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The VictoryXR Show – South Dakota State Using a Virtual Reality Digital Twin to Transform Higher Ed

The VictoryXR Show Greg Heiberger SDSU Video

Steve Grubbs: Welcome to another episode of The VictoryXR Show. I’m very excited because today I have Greg Heiberger, who is the Associate Dean of the College of Natural Sciences at South Dakota State University and also one of the leaders and really one of the catalysts of creating a Metaversity at SDSU. 

And so, Greg, I appreciate you joining us today. I appreciate all the pioneering work that you have done, one of really the first schools in the world to build a Metaversity campus. And so I would love for you just to sort of introduce yourself and talk about your interest in virtual reality and then we’ll jump into the SDSU Metaversity

Greg Heiberger: Well, thanks, Steve. Thanks so much for having me. And honestly, thanks for the partnership between your organization and South Dakota State. So, my background, I have been at South Dakota State for about 15 years, and really in my Master’s and PhD work was looking at new technologies, free consumer-facing technologies and ways that faculty and universities could leverage those software and hardware experiences in the educational space. 

And so, I have been working with Facebook and how we use groups, way back in new student orientation in 2006, all the way through some Apple Watch work and some other emerging media work that we’ve done over the last 15 years. 

Our VR engagement, really VictoryXR was the spark that ignited the kindling. We’ve had lots of faculties over the last five or ten years have interest, everything from Google Glass to VR experiences, thinking about and imagining ways that it could impact them. 

And the teaching and the visualization, really, specifically from the sciences of things you can’t see without some sort of technology, a microscope or some other sort of 3D visualization, but also really thinking about it from the sense of how does it solve real problems that we’re faced with university. 

And so we’ve had lots of faculty. We have an engineering program. We have an architecture program. We have lots of folks who have been thinking about and wanting to be in this space. And Steve and I were talking before this that one of the things that really helped to spark us was a trip to my alma mater, Colorado State, and being able to see a campus that was doing this at scale. They had 100 headsets hanging from the ceiling. It was pretty amazing to see, but it was also a little bit disheartening to see. 

So, a campus like ours, we don’t have the resources of a Stanford or Ivy Plus kind of institution, and even a Colorado State maybe don’t have those types of resources to take risk in new technology and new innovations. 

And so we were really inspired, but we were also kind of disheartened. I think they were spending $3,000 a headset because they had desktop computers mounted in the ceiling, AC units blowing over those to keep them cool, and then the headsets hanging from the ceiling. 

Again, an amazing experience. They scanned Cadavers. They had us put on a headset and walk through a beating human heart, but we just knew we couldn’t get there. And so, really, the partnership with VictoryXR and certainly the price point of where the Meta Quest 2s are at really was what allowed us to open the door into this space. 

And we’ve had an amazing couple of years. We’ve really been at this now for 18 to 24 months and have branched off into lots of different areas. But really building the Metaversity through VictoryXR is again, that spark that ignited the kindling at South Dakota State. 

So that got us from zero headsets to 50—was this partnership with VictoryXR, and now we have over 150 on our campus and are deploying them in places like anatomy and chemistry, but also architecture and nursing in lots of different places. And so it really has grown exponentially for us in the last couple of years. 

Steve Grubbs: Yeah, that’s great. And this is probably a good point to stop and thank Meta for their grant that helped build the Digital Twin Metaversity and, I think, grant of the first 40 headsets. So they’ve really done a lot to spark the growth of virtual reality and XR in higher education in the United States and now starting around the world. 

So, let’s talk about some of the best use cases. I always think there are more use cases than people realize, but some things are not as intuitive. For example, creative writing is not one of the better use cases, at least not yet, for an XR experience, but we’ve run into a lot that really are. What are some of those on campus that seem to be making sense? 

Greg Heiberger: So, I think we found a few bumps in the road in terms of some of our own faculty capacity and the sciences to be able to build the level of fidelity that we maybe wanted. But I think that allowed us to partner with others around campus. 

And so we’ve got an architecture faculty member who’s been here for a couple of years. And had done in, I think, her postdoc and previous work, lots of work in VR, AR. And so our ability to partner with them has allowed the doors to really open wide for them. 

