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Is It Real Or Is It Virtual? Clarkson University's Virtual Reality Lab Continues To Expand

POTSDAM, N.Y. -- In a quiet room on the second floor of Clarkson University's Science Center, amidst an assortment of high-tech equipment, user manuals, and computer paraphernalia, a team of students will meet this fall to expand the limits of technology. What began three years ago as a student-initiated project to bring virtual reality capabilities to Clarkson on a recreational level has developed into the course known as Undergraduate Research in Virtual Reality. Students enrolling in this course will meet weekly to discuss the design and development of new software utilizing and enhancing the field of virtual reality.

Many research labs at universities are devoted to the work of graduate students. However, Clarkson's virtual reality lab began as a project initiated by undergraduate students interested in the general topic of virtual reality. In the spring of 1994, members of the Clarkson student chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), a professional organization, held interest meetings and raised the funds necessary to purchase and establish Clarkson's first virtual reality computer. Clarkson's School of Science matched their efforts with a second computer and a designated area for the lab not long after. Clarkson alumnus Paul Travers '83, president and founder of the software company Forte Inc. in Rochester, N.Y., has also donated two virtual reality headsets to the lab. This equipment, known as a head-mounted display (HMD), allows the user to hear sounds in stereo and to view the graphics witha stereoscopic, 3-D view, while the computer adjusts for head movements, to create a truly interactive environment.

Students enrolled in the virtual reality research course-- a mix of computer science, computer engineering, technical communications and other computer-oriented majors-- will work together to develop new software in an environment very similar to that found in industry. The course is not a traditional lecture class where the teacher stands up in front and talks, while students scribble notes; instead, it's more of an open-ended, team-based experience.

In the 'real world,' a lot of people from different disciplines work together, and that's what we try to represent in the lab research, said Janice Searleman, instructor for the course and faculty advisor for the ACM.

Current projects include a virtual, 3-D version of the first video game, "Pong," using C++ and the graphics library OpenGL. Another group of students is using 3-D Studio and the programming language VRML to create a virtual tour of the Cheel Campus Center. Eventually, they plan to link this tour to the Clarkson World Wide Web site, so that potential applicants to Clarkson can take a tour of the campus center from anywhere in the world.

The department hopes to continue expanding the virtual reality lab, by bringing in more computer science projects and encouraging other fields of study to include its resources in their curricula. Those interested in tours of the labs, or getting more information, should contact Janice Searleman by phone at 268-2377, or by e-mail at They can also contact Andrew Levy, president of ACM, at 268-6599, or by e-mail at

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Annie Harrison, Director of Media Relations, at 315-268-6764 or]

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