AVON — When sixth-graders from St. Agnes School needed to know how to create a virtual-reality movie to finish a project for the annual Space Day contest, they decided to call a world-renowned virtual-reality expert.
Luckily, it wasn’t a long-distance call. Pat St. Clair lives in Henrietta.
St. Clair — whose other projects include creating an interactive view of the cockpit of each airplane in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington — brought his state-of-the-art equipment to the school Jan. 28 to film a virtual-reality movie as part of the students’ project.
The Space Day contest, sponsored in part by such organizations as NASA and Lockheed Martin, presents several real-world challenges that NASA faces. The Avon students tackled the problem of how to keep astronauts from getting out of shape while they are exploring a planet or moon in the solar system and are in low-gravity situations.
“In space, you can lose body mass and muscle tone,” said student Matt Sancilio.
For their project, students were directed to create a concept for a functional but fun exercise machine or system for astronauts to use in space. Students did not need to actually build the equipment, but just demonstrate how the concept might work. Their idea was to add bicycle pedals to an abdominal exerciser and include stretchy resistance bands to work additional muscle groups. The entire machine would fold up, which the students said would help save space in a cramped shuttle.
The St. Agnes group has been working on its project since September. Recently, the students hit on an entertaining addition to their exercise machine.
“We figured it would get kind of boring to do that up in space, so we included a virtual-reality helmet,” said student Zack Rizzolo.
Team members said they got their inspiration from the Nintendo Wii, a movement-based video-game platform.
The virtual-reality movie shown in the helmet would be interactive and would make the exerciser think he or she was working out in a familiar, terrestrial setting. For example, an exerciser could be pedaling the Tour de France alongside Lance Armstrong or running along familiar streets as friends and loved ones waved from the sidelines.
The helmet also would display the exerciser’s vital statistics such as heart rate and distance traveled and include ventilation to cool the person as he or she exercised.
The students decided to name their project Irv, in honor of teammate Miranda Stoddard’s grandfather, a turret gunner in the Army Air Corps during World War II.
“Until he died in 2004, he wanted to be an astronaut,” Miranda said.
Principal Benjamin Gerald said he was impressed by how respectful students were when sharing ideas. In addition to Miranda, Matt and Zach, team members include Jesse Bennett, Nathan Taylor, Mariel Brinkerhoff, Becky Drexler and Graham Masi.
“It was discussed very maturely,” Gerald said. “It’s a learning process as well.”
Space Day winners will be honored May 4 at the National Air and Space Museum. Gerald said the team is hoping to be able to go to Washington for a third time, noting that St. Agnes teams also won trips to the capital in 2004 and 2006.
Last year’s team, the Space Spectors, received the most creative award for designing a machine to reach items in space. Several students from last year’s team also are on this year’s team as well.
In addition to a trip to the nation’s capital, winners get to hang out with astronauts, Gerald said, adding that one of the highlights for previous St. Agnes winners was speaking with John Glenn.
“The children were fascinated by this amazing gentleman,” he said.
This year’s team was assisted by Melissa Savino, educational-technology coordinator, and Gertrude Houston, an award-winning videographer and aunt of three St. Agnes students.
The competition rules encourage students to consult with experts as they research their projects, which is why the students contacted St. Clair. A 14-year veteran of virtual-reality photography, St. Clair said the techniques he uses are cutting-edge and not widely available.
“I don’t think there are four people in the world that work with this setup,” said St. Clair, who teaches and writes about virtual-reality developments.
To film the movie, he attached a video camera to a special lens that used a curved, parabolic mirror to capture a full-circle image.
He demonstrated the concept by holding a hand bell upside down. If the bell were shiny, the students would be able to see all around them in a circle, he said. The bell-shaped mirror reflects into a lens that is specially made to capture the image.
Interactive virtual-reality photography and panoramas can be used on Web pages that sell or promote everything from sunglasses to landmarks and hotel rooms to museums, St. Clair said.
St. Clair was introduced to photography in the fourth grade when he won a camera. A graduate of Rochester Institute of Technology’s noted photography program, he now travels the world taking digital photographs for a host of corporate clients.
“I get to go to some pretty cool places,” he told the students. “This started when I was a young person. I took one step outside of my comfort zone.”
He began his company, St. Clair Photo Imaging, in 1991, teaches at RIT and Rush-Henrietta High School, and is a member of Good Shepherd Church in Henrietta.
He said he jumped at the chance to help the St. Agnes students in part because he supports Catholic schools, which several of his children attended. Also, he wanted to encourage the students to continue to seek out experts, just as he did when he was starting out.
“You should never hesitate to call the best person in the world for doing what you want to do,” St. Clair said.