And so they’re doing everything from community-based and community-facing projects in VR where they’ll be building spaces and being able to build these digital twins and build their skills, but also be doing research on teaching efficacy in that space. 

And then I would say that the School of Education, I wish that this would have floated to the top of my mind on day one, but it really did take time to kind of bubble up. But now that it’s there, this is going to be a really great opportunity for our future secondary educators. 

So as we think about that, and as we imagine what the rollout of new technology looks like in K12, it’s generally urban, it’s generally well-resourced schools that have opportunity. And so then that also skews the amount of training that the teachers have, that those K12 teachers have. 

We’ve got an education class on our campus that all of our future K12 science teachers will take, and they will get the VictoryXR faculty certificate. They will have built a lesson in VR and deployed it with their peers. 

And again, we need great science teachers everywhere, but this is going to give them all, one, a skill, but two, I think, a credential that a lot of their peers don’t have. And so I think that will help us to push a little bit, again, some of the digital equity things we know exist and will exist. 

We’ll now have some advocates in rural high schools that are not just advocating for science, but they’ll be advocating for technology, for VR, for innovation. And so I certainly care about education. 

I’m working at a science college, but that education piece is technically in another college. And so it wasn’t one of the first things at the forefront of our mind. But I think it’s going to be one of the most impactful things over these next few years as we think about students leaving with those skill sets and then being advocates in the K12 system for innovation, for VR, for digital twins, for teaching in that space. 

Steve Grubbs: Let’s talk a little bit about faculty adoption and the acceptance among faculty. My experience is that faculty is a lot—the same bell curve as everything else in the world. You’ve got those out in the third standard deviation on this side who are really early adopters. 

So, the Greg Heibergers of the world, most faculty, I would say those two middle deviations are interested. They think it could be useful, but they really haven’t engaged with it. And then, of course, over here, you have the never evers. 

Mostly, you and I have focused on those out here, the early adopters. But now I see in schools that we work with, that the big group in the middle are starting to dip their toe in the water. And obviously, as you know, we’ve got the certificate program to bring people along and understand why and how. 

But give us a little of—some of your thoughts on best ways to bring faculty along, get them trained, and get them into the world of teaching and learning in VR.

Greg Heiberger: I really think your assessment of the bell curve and the current state of faculty adoption and innovation is accurate. And to some extent, that’s a good thing in some respects that they care for the outcomes at such a high level that their willingness to risk is pretty marginal or minimal, so I do value that. 

Now that being said, the only way to accelerate and help them to adopt quicker in more pedagogically sound ways is they just need more time, and we can’t let the time be link linear in the sense of months and years. 

It’s that we need to spend more time with them now. And so we found a lot of our wins being partnerships with our instructional design services that they’ve been behind this, they have been partners. 

But we need to get more headsets there, we need to get more demos, we need to have, every time that there’s an instructional design mini session, one of the mini sessions or two needs to be VR. And VictoryXR has been great. You’ve had some of your staff lead some of those and then internally, we’ve led some of those trainings as well. 

So, I think it really is an and conversation. It’s about relationships, it’s about building real trust, know it’s got to be me walking down the hall and bumping into somebody and talking about the great experience that we just had in a recruitment event or a class or a lab. 

But it also has to be the data. They’re scientists or well-informed educators. They need to see that the data shows this is at least as effective, if not more effective as some other modalities. And then they have to have the experience, because is just a…It’s not an experience where you can give somebody a PowerPoint or give them a research paper and they can understand it. They’ve got to be in headset, they’ve got to touch and do and try. And it’s the same thing for the sciences. You can’t expect somebody to teach micro pipetting or plating or cell culture by reading a research paper. They need to actually do the work, the physical manipulation. And I think that that’s a key part of being able to bring people along and in the VR/AR innovation space as well. 

Steve Grubbs: Yeah, nobody ever learned a car just reading about it. At some point, you’ve got to get behind the wheel and go to a parking lot with your mom or dad and knock it down. 

Greg Heiberger: Exactly. 

Steve Grubbs: That’s exactly the same thing here. And sometimes when people are first getting into a virtual reality headset, they think it’s just like turning on a zoom call, and they jump in five minutes before. 

And I always want to know, look, it’s not as hard as learning to drive a car, but it’s not as easy as turning on your computer. You do need to get in and figure out how this new medium works and how to move and manipulate things, etc. 

