What is virtual reality?

Virtual reality (VR) allows users to experience a computer generated simulation or game in three dimensions. Head mounted displays, like the Oculus Quest, allow users to be fully immersed in the experience, and handheld controllers allow them to interact with their environment.

Benefits of using virtual reality

In VR, students can see demonstrations across a wide range of physical scales that would not be possible with table top demos. This feature makes VR an ideal platform for teaching students about gravity. Research has shown that students who are taught using VR experience many educational benefits, beyond the fact that it is fun. Below is a partial list of recent studies on the subject.

  • A meta-analysis of 29 studies of immersive VR (using a head mounted display) found that the majority reported VR was more effective than, or at least on par with, traditional pedagogical methods (i.e. slideshows, lectures, 2D videos) [ Hamilton et. al 2021 ].
  • Students who watched a video in a 3D immersive environment scored much higher in a learning outcome test than those who watched the same video on a 2D screen [ Rupp et. al 2019 ].
  • Virtual reality increases feelings of technology related self-efficacy, which can impact student’s confidence when approaching STEM [ Ball et. al 2018 ].
  • Virtual reality increases engagement and interest in the subject, facilitating discussions between experts and non-experts [ Kersting et. al 2020 ].

This body of research presents a compelling case that even a single classroom visit can have an impact on student engagement.



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VR club member experiencing the Spheres simulation at a POINT VR event. Photo credit: Scott Perkins.

Bringing physics to local schools through virtual reality

In phase one of this project, we will take portable Oculus Quest headsets from the UIUC IDEA lab to middle schools and high schools. We will use these headsets to show students existing science simulations. This experience will be supplemented with an introductory lecture about the science topics covered in the simulation. 

The visit will typically take about an hour, and timing can be adjusted as needed. Students will be split into two groups; half will experience the VR demo while the other half meets with a physicist, and then they will switch. Everyone will have the chance to put on a VR headset. A pre-survey and post-survey will be issued to gather feedback about the program and assess effectiveness. Graduate student volunteers will be available to answer any questions students may have throughout the experience.

For phase one of this project, we are working with a commercially available program (developed by Novelab) called Spheres, which has won many awards at film festivals. We focus specifically on chapter 2: “Songs of spacetime.” This simulation introduces gravitational waves and black holes through a 10 minute immersive experience. You can watch the trailer for this experience here.

Developed by graduate students here at Illinois Physics, the supplementary talk describes the science behind the simulation. The talk begins with a description of general relativity as a curvature of the fabric of spacetime, then explains what black holes are and how their motions can generate gravitational waves. It provides a more detailed picture of the science introduced by the simulation, and shows students how a physicist might approach such topics. 

Developing a virtual reality simulation

In phase two of this project we will develop our own interactive VR experience to teach students about general relativity. The concepts included in the simulation will be: 

  • Spacetime is a smooth fabric.

  • The curvature of this spacetime is what we recognize as a gravitational field.

  • A good description of general relativity is:  “Spacetime tells matter how to move; matter tells spacetime how to curve.” - John Wheeler
  • We can get ripples in the fabric of spacetime. These ripples are called gravitational waves and they can teach us a lot about the Universe.

  • General relativity is a necessary extension of Newtonian gravity, and yet we believe it is still incomplete.

Our simulation will address all of these concepts in short chapters, designed to be accessible to middle school and high school students. Volunteers from the UIUC computer science and physics departments are already working on the first chapter using Unity. Eventually, the code and simulation will both be made public for anyone who wants to use them. 

Coding objectives for the first chapter:

  • Create a curved grid that you can roll or throw objects at to see their path change. This will illustrate that “Spacetime tells matter how to move...”
  • Develop a grid that can warp around your hands as you move them. This should demonstrate that “...matter tells spacetime how to curve.”
  • Explore more massive vs. less massive objects in the grid

Students who have experience coding in Unity or would like to learn can click this button to get involved. 

