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Calvin Student Builds a Jedi Trainer
posted May 15, 2007

One Calvin College senior graduating this May is leaving a whole world behind him where up-and-coming computer science students can test themselves: It's a virtual reality Jedi trainer.

Josh Holtrop watches a padawan learnerJosh Holtrop, an honors graduate in computer science and math major from Holland, spent a year building the immersive environment. The Jedi trainer-inspired by a scene in Star Wars- is his senior project in computer science.

Holtrop is not, however, an obsessed Star Wars fan.

"I like them all," he responds evenly when asked about his favorite movie of the series. The Jedi trainer, he says, was inspired by a similar environment, one of a dozen Calvin computer science professor Joel Adams was recruited to test drive last year at Carnegie Mellon University.

"We kind of ran with that idea and changed it to fit our budget," Holtrop says.

The project he devised consists of a personal computer, a headset and a magnetic field, suspended from the ceiling. Magnetic field sensors, strapped to both the headset and the light saber, transmit the coordinate system reference point of the user back to the system.

The environment simulates the experience of Luke Skywalker trying to deflect laser shots from an orbiting droid while blindfolded in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

"You are inside an environment you could look around in," Holtrop explains. "There is a droid that hovers around you and intermittently shoots light pulses toward the player."

The user-Padawan learner in Star Wars speak-can test her or himself at several levels of difficulty.

The actual Jedi trainer application took only about fifteen percent of the year's work he put into the virtual environment, Holtrop says. The bulk of the work was research and setting up the hardware and developing an infrastructure to make other virtual reality applications easy to create.

The completed Jedi trainer stacks up favorably against the Carnegie Mellon version, Adams says, even lacking sound (on which Holtrop is still working).

Josh Holtrop recently scored a perfect 200 out of a possible 200 points on a nationwide test for students graduating with degrees in computer science.

The test was the major field exam in computer science, administered by Educational Testing Service (ETS).

Holtrop's perfect score wasn't the only high mark for Calvin seniors however. As a whole the Calvin seniors who took the test scored above the 95th percentile.

“This exam gauges where we are relative to other computer science programs that took the test,” says computer science department chair Keith Vander Linden about the test, which was taken by 33 institutions around the nation. “Ninety-five percent of the institutions who took the test had average scores below ours. That’s good.”

The computer science exam tests in all areas of the field: programming, algorithms and systems.

Calvin’s high marks are a testament to the excellence of the college’s program, Vander Linden says.

Calvin was among the first Christian colleges accredited by ABET in computer science, and it is the only Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) school with an ABET accreditation for its computer science program. Calvin remains among the smallest schools accredited by ABET.

He adds that Holtrop's achievement is the more impressive given that the Carnegie model was built by an interdisciplinary team of students using existing hardware.

"Josh was one student building it over the course of a semester. He had to actually build the library that programs will use to create to these kind of environments," Adams says. "He had to build the hardware underlayer, which they didn't have to do. He had to build a middle layer of software to use the hardware, and then he built this application to go on top of that. It's an excellent project."

It's also a versatile project. All sorts of applications can be built on top of the basic system Holtrop created says Adams.

"You can use this to model any sort of 3-D environment, whether it's a room, a molecule, a galaxy, a planet. We're hoping other students will use this as a springboard."

Indeed, a computer graphics class has already used the system. Students built 3-D graphical environments, and Holtrop's system let them walk around inside the rooms they built.

Other groups of computer science students have tested themselves via Holtrop's trainer, as have members of Calvin's Computer Science Department Strategic Partners Council.

"Most of them take about two minutes to get used to the environment. Once they start using it, they get better at the game. Everybody's bad at it the first sixty seconds," Holtrop says. "My mother actually has the highest score for a beginner."

Holtrop-who himself recently scored a perfect 200 out of 200 on the ETS major field exam for computer science-says he enjoyed building the Jedi trainer.

"I guess I like the immersive nature of the application so that I can interact with a virtual environment that I've created. I like 3-D graphics," he says. "It also uses many applications of mathematics, and as that was my second major, I was able to use those pretty well."

Following his May 19 graduation, Holtrop will work at Gentex Corp. in Zeeland where he has already interned during his Calvin career. He also hopes to continue his exploration of open-source software, operating systems that permit tinkering by any number of programmers.

"I prefer to use open-source tools and to extend them," Holtrop says. "That kind of flexibility is good for people because they have more choice in the kind of programs that are used and more opportunity to voice their opinion about how things should work."

Holtrop's professors hope he gets restless.

"He is one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet, and he's one of the best students we've ever had," Adams said. "We hope he gets really bored and wants to go back to grad school. He's really a very gifted guy. He could be solving a lot of problems in the world, I think."

~words and photo by Calvin staff writer Myrna Anderson

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