So, let’s talk about students. Students are the easiest consumer of this because they love it, and that’s our experience with it. Many of the universities that we work with, students check out the headset for the semester, take it home and attend class or whatever the case might be. Others have labs on campus, and then many do hybrid. They do little of both. What is the approach at SDSU and how are students reacting?

Greg Heiberger: So, we’ve really used this in multiple ways. So, we have a chemistry department that’s invested at the level that they purchased and have essentially a mobile VR lab, but it’s stationary. 

Then we have students that have checked them out. So right now, we’ve got—well, last year, we had the chemistry anatomy programs checking them out. This year, we have the architecture folks and education students checking them out. So, our experience, I think, is realistic. They need time to get oriented, to have some basic level training, but it’s not that much. 

I think as we think about this, it’s not the same. We need a week or two to get ready. We need 20 minutes or so to get ready. But it’s also not like you said, you can’t just put it on and expect that they can just go with nothing. So, I think for our students, we’ve seen lots of excitement, certainly as they think about how it can help prepare them for the workforce or help them to do things that are happening out in the work force. 

I think one of our lessons learned is the truth matters. And there were a few rumors that went out that we’re going to get rid of this lab or we won’t do this experience because we’re now engaged with technology, and that’s never been our approach, at least not on the physical campus. 

Certainly, this hopefully will replace watching YouTube videos for an online class, but we don’t want it to replace actually learning how to pipette or actually learning to dissect or doing some of those things. 

But it can make us more efficient in that. If you can train in pipetting before you walk into the lab, that’s going to be a whole lot better laboratory experience. We’ve tried to be intentional, but it hasn’t come without a few bumps in the road, because sometimes things that are not true, make their way out. 

And I think a big part of what we’ve done is just try to reengage with the students and have open and honest conversations about what it means and what ways we’re really looking at it in terms of how it can add to their skill development. 

Steve Grubbs: Since you and I started working on all of this, there have been really two big advancements that have come to the fore. As you may know, we are just getting off the ground with our VXR labs, with our AI patients and AI tutors and historical figures. 

Thomas Edison being one, Harper Lee from To Kill a Mockingbird being another. So you can actually go and have a conversation with Harper Lee or Thomas Edison. But also, the Quest 3 rolled out last week. 

We showed it at Edge College with Meta, with a chemistry lab in mixed reality. So curious, if you’ve given much thought to AI or maybe the inclusion of mixed reality in some of your classes or your plans. 

Greg Heiberger: Yeah, so AI is probably a whole other conversation. I think I’d maybe start with a mixed reality. I think there’s a lot of value to VR and to focus, to kind of close down distractions and be in one space. 

But I think the mixed reality, augmented reality has been something even with what we would call pure VR, we were thinking about from the beginning, right? It was about engaging with other people. I mean, that’s the Digital Twin concept, right? 

This is not a simulation. It’s not always a simulation where you go off and do the thing on your own. And I think mixed reality affords us some more opportunities to be together, to have that human component, but also to think about the spaces we currently have and how we can add value to those. 

So, we’ve spent some time with the pros, the Meta Quest pros in that mixed reality space. Really kind of starting to think about and starting to plan. But I think there’s a lot of great opportunity there. 

And certainly, as we think about AI, there’s certainly a forefront there where we think about simulations or you talk about patients, essentially to bring in an infinite number of possibilities versus a quantified, pre-programmed number of possibilities. 

And I think there’s certainly some huge advantage to that so that students don’t get into, “Well, I’ve already done the simulation and I’m not going to learn anything new, or there’s no new variance.” But in reality, if you’re a nursing student, you’re a pharmacy student, you’re a med student, every case is different, every human is different, and I think that there’s a great potential there. 

I certainly have concerns, just like lots of us do, about what AI means for the future of education and how we help to train students. But I’m certainly more on the how do we leverage it, right? Just like Facebook 15 years ago or Twitter 10 years ago, or the Apple Watch 7 years ago, how do we leverage it to add value rather than say, how do we stop students from using it so that they don’t cheat? 

It’s, how do we think about this in a way that we can prepare them for the real world? They’re going to use VR/AR mixed reality. They’re going to use AI. How do we help them to build the right skills and ethical skills that are going to be valuable to the workforce and the community? 

