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Faculty Scholarship Grant Empowers Virtual Reality, 3D Printing Research

A student uses virtual reality headgear to explore a 3D world in a classroomWhat do sculpting, video games and 3D printing have in common? According to Drury professor Dr. Chris Branton, the answer could be: quite a lot.

Branton, an assistant Professor of Computer Science and Game Development, is one of seven Drury faculty members to receive a 2017-2018 Faculty Scholarship Initiative Grant. Branton is using the grant to support his research on Tangible Design for 3D Printing, a project which seeks to use virtual reality technology to benefit the process of 3D printing. 

“The aim of tangible computing,” says Branton. “is to combine the physical and digital, using people’s natural skills in the physical world to enhance their understanding and control of information.” 

He uses an abacus as a simple example of a tangible design. Users can easily manipulate the object to make calculations and solve math problems. The term tangible computing was originally coined by one of Branton’s colleagues at Louisiana State University. Now, he hopes to apply the concept to help casual designers of three-dimensional objects. 

“Our idea was what if we could take virtual reality and put somebody in a place where they can use their hands to build objects that you can then 3D print to make real?”

That idea was the inspiration for the first part of Branton’s project: creating a virtual environment where users can create three-dimensional objects as intuitively as they would shape a piece of clay. The project’s second phase will seek to make that digital object a physical reality. 

Branton is excited that Drury undergraduate students will be involved in conducting research and developing software to make this project possible. He hopes this will not only give students experience in their respective fields of study, but will introduce them to a kind technology that he believes will play an important role in the future.

“It’s something we’ve never really tried before,” says Andrew Snyder, one of the students who will be working with Branton. 

“Being able to print an object and hold it in your hand and knowing you held the same item in a game just a few minutes before will be very rewarding,” he says.

However, the process of 3D printing is not without its challenges.

“3D Printing, at this point, isn’t a reliable process,” says Branton. “You just have to print something and see how it works. And because of the way it’s done you end up with a lot of inconsistencies from one object to the next.”

By incorporating game engine physics into the design program, the project hopes to create a simulation software that will be able to determine if the designed object could successfully be printed in 3D. Branton describes how existing software might be adapted to analyze digital objects and reveal areas that are likely to create faults if the object were to be printed. Large overhangs, for example, are likely to slump or warp as they cool. By discovering these flaws in advance, makers can save time and resources that would otherwise be expended for wasteful failed printings.

Ultimately, the project’s goal is to make 3D printing more accessible to casual makers.

“People are doing this right now at national laboratories with super computers and super high-performance simulations for jet engine parts and the sorts of things that cost a lot to make,” Branton says. “For hobbyists or plastic printing, this sort of maker community, there isn’t anything like this.”

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