VILLANOVA, Pa. (CBS) — Villanova University is celebrating another successful year as students finish final exams and the school gets ready for commencement. One bright spot this year has been the increasing popularity of a high-tech piece of equipment on campus.
The technology is called CAVE, and it allows students at Villanova to travel the country, the world, even outer space without stepping foot off campus.
Nova’s CAVE, or Cave Automatic Virtual Environment, measures 18 feet across, 10 feet deep and 7.5 feet high.
Professor of Computer Science Frank Klassner says the CAVE is one of the biggest in the country and the only one with a retractable ceiling. Once in place, the CAVE transports students not only across space, but back in time, too.
One of the many scenes the school created is Old City Jerusalem around the time of Christ.
“When you walk inside the enclosure wearing 3-D movie glasses, it’s like you’re there,” Klassner says. “In the CAVE, you can walk around, look around, move around, and it’s as if you are immersed in the experience.”
Another experience takes students out of this world and on to Mars. The school created the visuals by using images on NASA’s website.
“We’ve taken all those pictures and put them together mathematically,” Klassner says.
After nabbing a $1.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the CAVE debuted at Villanova in late 2014.
Its popularity on campus continues to grow. More than a dozen courses, ranging from the sciences to the humanities, now take advantage of the virtual environments. Each semester, more and more teachers figure out how to work the CAVE into their curriculum. Over the last year alone, the university reports a 200 percent increase in the number of professors using the CAVE.
Freshman Megan Conway remembers her culture class in the CAVE vividly.
“We came in and actually looked around the Sistine Chapel and all the artwork everywhere, and also St. Peter’s Square,” Conway says.
Conway visited St. Peter’s Square in real life. Nova’s version blew her away.
“It felt like I was in there again,” she says. “I can attest to the legitimacy of how it looks. It was amazing.”
But the CAVE does more than just transport students to different places. For computer science students, it offers the opportunity to design.
Robert Serritella and Brendan McCann created an apartment crime scene for their senior project. Next semester, digital forensics students will use it to test the skills they’ve learned in class.
“These digital forensics students, they can go into an interactive crime scene,” Serritella says. “They can open drawers and look under surfaces.”
“I put my cursor over it and I click,” McCann describes. “It opens up, and there’s a flash drive in it.”
The possibilities are endless. The university has also created a simulated operating room where an entire group of physicians can train.
All that’s needed is a pair of glasses and an open mind.
“In a CAVE environment, I can have 10, 15, 20 people in there all talking with each other saying look at that, look at that,” Klassner says. “The questions start coming fast and furious.”