Steve Grubbs: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. So, what I love is that having had a Quest 3 on last week, the advancement beyond the Quest Pro is really striking. 

Greg Heiberger: Yeah.

Steve Grubbs: And so as soon as you get a chance to get a requisition in for one of those, they’re going to probably be in a little bit short supply for a while, but it’s definitely a game changer. 

So talk to us a little bit about if you had a group of new Metaversity directors sitting in a room with you and you had a chance to give them a little bit of advice on best practices and ways to approach the implementation of this, what would you tell them? 

Greg Heiberger: I’ll come back to really simple philosophy of challenge and support, and I think we have amazing faculty. And if you’re a director of a Metaversity project, you’re working with some amazing faculty. 

But I still think that this idea of how can we challenge our students or faculty, whoever we’re working with, to keep focused on the outcomes that we care about. And that could be the course outcomes, the program outcomes, but also providing them support to do so. 

And I’ll be blunt about that. Like, just buying headsets and having the software is not enough. They need time. They need—It might be financial support. They need somebody by their side. They need a grad student that can be there to bounce ideas off of. Whatever it is at your institution, you’ve got to figure out that mix. 

For us, it was a little bit of all of that. We funded some summer salaries. We funded some graduate students, but we also had our instructional design team and a VR coordinator as a part of that. 

And we had a lot of things going on. Not everybody’s going to do that. They’re going to have their two classes or a couple of classes and their 40 headsets or whatever. But I think whatever it is, it’s about that challenge. 

You really want to keep those faculty focused, but you’ve got to be realistic that faculty today are all overworked, right? Their workload documents, I think, are due today on our campus, and they all are working more than that, 100%. 

And so we’ve got to be really thoughtful about how we support the ones that are innovating and protect them a little bit so that this doesn’t feel like one more thing, but that it’s one thing that their administrator supports, one thing that their supervisor really supports, and it’s a part of what they’re asking them to do. 

So, I would say surround them with support and then think the last thing is really hold the work up that they’re doing, part the way through the semester, at the end of the semester in newsletters and presentations on campus, because everybody else needs to learn from it, but they also need to be rewarded for the work that they’re about to do, because it is, it’s more work. You’ve got to build out lessons. You’ve got to solve problems. You’ve got to go through roadbumps that you didn’t know. But the end result is so worth it because the students are getting this new learning experience. There’s just so much added to the experience. 

So, I don’t know if that completely answers your question, Steve, but I really think we’ve got to keep challenging them, support them all the way through, and then celebrate them as they get to those milestones along the way. 

Steve Grubbs: Good. You had a lot of influence in the build out of your Digital Twin of the campus digital twin. And if there’s somebody listening that doesn’t know what that is, essentially it is a 3D replica of your campus that you and a group of students can traverse and walk to class and sit in class. 

And essentially, it’s extremely similar to being on a campus in real life. So, Greg, thinking about the Digital Twin at South Dakota State, do you have a favorite place on campus that you think is just really cool? 

Greg Heiberger: I think our American Indian Student Center. It really was culturally connected and driven by the students and the indigenous faculty and staff in terms of its design. And I think to see it replicated in 3D with the artwork, with the drum room, I think there’s just a lot of value do in that. 

We haven’t capitalized as much as we would like to in that, but we’re on the cusp of that. I’m working with a PhD student in Michigan, and a lot of his work was capturing cultural knowledge in indigenous communities, in VR, in 3D, and I think we’ve got a lot of that potential in the state of South Dakota. It’s certainly a core part of who we are as a state and who we are as an institution. 

I think just like every campus, our Campus Green, the Bell Tower, our Campanile, those are all iconic experiences. And so when a student can come in and get a campus tour from our president in VR and see the Campanile and walk across Campus Green, that’s a pretty amazing kind of thing as well for everyone. But I do think it’s also been a great way with the American Indian Student Center to hold up some of our minoritized students also.

Steve Grubbs: Have you given any thought to having your Digital Twin deployed to the Chromebook browser so that students can access it through their computers? 

