Virtual Reality, Real Business

Tennessee Tech grows a small media lab into a full service, self-sustaining innovation business.
Virtual Reality, Real Business

If there’s one word futurists believe will define the workplace of tomorrow, it’s “innovation.” But how can business schools turn students into innovators? At Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, one important strategy is now iCube, where students are paid to tackle real business projects as part of multidisciplinary teams. iCube began 25 years ago as a small technology and design center within TTU’s College of Business. “We started getting involved in economic development, public policy campaigns, traffic safety marketing, and environmental sustainability projects in the region,” says iCube director Kevin Liska. “Now, we have the opportunity to move into the virtual reality space.”

Housed in a 12,000-square-foot space on the third floor of TTU’s library, iCube—whose name stands for “imagine, inspire, and innovate”—is a fullblown idea factory where interdisciplinary teams of students complete projects for real-world firms. The lab features three spaces: a meeting and brainstorming area; an immersive virtual reality (VR) studio equipped with a VisCube CAVE projection VR display system, Oculus Rift 3-D headsets, and 360-degree and 3-D video cameras; and a maker space with 3-D printers and prototyping machines. It employs 14 full-time staff who market the center and manage projects, as well as approximately 30 paid student interns. The students, who come from all disciplines, cycle through iCube internships as projects demand. They apply for these positions as they would for any job, and they work on these projects outside their usual coursework.

The center attracts grant money to fund faculty projects and staff salaries and benefits, but client projects represent its main source of revenue. The center charges anywhere from US$50,000 for a straightforward marketing campaign up to $500,000 to design VR experiences. Last year, iCube projects for regional organizations generated nearly US$1.6 million in revenue; those revenues stay with the center, making it self-sustaining.

To date, students have completed high-profile projects for nonprofits, for-profits, and government agencies. Here’s just a sampling:

  • In a project for the Tennessee Aquarium, MBA students created a campaign to promote its new electric eel exhibit, based on the novel idea to give the eel his own Twitter account. In the eel’s tank, they placed a microphone that detects the sound of the eel’s electrical charge. Each time the eel produces 800 volts or more, a computer program randomly selects a message from a database and tweets it from the Twitter account @EelectricMiguel.
  • In a larger project for the aquarium, an interdisciplinary team comprising students from the MBA program and marketing, accounting, computer science, education, and environmental studies departments created the “River Ecosystem Conservation VR experience.” In it, players immerse themselves in a river to see the effects of pollution on aquatic life; they can jump out of the river to remove the source of pollution and return to see how quickly the river returns to normal.
  • Most recently, iCube students created a VR game for the Detroit-based nonprofit Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow (LIFT), a consortium that promotes technological advancement in manufacturing. Because automobile manufacturing faces a worker shortage, LIFT asked iCube to design a VR game that would pique students’ interest in working in that industry. In response, an iCube team created “LIFT Assembly Line,” which immerses players in a virtual, 3-D automobile manufacturing plant where they compete to see who can build the lightest car that travels the farthest. Groups of eighth-grade students now come to LIFT’s headquarters to play the game on eight VR stations. “By 2025, all cars in the U.S. must get 55 miles per gallon, and the only way to achieve that is if they weigh half as much as they do now,” says Liska. “We built this virtual factory to introduce eighth graders to what it’s like to work in that environment.”

Creating such educational VR experiences has quickly become an iCube specialty. Students currently are working with medical professionals to design VR designs of the human lungs and heart to raise awareness of the effects of smoking and obesity; with representatives of a Cherokee village site in Tennessee to create a VR experience that will allow people to take 3-D tours of the village as it once was; and with safety officials to create simulations of a home during fires and tornadoes. One student team is working with the state of Alabama on an educational VR project that will allow children to explore the underwater environment of a large dam. The students recently visited the site of the dam project, currently under construction, to take photographs and speak with representatives of Alabama’s school system to determine the learning outcomes they would like the VR experience to achieve.

Liska is excited about Google’s recent release of Google Cardboard, a device that allows users to turn a smartphone into a VR headset. Costing only about $20, compared to $375 for an Oculus Rift headset, Google Cardboard is likely to increase the number of VR projects brought to iCube. Already the lab is working with the university to create a virtual tour of the campus. Then, the school plans to send out TTU-branded Google Cardboard devices to prospective students, so they can use their smartphones to take immersive 3-D video tours of campus from their homes.

The beauty of iCube is the way students all work together so naturally to create such exciting solutions, says Liska. “We have computer science students doing the programming, graphic artists sitting next to them doing the design, marketing students working on the campaigns—these are students who in the past would not have been working side by side. They would not have been working with an aquarium or with Alabama on a $110 million dam project.”

Tom Payne, dean of the College of Business, is passionate about the internal and external partnerships that iCube inspires. Such partnerships provide opportunities for applied faculty research that contributes to regional economic development, as well as dozens of internships for business students, who fill approximately 50 percent of iCube’s intern positions. The collaborative space also attracts the attention of potential students, their parents, and organizations throughout the region.

The business school comes to iCube with its own projects, whether it’s to develop its website, manage the messaging for its public video boards, or deploy a site connecting students with employers. Recently, an iCube team developed an automated system that tracks student registration and completion for the ETS Major Field Test in Business and the California Critical Thinking Skills Test. It also automatically emails students with reminders, confirmations, and explanations of the tests and their importance

“If we had gone to an outside firm to create that system, it would have cost us thousands of dollars,” Payne says. “The returns to us have been phenomenal.”

Currently, iCube is reaching its limit in terms of handling the number of projects it attracts, and Payne foresees larger, more complex projects coming through the door. He is working with iCube’s directors to scale up the lab’s operations and create a more formal pricing model. “We want to move it past the entrepreneurial stage to run it more like a corporate business,” says Payne. “But we don’t want to quench its entrepreneurial spirit.”

Visit to take a virtual tour of TTU’s iCube center.