Many design firms today have what they call a VR lounge — a space where employees can experiment with virtual and augmented reality applications to help colleagues and clients better visualize, experience and understand the impact of design decisions.

As technology evolves, student learning needs to evolve with it. A new College of Design facility provides students with opportunities to explore and experiment with the latest immersive technology and help determine where that tech goes next.

Chad Surprenant (BS 1993 Civil Engineering), together with his wife, Tara, and children Noah, a freshman in civil engineering at Iowa State; Ellie, a junior in high school; and Caleb, a high school freshman, gave the College of Design a $150,000 gift to transform the former spray room and center space on the building’s third floor into a 600-square-foot collaborative environment called the Surprenant Ingenuity Lab.

Surprenant is the president and CEO of ISG — a Mankato, Minnesota-based design firm co-founded by his late father, Ken (BS 1966 Civil Engineering), in 1973, that now has 10 offices in four Midwestern states and recently created its own “ingenuity space” where visualization specialists can collaborate.

“We’re now using VR not only for the aesthetic aspects of projects but for far more practical reasons,” Surprenant said. “For example, when we’re working with people in a plant, with VR they can see the functional processes of the building; then they can identify potential operational problems that may affect the design, equipment or staffing. VR helps us evaluate the nuts-and-bolts use of a facility.”

Initially, the family intended to split their Iowa State gift between the Colleges of Engineering and Design. “Because we’re a multidisciplinary firm with business in both architecture and engineering, we wanted to support initiatives that were emblematic of how we built our company. We did a College of Design tour in summer 2017 and kind of fell in love,” Surprenant said.

That tour, he said, is where the ingenuity lab idea first germinated. “When we met Mike Miller and he was showing us various needs in the college, the VR lab was a metal cart with a computer and goggles. Seeing that specific need and knowing we could do something transformative made it very easy to commit the whole gift to Design.”

Designed to evolve

Miller, director of operations for the College of Design, worked with Surprenant to realize the family’s vision.

“We agreed to shift the focus to a space where the newest stuff happens, whatever that may be. Right now, virtual and augmented reality are the things we want to do, and the space is designed around that, but it needs to be flexible,” Miller said.

For the past three years, the college’s VR capabilities consisted of a mobile cart equipped with a computer and Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets.

“With mobile carts, the benefit is being able to move the technology where needed. On the down side, equipment setup is more complicated,” Miller said. “In the new space, we can install the equipment permanently, so when you arrive it’s just a matter of getting yourself ready, not the space.”

“Additionally, we’ve upgraded to the newest wireless headsets by Oculus and HTC, which allow users to move untethered from the lab into the review/workspace. And we’ll be investing in an augmented reality headset,” he said.

Featuring an overhead door on one wall, the lab features an LED whiteboard and a high-end workstation capable of running the latest software and powering the latest devices. The center workspace is equipped with a freestanding DIRTT wall system clad in whiteboards and an embedded 70-inch HD monitor, which can be used in tandem with activity in the ingenuity lab when the overhead door is open.

With the door closed, the lab and workspace can be used independently. Rolling tables and storage can be moved to reconfigure the space. Everything is modular, adjustable and adaptable so the space can evolve as technology changes.

Explore and experiment

Systems support specialist Mitch Versteeg, who has experience in high-end computer graphics and VR, helped choose the lab’s equipment and set up the space. He will oversee day-to-day usage and provide technical support to students and faculty. During open hours, students will be able to explore and experiment with the technology, brainstorm potential projects and bounce ideas around with him.

“This technology is something you have to experience to see how it could influence and affect your designs. Oftentimes, people don’t know what can be done, or they want to do too much for their current skill level. I can help them explore the options,” Versteeg said.

“The lab will help students establish their VR/AR knowledge base,” he said. “They can’t jump immediately from an original idea or design to VR or AR; it’s going to take technical expertise, and they may need to find other people with that expertise to work with or simplify their design.”

The ingenuity lab will provide opportunities to explore not only VR and AR but also 3D scanning and other technologies. Games will also be part of the learning experience.

“Much of the VR industry so far has been focused on game development. Games are really important to experience VR and AR, but we’re not going to make it a gaming club,” Versteeg said. “We’ll use games to help people understand immersive technology better and illustrate possibilities for their own work.”

Educate and support

For Surprenant, the Iowa State project echoes the firm’s efforts to educate and support the next generation of designers.

“We’re not only using VR for clients to be able to visualize their projects better; we have been using it to get students interested in design and what’s possible with technology. We’re very active in the Waterloo (Iowa), Mankato and Apple Valley (Minnesota) public schools, providing them opportunities to see the types of work we do and the tools we employ to get our work done,” he said.

“It’s a natural extension to provide Iowa State students with opportunities to experiment and develop new uses for technology or new technology itself. I’m looking forward to seeing how students will use the lab in ways I had no idea could even be done.”


Kim McDonough, ISU Foundation / Design Administration, (515) 294-7272, kmcdonough@foundation.iastate.edu
Mitch Versteeg, Design IT Services, (515) 294-5841, mversteg@iastate.edu
Heather Sauer, Design Communication, (515) 294-9289, hsauer@iastate.edu