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VR player with joy sticks in front of large digital screen

School partnership with Hope Training Academy studies tech training in a virtual world

April 13, 2022

When Zebulun Wood, lecturer and director of the Media Arts and Science (MAS) undergraduate program at the IU School of Informatics and Computing at IUPUI, is not teaching in the classroom, he’s educating in and about the virtual space. Virtual reality, that is.

Wood and Angela Murillo, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Library and Information Science, embarked on a new research project last fall, partnering with Rick Barretto and his Hope Training Academy (HTA) in Indianapolis.

The School of Informatics and Computing team, including Alex Nichols, a senior studying 3D Graphics and Animation in MAS, Patrick Tener, senior MAS major, and Mayank Saxena and Pranali Shinde, HCI grad students, set out to develop in VR an entire set of lessons for HTA on how to build a computer—beginning with the chapter on power supplies.

Wood is heading the production management of the application, surveying tools, and data collection of the study and will also lead the building of a scalable VR tool to be able to use in any educational context. Wood teaches undergraduates and graduates content creation skills to create virtual reality experiences.

Wood says, “Project partnerships like working with Angela, our students, and Hope Training Academy illustrate the power of innovative thinking that may not otherwise be able to happen in a traditional 16-week semester or a non-profit’s budget.  Our students get to practice the skills they have learned within classes across many different domains (3D, Game Development, User Experience Research, Learning Research) within our school while contributing to findings that COULD reveal that Virtual Reality (and the spatial component it affords) for learners is better than traditional means of learning. The best part is that they work on teams, together, that could never be assembled in one class or even one degree.  This is much more like working with (young) experts that you would encounter at a game production studio, for example.

“I often use the analogy that VR for learners can capture that same magic and joy in learning that Miss Frizzle’s class experienced on ‘The Magic School Bus’ animated series.  VR transports learners anywhere, at any time in history, to places both in the past and imagined.  I am really excited to see what HTA’s learners tell us about this early prototype and if they are excited to learn in VR.  Thanks Rick, Hope Training Academy, and our whole team for partnering in this mission. Go IU!”

Murillo is heading the educational research component of the study, developing pre-test and post-test of course assessments, research instruments, data collection, data analysis and dissemination of research results. Murillo, director of the Applied Data and Information Science undergraduate program who has worked in industry, government agencies, and academia, is an expert in data fluency and data-related education.

“The theoretical concepts and the research design are an extension of the study I conducted for my SEIRI grant. This study with HTA will capture data related to retention of concepts and student learning, student engagement, and ease of use of the VR environment and provide pilot data for future work examining VR in learning environments,” Murillo says.

Barretto has long been a pioneer in exploring new applications for emerging tech with his latest venture being improved access to tech education for the masses, especially within underserved populations. The data collected through his online learning tools will allow the VR data from this research project to be directly compared to traditional (in-person) and 2D digital learning experiences.

Barretto and Wood met around 2018 when Baretto’s esports gaming center partnered with IUPUI to sponsor their first League of Legends tournament to raise awareness of esports and IUPUI’s programs throughout the Midwest. They worked together again when Wood’s students created virtual walkthroughs of HTA classrooms including interactive hotspots. Barretto says his organization has many ideas but spends much of their time spent running day-to-day operations. Working with IUPUI and its resources in people and expertise gives them the chance to have support in asking these questions about overall educational outcomes and to more rapidly prototype and execute their concepts.

“We have seen so much need statewide for education and jobs as we help students and Hoosiers bridge ‘the digital divide.’ In the incredible number of students we have worked with we know that anything we can do to help give access to education and add interactivity and immersion will help further simulate real world learning scenarios. Many of our students don’t have access to the IT computer or hardware resources to effectively train and gain experience in IT,” Barretto says. “We believe this partnership with Indiana University will help greatly extend reach to other Hoosiers who need training and jobs. Combining leading-edge VR and educational research technologies with one of the leading schools in the nation and partnering with other funding partners will help us increase completion rates, retention and fill more jobs for unemployed Hoosiers.”

Wood will also serve as a co-investigator with Murillo and will assist her research team in addressing the following research questions: Does VR improve student learning, engagement, knowledge, short-term and long-term retention and Can VR be implemented in technical courses to provide students’ hands-on training? The short-term goals of this project are to implement VR into courses at the HTA certification classes and to test how these impacts various aspects of student learning. The long-term goals are to build a model/software tool for utilizing VR in technology courses, from the student perspective, instructor perspective, and long-term implementation perspective.

Nichols is the 3D artist on the team, responsible for creating all of the computer parts, the room the player is in, lighting, colors, and just about everything that the player sees. “It’s important that I make the parts look believable enough that once the subject goes from the simulation to real life, all of the knowledge and practice they have will translate into the real world,” Nichols says. “Not only do the parts have to look good, I have to make sure that all of the parts, ports, screws, and slots fit together accurately and tightly just like they do in the real world.”

Top view of VR computer assembly exercise showing cabinet containing various parts

Top view

Interior view of VR computer assembly exercise showing various parts

Interior view

Nichols says that this is the most rewarding project he has ever worked on because of its potential to impact the future of learning in a positive way—especially so because it involves VR. “Watching people step into the world we created never gets old because everyone has a reaction to it even if they have been in VR before. There is a lot of building excitement for the future when we will start to see the results of our hard work,” he says. Nichols hopes to continue working in VR after graduation on 3D interactive projects ranging from video games to architecture visualization.

About Rick Barretto and Hope Training Academy

Rick Barretto, an IU alumnus of Kelley School of Business and School of Computer Science, is a visionary entrepreneur, inventor, strategist, and published author. For over two decades, he has created technologies and companies that provide elegant and innovative products that entertain, educate, and inspire. He founded DreamAuthentics—the world’s first custom multi-game video arcades; iRecord, an enterprise video broadcast system for police and law enforcement agencies used worldwide; Harry Potter Wall Art, the first licensed Harry Potter removable wall art products, and recently finished developing a video game in partnership with Roblox and one of their top game development teams to create a VR/STEM and Coding game focused on teaching aspects of coding in a fun, engaging way. Barretto and his wife, Cara, also an IU alum, founded together Video Game Palooza (VGP), a non-profit,  which creates STEM coding and game development programs; and in 2016 created one of the largest esports gaming facilities in North America, among others. In 2012, the Barrettos acquired The LAN Network, one of the first professional esports game training companies for competitive Halo players (including popular alumni Ninja).  Ninja taught Cara the positive aspects of esports.  She became a spokesperson to mothers and children on the values in gaming and how to communicate with each other.  In 2019, they were both inducted into the International Video Game Hall of Fame for their many contributions to the video game community worldwide.

Hope Training Academy (HTA) is an education training provider, owned and operated by VGP. VGP is a 501(c)(3) educational nonprofit foundation dedicated to helping ending the cycle of poverty and financial insecurity for individuals by leveraging scholastic esports and high demand IT credentials leading to career attainment in STEM-related fields in a fun and relevant way. The HTA vision aims to uniquely engage non-traditional learners and prepare low-income individuals and first generation post-secondary students for high demand IT careers that launch them into successful adulthood.

About the Media Arts and Science program at the School of Informatics and Computing

The Media Arts and Science bachelor’s degree program is shaping the fast-changing digital media landscape with specializations in 3D Graphics and Animation, Digital Storytelling, Video Production and Sound Design, Web Design and Development, and nationally ranked Game Design and Development. Students work with industry partners on real-world projects involving VR, AR, 3D animation, and more that lead to careers in film, game production, graphic design, and advertising for companies like Sony, Pixar, Netflix, Google, and Rockstar.

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