VR tools allow landscape architecture students to complete needed site visits
By: George Watson
When he arrived at Texas Tech 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 United States, 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.
"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," Monsur said. "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 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.
The class taught by Monsur and Horsford introduces 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. "Design in landscape architecture is always site-specific," Horsford said. "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.
"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."
CONTACT: Eric Bernard, Professor and Chairperson, Department of Landscape Architecture, Texas Tech University at (806) 834-3482 or firstname.lastname@example.org
0514NM20 / Editor's Note: For a full text version of George Watson's article from Texas Tech University's Office of Communications & Marketing, please click here
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