Dr. Tim Rhodus

For the past three years, Dr. Tim Rhodus, a professor at Ohio State University’s Department of Horticulture and Crop Sciences, has assisted his colleague, Dr. Claudio Pasian, in running Ohio State’s annuals trial. To help attendees better interact with the trial, Rhodus developed an app that allowed visitors to walk through the gardens and evaluate the trial from a smartphone or tablet.

“They could go through the gardens and just tap, tap, tap, record the scores and transfer it to a website we were keeping,” Rhodus says. “[Claudio] had a pencil-and-paper approach that took more effort and was more expensive.”

For this year’s trial, Rhodus wanted to take digital interaction with the trial to a new level. During OSU’s spring semester, he was teaching his students about virtual reality (VR) using Google Street View. In his class, students had to create 10 VR tours consisting of photos of Ohio State’s campus and locations they consider important. Then, the students had to make an introductory video for their virtual tour and package the entire project on YouVisit.com, a cloud-based virtual reality hosting website.

It was this project that spurred Rhodus to develop a VR trials tour. Work started in the middle of May and was completed by summer, when OSU’s trial was opened to the public.

“Even though you could have a wonderful close-up shot of the nicely new colored foliage or the ruffled edge of the flower, it doesn’t put you there,” Rhodus says. “I think particularly in full screen, this approach of VR really lets you feel what the place is like on that day.”

A career in innovation

As an undergrad at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, Rhodus received a business degree. From there, he worked in a commercial greenhouse for four years before receiving his master’s degree and Ph.D. from Ohio State’s Agricultural Economics Department.

After receiving tenure in 1994, Rhodus switched his entire focus to websites and utilizing the internet.

“I decided I wanted to go in a new direction and that was the time that the World Wide Web was being developed, as were virtual browsers and then setting up a server,” he says.

He and a team built PlantFacts.osu.edu, which Rhodus says was the first internet search engine strictly for horticulture in the U.S. Extension communication websites were indexed, as was an early image database. Both projects were funded by the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) higher education challenge grants — a program that “involves a creative or non-traditional approach toward addressing that need,” according to the USDA.

In his classes, Rhodus aimed to show his students that there was more than just word processing and PowerPoint on computers, particularly in horticulture. When he was interested in a new development, he’d find a way to work it into the class.

VR also happens to be a longtime fascination for Rhodus. In 1996, using QuickTime VR 1.0 software from Apple, he made a VR catalog with 50 cultivars in it. It was not until recent technology improvements that VR could be used beyond the original endeavor.

The VR trial shows the viewers each plant’s genus, name and breeder when it appears on the screen.

How it was made and how it works

Rhodus used his class’ project as a trial to see if using a VR display could work for tours. What he found was that he could, but that it would require using different software. So, instead of using YouVisit, the trial VR was put on its own server and built using software to digitally stitch photos together and another program to build navigation tools.

Attendees can view OSU’s plant trial using a computer, smartphone or VR headset.

The trial itself took four or five days to build — one to take all the photography, another three or four to construct the VR. After some adjustments, the VR trials were made headset-friendly just before it was launched.

The entire trial consists of more than 400 cultivars with 224 available in the VR trials. When using it, viewers can rotate the screen 360 degrees to see the entire garden. And when a specific plant appears on the screens, its genus, name and breeder are shown.

In short: The entire VR trial garden is accessible to anyone anywhere in the world, so long as they have access to the internet.

There are aspects of the VR trial garden Rhodus wants to improve — namely, he’d like to speed up the building process and then showcase different days of the trial — but he sees this year as the first step toward something new.

“These are real photographs, real plants and real flowers versus the 3D drawings that you would get in a computer game,” Rhodus says. “That’s the goal — to let you feel and see the look of the trials.”

The VR trial gardens can be viewed at bit.ly/2fvBich.

Chris is assistant editor of sister publication Greenhouse Management magazine.