Virtual Reality in the Classroom
Virtual Reality in the Classroom Educause 2016

In 2016 my good friend and colleague Kelly Egan and I had the opportunity to deliver a talk on immersive media at that year’s Educause Conference. Between the release of the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Google Cardboard platforms there was a great deal of interest in how to integrate VR into the classroom environment. As luck would have it Brown was about to celebrate the 20th anniversary of The Cave, an immersive VR environment that has played an important role for researchers across campus. This convergence was a perfect opportunity to showcase the amazing work being done by Brown faculty and staff, and highlight the vast potential for applying virtual reality (and immersive media as a whole) to education.

The following interviews were included in our talk, and are being presented in their entirety.

In the fall of 2015 we were contacted by Professor Vazira Zamindar about using Google Cardboard in a lecture course. The New York Times had just sent out 1.3 million Google Cardboard units as part of the launch of their NYTVR app, and Professor Zamindar was interested in sharing the stereoscopic 360 video, “The Displaced”, with her class. We were intrigued by the opportunities presented by the Google Cardboard concept, and with less than 100 students in the class we felt this was a manageable deployment. However, by the time the class officially started in the spring semester the enrollment had ballooned to over 200, and we suddenly found ourselves scrambling to tackle the logistics of ensuring that every student had not only had a Google Cardboard viewer and phone, but also had headphones, the NYTVR app, and “The Displaced” video already installed.

Given everything that went into the lecture, we made sure to have one of our staff videographers on hand to record everything. Based on the success of the presentation I was asked to edit down the footage into the video above. This in turn lead us to consider presenting at Educause later that year, which sparked the larger series.

This was one of the more exciting and challenging videos we produced for our immersive media series. The YURT uses stereoscopic rear projection to create it’s VR environments, which is difficult to capture on camera. We ended up having to return to the YURT and reshoot multiple times before we were able to get suitable footage. Meanwhile, Professor Laurel Bestock was a wonderfully energetic and engaging subject who’s rapid speech patterns made editing a very surgical affair.

The payoff was a compelling endorsement of the YURT as a cutting edge research facility. Professor Bestock’s enthusiasm for the space is palpable, and her story of going from tentative participant to evangelist was the kind of promotion we were hoping to capture in the series.

I had the good fortune of working with Professor John Cayley for many years prior to putting this video together, and he is one of the faculty that make Brown a truly world class institution. His work with Digital Language Arts requires some explanation as it represents a drastic departure from what many would consider literary arts. At its core, Professor Cayley’s work recognizes that text has a profound impact on how ideas are consumed, processed, and interpreted. How we read a paperback novel is very different from how we read a magazine or newspaper. With the emergence of the personal computer and the internet, a vast new array of textual formats have emerged and along with them entirely new methods of consuming the written word.

The Cave (Brown’s first immersive VR system, constructed in 1997) has provided Professor Cayley with the ability to take these ideas to another level. Thanks to the three walls of stereoscopic projection, John Cayley and his students can create works that take on architectural proportions. Poems are not simply something to be read, but moved through and interacted with. Sentences become horizons, syllables rain. Having to edit such a profound array of dizzying visuals was both a challenge and a joy. I don’t know if I could ever do the original content justice, but I am grateful to have had the opportunity to try.

Adam Blumenthal was named Brown University’s Virtual Reality Artist in Residence in the summer of 2016, and his studio happened to be adjacent to our lab in the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts. Adam quickly became a good friend and colleague as we helped him to settle into the space and get his bearings. From the moment he arrived Adam was an exciting presence in the building and we enjoyed getting updates on his research into the historic burning of the Gaspe. While our interview took place early in his time at Brown, the excitement Adam brought to VR at Brown made him a natural fit for our project.

Brown University’s history with VR and immersive media goes all the way back to 1997 when faculty from the applied math, chemistry, cognitive science, computer science, geology, and physics departments came together to design and build the Cave. At the time the Cave’s seven stereoscopic projectors pushed the boundaries of both technology and budget. It’s successor, the YURT, utilizes 69 stereoscopic projectors to create a continuous projection across the ceiling, floor, and walls of a domed structure capable of accommodating up to ten viewers. When the YURT finally came online in 2015 it was significantly behind schedule and over budget. It also had the misfortune of competing directly with the first wave of personal VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.

While this video was produced as part of the larger “VR in the Classroom” project, it also presented an opportunity for the Center for Computation and Visualization (the group responsible for the Cave and the YURT), to connect to a broader audience and educate the university on what set the YURT apart from the new VR devices that were coming onto the market. Having had the opportunity to engage with a wide variety of technologies as part of this project, I was genuinely blown away by what I experienced in the YURT, and I am glad that I could help advocate for the CCV through this project.