ability – as much as possible – to get the information they needed for projects without risking their safety.
"I think there are capabilities with this technology to create immersive animations that insert the students into these spatial configurations in a way that a drawing or on-screen model could never replicate," Horsford said. "The control and malleability of the virtual environment could create teaching moments that might be better in a real-world environment, but which might not be accessible to students in certain cities, climate zones, or geographies."
Adjusting on the fly
The class taught by Monsur and Horsford introduces Texas Tech students to the design processes, site and program inventory and analysis, and design concept formation and application while also providing students with advance knowledge of spatial understanding and reasoning, design theory and application, and dynamic digital and analog workflows within the contest of contemporary landscape architecture practice.
A critical part of that instruction is taking students on site visits where students are provided first-hand learning experiences in the built environments. During site visits, students gain an understanding of the scale of a building project, have the opportunity to interact with all aspects of a site and are introduced to all the experiential elements of the site – views, special flow, sounds, smells, colors and textures of everything involved.
"Design in landscape architecture is always site-specific," Horsford said. "This course focuses on teaching students to 'read' a site, enabling them to understand the various constraints and opportunities a site offers, and to formulate design concepts that tie the program to the site's unique characteristics. While we draw from numerous sources to compile this data, a critical element of understanding a site involves experiencing it in person through a site visit."
Except when it's prohibited. Like during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Once it was announced the Texas Tech campus would be shut down, Monsur and Horsford quickly had to devise a way for students to experience site visits while conforming to the constraints put in place by local, state and federal governments designed to keep the U.S. population as safe as possible from contracting COVID-19. The answer, it turns out, was in Monsur's lab.
Part of his startup grants allowed him to purchase numerous high-end, 360-degree cameras and Wonda Virtual Realty software designed to create an interactive instructional method. Sophomore landscape architecture students in the fall used Wonda VR for creating immersive presentations for their final design projects.
With site visits scheduled to begin shortly after spring break, Horsford was planning to head out to the designated site – 320 acres of public open space downstream from Canyon Lakes Dam No. 6 and the Dunbar Historic Lake. Instead, Monsur and Horsford quickly began taking 360-degree photos of the site and adapting the technology for students in LARC 1412 to use for their required site visits. The technology involves downloading the app to a smartphone, then plugging the phone into a VR-compatible headset.
Using multiple 360-degree photos and videos taken of the site and downloaded to the app, students can use the smartphone and headset to create a virtual tour, similar to what is seen with Google Street View. The headsets, Monsur said, are inexpensive and can be purchased on Amazon, but the technology also can be used as a web tool without the headset.
"We believe these technologies are going to be critical for effective distance education for design disciplines, especially in situations like COVID-19 when site visits are not an option for students due to physical distancing requirements," Monsur said.
Even though the students aren't able to get the full, immersive experience of a full site visit, they have found the technology useful in completing the requirements of the course.
"It has been incredibly helpful to have the virtual site tour in a time where I cannot visit the site myself," said Nancy Harris, a first-year landscape architecture major from San Antonio. "Wonda VR is a user-friendly tool that helped me gain a better understanding of the park. While a virtual tour is helpful, it is very different and very limited. It shows important features of the site, however, if I were curious about something else within the park, I am unable to wander off and see it for myself."
Ivana Gonzalez, a first-year landscape architecture major from Eagle Pass, said while nothing can compare to experiencing a site visit with all the senses, the Wonda VR was still very efficient and helpful in providing an idea of what all was involved with the construction site.
"This technology allowed me to complete a very thorough analysis of the site and conceive ideas for overall designs that could fit the site the best," Gonzalez said. "Without it, we would be very limited in knowing essential context for our project."
Both Harris and Gonzalez admitted the transition to online-only learning has been difficult, but having the VR technology has helped make it easier.
"Although it is still difficult to adjust to this new learning process, the advanced tools offered by our entire faculty and department has exceptionally guided us through this transition while simultaneously offering understanding of our unexpected limitations," Gonzalez said.
What the future holds
Eventually, the coronavirus pandemic will end. No one is quite sure when that will be, or what the world will look like once it does. Doctors and experts have expressed the opinion that whatever world looks like, it won't be the same as it was before the pandemic began.
That will almost certainly include how education is delivered at all levels. While Texas Tech plans to re-open in some form late this summer, it could very well be a mixture of in-person and online classes, sometimes both within the same class. That could leave the door open for technology such as the Wonda VR used by Monsur and Horsford to become a vital piece in the learning process.
Monsur said use of the VR technology can fall under two categories – teaching/learning and visualization/presentation, allowing for the ability to create virtual tours of historic landscapes or world heritage sites that can be incorporated into landscape history courses.
"The possibilities for these kinds of applications and technologies for landscape architecture are seemingly endless," Monsur said. "Creating a virtual site visit is just a fraction of what these technologies have to offer for creating a more dynamic and interactive learning experience for landscape architecture."
Monsur said he anticipates that once students are back and in-person classes return, the VR technology will become a useful tool, not only for students in landscape architecture but across the university. He envisions the technology being used as a tool to supplement other resources when it comes to site visits. Horsford, who also teaches History of Landscape Architecture, anticipates using the technology to enhance the learning experience by placing them in locations around the world to experience different landscapes and their challenges.
"I think classes like this, which engage with places, inhabitation and history, could use this technology to allow students to experience places in history, many of which no longer exist in the real world but which could be recreated in the virtual realm," Horsford said. "It is one thing to talk about the cosmological alignments of Stonehenge, but to place the students there to watch the setting sun framed by the stone arrangements during the summer solstice would engage the students' senses and imaginations in amazing ways."
Any Texas Tech faculty member who would like to look into using this technology for their own classes, regardless of discipline, are encouraged to contact Monsur directly.
"This technology showed us that we can always be more creative in the ways we teach or deliver content," Monsur said. "The faculty at Texas Tech faced a lot of challenges transitioning to online teaching, but they also gathered valuable experience with distance education during this phase and learned about many technologies and resources that can be used in blended or in-person classes as well. We invented this application to address a crisis period, but this is going to stay with us as we keep pushing to create a more dynamic, interactive and engaging learning environment for our students."