How do you walk through a building in Atlanta when you’re in a classroom in Pullman?

If you can’t be there physically, virtual reality can deliver a new level of engagement, whether it’s watching Shaun White’s snowboard whoosh inches from your head, or working collaboratively on construction projects with students from Georgia.

Virtual reality is also a rapidly growing business. There were an estimated seven million VR headsets in 2016, which is expected to balloon to 47 million by 2020.

That acceleration has pushed companies like Intel to ramp up their VR offerings, including the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. The VR technology there was developed by former Washington State University engineering professors Sankar and Uma Jayaram from 1993 to 2015, funded by federal agencies and companies such as PACCAR and Komatsu. They started their company 3D-4U, which was bought by Intel in 2016, to create fully immersive and interactive experiences.

First used in Martin Stadium for WSU football games, the VR system had a major push during the Olympics. The Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture hosted a viewing party of the Winter Games where students and faculty could try out VR headsets at WSU Pullman’s Spark, a new digitally-focused classroom building, and experience 360-degree views of snowboarding half-pipe, figure skating, and several other sports.

Over in PyeongChang, several former students joined the Jayarams at the Intel project. Barely two years out of school, Blake Rowe ’15 managed the operation. John Harrison ’07 supported coding and graphics activities. Matthew Poppe ’11 handled the design and manufacture of proprietary cameras assisted by Aaron Hasenoehrl ’15. And OkJoon Kim ’07 MS, ’11 PhD created VR Olympic apps for the Oculus Gear VR, Google Daydream, and WinMR headsets.

The headsets continue to improve, but aren’t quite at the level of Ready Player One, the dystopian science fiction novel by Ernest Kline that takes place mostly in virtual space. That book was selected as the 2017–18 Common Reading selection read by all freshmen and integrated into coursework and lectures.

Although Ready Player One is set in the future, VR is already used in classrooms. In Anne Anderson’s construction management class, students collaborate on building projects using VR headsets and 3-D software.

Anderson, an assistant professor of construction management and a virtual design expert, says, “We really feel more team cohesiveness, as though we are in the space together.”

Not only do they work together, the WSU students join construction management students at Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech for lectures and to “walk” around virtual buildings, such as the historic Biltmore Building in Atlanta, for classes.

The projects aren’t just in Georgia. Strap on a headset, and you can look around inside the walls of WSU Pullman’s Elson S. Floyd Cultural Center and see how the beams create the unique “rolling” roof. It’s certainly more than a game. As Anderson says, industry is already using this technology, which helps graduating students.