Virtual Reality at Ithaca College

It’s for real. This summer the computer science and mathematics departments cohosted a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program in virtual reality, robotics, and visualization. Supported by a recently renewed three-year grant from the National Science Foundation, the program gives students the opportunity to immerse themselves in research and learn experientially. According to associate professor of computer science and program coordinator Sharon Stansfield, students spend eight weeks “working [in teams] to solve problems no one has solved before. It’s a process of finding out what works and what doesn’t.

In the REU program, we toss them in and say, ‘here’s the project.’ They choose a small piece of the project, do the background research, come up with a plan, and carry out that research with our guidance. In the final week, they present their findings in an open poster session. It’s very self-directed.” The selection process for the program is very competitive, and IC students have to apply, just like anyone else. This summer the College was well represented. Out of 10 total participants, 4 were IC students -- all from the school of H&S.

Three separate projects make up the REU program. IC students Steven Fusaro ‘08, a mathematics-computer science major, and Derek Zwahlen ‘08, a computer science major, worked with Stansfield on the virtual reality project, focusing on further development and refinement of a virtual patient (begun three years ago during another REU session) that can be used in the clinical training of occupational therapy majors at IC. Student teams have worked on programming the patient’s mouth and face to move properly when it speaks, as well as how it moves different areas of its body when the OT students interact with it. Stansfield remarks, “The great thing about this technology is you can’t do much harm to a virtual patient.”

The second project, co-mentored by Stansfield and colleague John Barr, associate professor of computer science, is in robotics. Chris Hostage ‘08, a computer science major, worked on the early stages of the robotics project with three students from other colleges and universities, developing software for the robot’s on-board sonar and camera, with the ultimate aim being to see whether robots might be used as an assistive technology for people with mobility disorders.

David Brown, associate professor of mathematics, directs the third project on fractals and visualization. Matthew Mastroeni ‘09, an exploratory student, modeled and studied the growth of trees in three dimensions. Brown explains, “Trees resemble mathematical objects known as fractals, which are a relatively new phenomenon in mathematics. The trees we study have the potential of providing a new model of the structure of the lungs.” According to Mastroeni, “The REU program is a great opportunity for me to get firsthand experience of what it’s like to do research for a living, especially so early in my undergraduate career.”

Stansfield says that students are very enthusiastic about the fact that the work they’re doing could ultimately benefit someone else: “They come out of the program saying, ‘I learned something. I grew. My work could positively impact another human being’s life.’” As for Stansfield, she continues to learn as well. “Since I came to Ithaca College, I’ve learned how to let students explore on their own. As a result, there are always some great new ideas and the research continues to progress.”

The research progresses here at Ithaca College and beyond. Evan Suma ‘05 was one of the first participants in the REU program. Now in his third year in the Ph.D. program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Suma’s current research involves navigation and interaction in virtual environments. Not only does he feel the REU program gives students a glimpse into the type of work done in graduate schools, but his work in the program also yielded two publications. He notes, “In many ways, the work I did at Ithaca set the stage for where I am today, not only by exposing me to research but also by captivating my interest in this particular field of computer science.”