Here comes the sun
Welding students collaborate to help inventor build virtual beach environment
Typically, the students in Casey Mann's welding program at Minnesota State College Southeast get hands-on experience working on projects that will be used in the "real world."
But last spring, they collaborated with inventor Ross Crandall to help him create an imaginary world. He needed the welding program's help to build a prototype of a pod-like, all encompassing audio/visual immersion suite.
Dubbed "Soleil" (French for "sun"), the pod provides a climate-controlled environment where a user would not only see and hear a beach, but would even feel the heat of the sun and the moisture of the summer air -- all in a luxurious space insulated from outside noise and distraction.
"I named it 'Soleil' because we all miss the sun during the long dark, cold winter. Would escaping to a beach environment -- even virtually -- help people with seasonal affective disorder? Could it help people deal with stress?" Ross wondered.
Building a prototype
Ross built the original prototype for his invention himself: an enclosed wooden cabinet equipped with a zero gravity chair and a ceramic heat lamp. An Oculus Rift virtual reality headset provided a 360 degree view of a beach and the sound of the waves.
Pleased with the results of his first tests, Ross started designing a more advanced version of the pod. It called for a metal framework to be encased in a plastic shell. Inside the soundproofed environment, the user would relax in a custom reclining seat. Sophisticated temperature and humidity controls would enhance the Oculus virtual reality experience.
But where to obtain the first part of the puzzle, the metal framework? Ross talked with Neela Mollgaard of Red Wing Ignite, who connected him with Minnesota State College Southeast.
Ross and welding instructor Casey Mann worked on CAD drawings for the framework. Two spring semester students, Jack Mercer and Parker Hale, constructed the frame in the Winona campus welding lab. There was a lot of trial and error along the way.
"At points we had to take things apart and start over," says Casey. "It could be frustrating for the students, but I wanted them to learn that the first idea is not always going to be right. You might have to make changes, especially with a prototype."
Refining the concept
At the same time, Ross has been refining his ideas for the virtual environment. The hardware and software are programmed to measure the user's biometrics (such as heart rate and breathing) and tailor the Oculus Rift experience to help create a state of relaxation.
By now, you're probably wondering when you can get a Soleil pod for your house. The answer is probably never.
"The unit is really designed for wellness centers and medical use, not for personal use," Ross explains. "It might be possible to put a sauna in your house, but the Soleil pod will be too large. "
Besides, the next prototype is still under construction. Hopefully it will be ready by next winter... when we'll all be looking for an opportunity to escape to a warmer climate, if only a virtual one.
Top: Parker Hale and Jack Mercer worked on the pod framework.
Middle: A CAD rendering of the pod by Ross Crandall.
Bottom: Jack and Parker pose with the completed framework, ready for delivery to the inventor.