Jul 26 2018

Prepare Your IT Infrastructure for Immersive Learning

Networking, storage and security all play a role as colleges seek to expand virtual reality opportunities.

There’s no question that virtual reality is gaining traction in higher education. As it continues to do so, VR will place new demands on campus IT infrastructure. Spotting blips on the radar and planning ahead can help institutions take full advantage of this emerging teaching tool and ensure that VR remains a source of excitement and possibility — not a source of IT headaches. 

A recent survey from Internet2, a nonprofit consortium, shows that 28 percent of higher education institutions have some level of VR deployment, and another 18 percent describe themselves as fully deployed.

That leaves roughly half of the institutions that are still dipping a toe in the water. Wherever colleges fall on the spectrum of adoption, it’s a safe bet that sooner rather than later nearly all of them will have some type of VR presence on campus

One factor driving this momentum is the increasing affordability and diversity in the VR headset market. Users have more options to choose from and the cost is easier to justify, even for budget-strapped departments. The latest advance is the stand-alone headset. Requiring neither a smartphone nor a cable to attach to a computer, it takes the immersive experience to the next level. The breadth of VR content is also expanding, giving instructors more ways to incorporate these tools into their classrooms.

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Plan Ahead for VR’s Networking and Storage Demands

VR experiences are both immersive and compute-intensive. As more faculty and students engage with them, networking will see intense new demands. Internet2’s Ben Fineman, a program manager for cloud collaboration services, talked about the details of that demand during a presentation at a recent UBTech conference. 

According to Fineman’s calculations, one minute of VR content could require up to 40 terabytes of bandwidth (uncompressed) or 500 gigabytes (compressed). Most likely, that bandwidth will run across the wireless network. Fineman posed a big question to listeners at UBTech: “Can our wireless networks handle it when every student comes to campus with a wireless standalone headset?” It’s a question worth thinking and talking about now, before it becomes an issue. 

Storage is another concern. Colleges are already starting to offer programs that teach students to develop VR applications. Such curricula will prepare students for a burgeoning career field, but they’ll also require more robust resources. Some of the same solutions that colleges use to support other compute-intensive software, such as virtualized environments that give students the access they need without taxing storage capacity, may also ease the burden of VR-intensive programs.

Campus VR Spaces Must Be Secure

Security, as always, should also be on the radar. VR headsets, just like other Internet of Things devices on campus, can introduce vulnerabilities if they are not properly protected. In planning where students may use VR on campus, institutions also need to think about physical safety. The nature of the VR experience takes users out of this realm and into a virtual one, which could leave them vulnerable if they (and their belongings) are not in a safe, protected area. 

Simply deciding how, where and when to offer VR is another decision for administrators to consider. The logistics of physical spaces for VR vary, and colleges may offer VR in a number of different ways depending on users’ needs.

Internet2’s research shows that 55 percent of colleges that have VR resources do so in a dedicated space, 51 percent use a movable or ad hoc space, 38 percent let users check out VR equipment and 26 percent use mobile carts that can move around campus.

We often talk about the transformative nature of educational technology, and VR is poised to deliver on that promise. To be sure, most educators are still at the beginning of the learning curve with VR, and that may be true for many IT professionals as well. But by collaborating with administrators now and being proactive in laying the necessary groundwork, IT staff can help to usher in this exciting new age.

This article is part of EdTech: Focus on Higher Education’s UniversITy blog series.


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