Interdisciplinary team creates historic experience in CITL VR showcase

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virtual view of Loewy press experienceThe Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning (CITL) Visualization Lab showcases the potential of truly immersive media. Donning one of their advanced VR headsets transports you out of Lehigh to another time and place. This year members of the Lehigh community and others had one such experience, virtually visiting a remarkable milestone in engineering history developed by an interdisciplinary Lehigh team from Engineering, Media Arts, Lehigh Libraries, and Education coordinated by materials science professor Wojtek Misiolek.

In the 1950s the U.S. Air Force needed a 50,000-ton forging press to create lightweight, strong, complex components for critical applications like jet aircraft wings. They awarded the contract to Loewy Engineering to design this largest-of-its-kind massive machine. Towering seven stories high and seven stories below ground level, this monster press is still in use and still important after more than half a century.

Lehigh Libraries Special Collections are the custodians of the Loewy archives, containing technical, historical, and personal records of the Loewy heritage. As members of the “Forging Ahead Through Engineering Leadership” Mountaintop Project team, curator Lois Black and digital archivist Alex Japha provided the text, numeric, and photographic detail needed to virtually reconstruct the monster press. Dr. Misiolek’s student, Jiayue Li, researched the Loewy archive’s materials science underlying the structural changes a metal undergoes during forging. The task of operationally recreating the gigantic machine fell to Media Arts senior, John Flory.

John had been developing his 3D modeling and rendering skills in the Baker Center VR lab, so he was able to accurately recreate the Loewy Press as a 3-dimensional structure with moving parts and realistic, weathered, industrial textures. Dr. Scott Garrigan, emeritus professor of instructional technology in the College of Education, suggested to the team that a functional Loewy press simulation could be created in virtual reality. Over summer 2018, John developed this experience to the point where the giant forge can be operated in a realistic VR environment.

Instructional technologist Steve Sakasitz of Library and Technology Services supported John’s installation of the Loewy Press experience in the CITL VR lab. There it’s been experienced by the head of the United Nations Virtual Reality program, a leadership team from Bethlehem’s National Museum of Industrial History, and many more students and faculty. As the project continues to develop, the team hopes that the inventing engineer’s daughter, head of the Loewy Foundation, will be experience the recreation of her father’s masterpiece.

The team will continue the development of the Loewy VR experience through a spring Creative Inquiry + Mountaintop Initiative CINQ course and hopefully a 2019 Mountaintop Project. The goals of the project include training engineering students in materials science, exploring VR as an educational medium, and the creation of a lasting memorial to engineering excellence. Since John Flory will graduate this spring, the team is looking for a student who is familiar with 3D modeling and VR and is interested in learning more.