Greg Heiberger: Yeah, so we’ve kind of bounced back and forth in our admissions program, looked at, at one point, buying and building out a Digital Twin essentially just for admissions. And so we’ve had those conversations. We haven’t kind of pulled the trigger or gotten to that point of deployment yet. But I do think there’s a lot of potential there just in terms of general campus knowledge, general access. 

We’ve got a huge initiative as an institution to really push our kind of recruiting and outreach from the high school down into the middle school level, and I think that’s a great opportunity. We are using the Digital Twin as a part of some of our outreach and recruiting. 

So, we have a mobile lab. We’ve got 24 headsets that we put in suitcases and take to high schools, but we also do middle school visits and we also bring middle schoolers to campus. And so sometimes they don’t have time to do a full campus tour. Sometimes they are not actually even physically on our campus, but they’re at least able to put the headset on and be able to walk around the Digital Twin. 

So I do think the 2D version provides the opportunity to just reach the masses because every school’s got a Chromebook program, or every school’s got computer labs, and they may or may not have VR. But yeah, we’ve been trying to utilize it and leverage it in ways that are not just the traditional curricula. 

Steve Grubbs: Yeah, the University of Iowa Tippy College of Business underwrote the Digital Twin for the campus, and then also it was deployed there. So if you’re on a Chromebook or a PC, or a MacBook, you could walk around campus. And as an Iowa alum, it’s pretty cool. 

Let’s wrap it up with this final question. Thinking ahead two years, five years, where do you want this to go for SDSU? 

Greg Heiberger: I really think that where I would love to see it is that—in two respects, I think the online space has a ton of potential. As we think about rural, as we think about meeting community needs, as we think about doing better than Zoom and YouTube, I think there’s almost a mandate that we have to do better in online education. 

And then I would say, I think there’s a resource alignment concern that most campuses have. Currently, if you are a faculty member teaching English 101, or Chemistry, or anything in between, and you say, I want to teach in a Digital Twin, or I want to teach in VR, I would say that most campuses, it’s going to be a six-to-twelve-month battle of who’s funding it. 

And so I think campuses need to think about how they deploy digital resources equitably across their campus. I mean, we just got lucky. I mean, I was in the right place at the right time to be connected to you, to be connected at the time that Meta was building stuff out. 

But that means there’s a lot of our faculty that haven’t put a headset on, but also haven’t really seen a path towards, how do I get this for the 24 kids in my class, or how do I build out the curriculum here? 

And so I think universities, as the technology becomes more ubiquitous, our institutions have to figure out ways to streamline that, because right now, whether it’s a digital textbook, there’s a process every campus has, how they buy it, how they deploy it to students. It goes the bookstore, it goes through a website. 

We don’t have that for VR right now. We don’t have that for AR, in terms of if I’m a faculty member and I want to do this. They’ve got to get a hold of me, right? I’m the guy on our campus. I think that every campus could utilize kind of folding in this, just like they do a lot of other software products in terms of their offerings. It’s digital textbooks, it’s content, it’s PowerPoints, it’s clickers. 

All of that stuff lives in an instructional design space, and there’s a form you can fill out or a quest you can put in or, you know, I don’t think that most campuses have this yet for innovative tech like VR/AR, and I think that would decrease some of the hurdles. It’s not going to decrease all of them, but I do see that as a real barrier. 

Steve Grubbs: Awesome. Well, Greg, we appreciate you joining us today. And even more than that, I just really appreciate the extra time and effort you put into making something new happen. 

It’s certainly one of those things that most people seem to avoid because it is challenging and there’s more work involved. But I think for people like you and me, that being a pioneer, a trailblazer, that’s a reward in and of itself. So thank you, and I’ll give last remarks to you. 

Greg Heiberger: Well, I just say thanks as well. I think without VictoryXR and Meta, our growth curve looks very differently. Either way, we’ve got great faculty, either way, we’ve got great students. But I think our ability to innovate, certainly was sparked by this partnership. And so I just really appreciate you and your leadership and your trust in South Dakota state to be able to do the right thing and move things forward and impact students. 

And so just really looking forward to the Quest 3 and looking forward to the next iteration of VXR labs and the next iteration of the Digital Twins and lots of amazing things to come. So really appreciate being able to chat with you today. Thanks, Steve. 

Steve Grubbs: Awesome. Thank you, Greg. And to all our viewers, thanks for joining us.