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A visualization of gravity as a curvature of spacetime. Image credit: T. Pyle, Caltech, MIT, LIGO Lab.
A visualization of gravity as a curvature of spacetime. Image credit: T. Pyle, Caltech, MIT, LIGO Lab.
Objects of different masses bend spacetime differently. Image credit: James Provost.

The Team

Kristen Schumacher
Kristen Schumacher
Head of the outreach team

This project is split into two main groups, the outreach team and the VR production team.

  1. The outreach team will use existing VR Demos, such as Spheres, with middle and high schoolers. So far the outreach team has been showing Spheres to undergraduate students at UIUC to seek feedback and refine the program.
  2. The VR production team is developing our own VR experience, using Unity. Work on chapter one, which describes gravity as the curvature of the fabric of spacetime, is already underway.
Quintessential Engineer state
Sonali Joshi 
Head of the VR production team


Members at our last general meeting of the semester Fall 2021. Pictured (left to right):  Amanda, Chloe, Chris, Kristen, Nijaid, Henry, Sonali, ?, Roger?, ? , Alex.
Team members at our last general meeting of the semester Fall 2021. Pictured (left to right):  Amanda, Chloe, Chris, Kristen, Nijaid, Mike, Sonali, Henry, Roger, Atharv, Alex.
<strong><span class="fs125x">Jessica L Raley</span></strong><br /><span class="fs125x">Outreach Director for ICASU</span>
Jessica L Raley
Outreach Director for ICASU

If you're interested in getting students excited about physics through virtual reality, this is a big project with lots of opportunities for hands on experience.
Volunteers can: 

  • code (Unity/C#)
  • work directly with students
  • assess effectiveness of technology in teaching
  • test newly-developed VR simulations  

Many of the opportunities associated with this project require no experience or prior knowledge, just curiosity! To join our team, please contact us below so we can add you to our Discord Server.

Future Goals - Outreach

We would love to expand this program beyond schools in the immediate area. This might include driving headsets to schools in rural areas in Illinois or to neighboring states, as well as helping schools that already have headsets implement this program. Our goal is to bring new technology and active research scientists to as many students as possible.

Future Goals - VR Development

We plan to make the developed simulation and the Unity project publicly available via GitHub. Our hope is to provide materials to people we are not able to directly reach, so they can design their own educational demonstrations. In addition, this content can serve as a base for others to make their own freely available simulations in VR using Unity.

Photo Gallery

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POINT VR hosted a demonstration of the intervention for the UIUC VR club. Pictured here, several students experience Spheres in the VR headsets simultaneously. Photo credit: Scott Perkins.

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Nijaid Arredondo, a graduate student volunteer on the outreach team answers a VR club member's physics questions at the demonstration for the VR club. Photo credit: Scott Perkins.

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Kristen Schumacher, a graduate student volunteer on the outreach team, discussing the science behind Spheres with several of the VR club members after they experienced the simulation. Photo credit: Scott Perkins.

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POINT VR hosted a table at the 2021 Midwest Relativity Meeting to show the Spheres simulation and explain the project to conference attendees. Pictured here, graduate student volunteers Kristen Schumacher and Nijaid Arredondo manage the table while Surabhi Sachdev and Nancy Aggarwal experience the simulation. Photo credit: Jessica L Raley.

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Surabhi Sachdev experiencing Spheres at the 2021 Midwest Relativity Meeting. Photo credit: Jessica L Raley.

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Graduate student volunteer Kristen Schumacher looks on as Thiago Assumpcao experiences the simulation at the 2021 Midwest Relativity Meeting. Photo credit: Jessica L Raley.

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Shawn Rosofsky experiencing Spheres at the 2021 Midwest Relativity Meeting. Photo credit: Jessica L Raley.

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Headsets on the table at the 2021 Midwest Relativity Meeting. Photo credit: Jessica L Raley.

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Conference poster from the 2021 Midwest Relativity Meeting. 

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