Growing up outside of Los Angeles, Maxx Jakeway ’21 made frequent visits to the Mount Wilson Observatory. The center of astronomy in the early 20th century, the observatory offers breathtaking views of the city from its peak atop Mount Wilson in the San Gabriel Mountains.
“I had always imagined what it would be like if I had some type of hang glider to fly back down the mountain to my house,” said the mechanical engineering major from Temple City, Calif.
One day in Union’s new Imagine Lab, Jakeway got his wish. Strapping on a virtual reality headset, he took a dizzying tour of the city, moving between buildings while enjoying a fascinating perspective of the landscape. He eventually returned to his favorite spot on Mount Wilson and virtually glided down the mountain to his home.
“It was an extraordinary experience in that it allowed me to experience the world in a way that I never thought possible,” Jakeway said.
Located in a former computer lab across from the Starbucks in the Wold Center, the Imagine Lab is an interdisciplinary space that promises to transform student and faculty research at Union.
Stocked with an impressive collection of virtual, augmented and mixed reality tools, along with 360-video and photography equipment, the lab aims for users to “imagine the unimaginable.”
“The idea is not that this is a VR or AR lab,” said Cole Belmont, who, as director of the Makerspace consortium, a group of fabrication and tinkering labs, oversees the Imagine Lab. “What it’s really about is emerging technologies in education and putting those in the hands of students and faculty.”
Open to the campus community, the lab is staffed Monday through Friday with 11 Maker Corp work-study students who are trained to assist visitors interested in learning about the technology.
The Imagine Lab is modeled after a space at GlobalFoundries’s semiconductor wafer manufacturing facility in nearby Malta. The company, headquartered in Santa Clara, Calif., donated some of the equipment and technical support to launch the lab. Its CEO, Thomas Caulfield, is a member of Union’s Board of Trustees. The College invested in the remainder of the equipment.
The College’s latest strategic plan calls for developing every student “to lead with wisdom, empathy and courage, in ways large and small, now and across multiple tomorrows.” That ethos inspired the name “Imagine Lab.”
“The space is really not so much about preparing students for a specific thing but preparing them for the unimaginable,” Belmont said
Students and faculty are still learning about the lab, which has been open for less than a month. However, many are already discovering its unlimited potential.
Zachary Porat ’20 hopes to create a virtual component for a class, “The Theory of Things,” taught by Jillmarie Murphy, associate professor of English. Begun with a 3D Maker module, the course requires students to create physical replicas or 3D images of various objects found in the literature they read, such as a child’s coffin or a black shark’s tooth. Porat wants to create a virtual environment featuring objects that shift. For example, an elephant morphs into a mountain range, which becomes a feather and so on.
Moises Matute ’20 is working with the offices of Admissions and Communications on a virtual tour of campus.
Other faculty projects using the Imagine Lab include a class on Chinese architecture taught by Sheri Lullo, assistant professor of art history, and a collection of country manor homes from classic literature for Andrew Burkett, associate professor of English.
Jue Wang, associate professor of mathematics, is working on a virtual component to her 3D project, “Bringing Mathematics to Life.” Highlighting solutions of ordinary and partial differential equations, the next step is creating a virtual math museum for students to explore topics on any given week of the term.
“The Imagine Lab augments teaching and the curriculum,” said Belmont. “In addition to doing homework and studying for an exam, students will be able to come and take a virtual tour of that week’s lectures. It’s pretty amazing.”
As word spreads about the lab, Belmont expects more students and faculty to explore the space and get comfortable with its high-level equipment.
A key to the lab, he emphasized, is that the concept is designed to adapt to rapid technological changes. While VR, AR and MR are hot today, something new will emerge to take its place.
“The lab is agile,” Belmont said. “The technology we are focused on today should change or evolve. We are prepared for whatever comes down the road.”
To learn more about the Imagine Lab, visit the website.