On Campus

At Syracuse University, more students are getting ahold of virtual reality

Colin Davy | Asst. Photo Editor

Nick Hodge, the president of 5th Medium, tries on a VR headset.

Jillian Cabrera peered down and only a dark space far below greeted him. He glanced to the side and red canyon walls enveloped him. He stood on a wooden bridge, its panels tied together and spaced unevenly apart, that stretched across the canyon mouth as the wind whistled through the gaps. No railing protected him.

The only way to get off the bridge was to step off it.

Maggie Nhan watched Cabrera, who is afraid of heights, stand motionless in the middle of a basement lab in Shaffer Art Building. She glanced at the computer monitor, which displayed the red canyon walls and bridge. He was hooked up to the HTC Vive, playing the virtual reality game Waltz of the Wizard.

Cabrera, clutching the Vive remotes, laughed nervously. “I’m in a room,” Cabrera said, rotating in place. All he needed to do was take one step to the side. “Wow, this is hard. My hands are actually sweating.”

Cabrera, a junior Syracuse University student, eventually took the step and was transported back to a wizard’s lab. He and Nhan, a sophomore, are computer art and animation majors who used the Vive to design their own virtual reality games last semester.

It’s just one on-campus initiative teaching students how to utilize VR software, as several pockets of the SU community have embraced the technology. SU introduced its first virtual reality course in fall 2014 in the College of Visual and Performing Arts. The S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications later introduced its Virtual Reality Storytelling course in the spring of 2015. There’s also a joint course in the College of Engineering and Computer Science and the School of Architecture that’s centered around virtual reality.

In addition to curriculum, SU’s football team previously used VR software to train its quarterbacks in 2015 and will be integrating another program this spring, said Mike Morrison, assistant director of athletics communications. Other projects include commercialized ventures, like imr.sv, launched last August by Sam Lewis, a Martin J. Whitman School of Management student.

Virtual reality’s current popularity began in 2010 with the development of the Oculus Rift prototype. The Rift and other VR systems allow users to interact in a virtual, computer-generated environment, where they no longer see their physical environments. VR differs from augmented reality, which overlays a physical space with digital elements, and 360 videos, which allow users to “rotate” in a video. These videos can be considered VR, but not all VR can be a 360 video.

Meyer Giordano, an instructor in VPA, taught CAR 230, “Topics in Computer Gaming I,” the course Cabrera and Nhan took. When Giordano first started teaching it in fall 2014, the software was so rudimentary that it was difficult to get the program running, he said. Now the technology has progressed to the point that he could show someone how to create a basic environment in five minutes.

“As the technology has advanced, teaching the class has become a lot more straightforward on the technical side, but because there’s more content now, there’s a lot of other directions to explore,” Giordano said.

Currently the cost of VR is restraining its expansion. Each high-capability system can cost more than $500. But Cabrera and Nhan said they are excited for the future of VR because it will appeal to a greater audience than typical video games. Instead of relying on controllers and buttons, users will be able to use their bodies.

The purpose of experimenting with VR is to have students push the technology to see what they can create, Giordano said. But as VR gets more commercialized, it loses the “frontier aspect” and he said he might find the technology less interesting. He could switch to teaching augmented reality, he said, which has not been very developed yet.

But Giordano said he is still attracted to the future of virtual reality, such as the idea that VR might limit consumer waste. Instead of buying physical clothes, he said, a user would buy clothes in the virtual world and just wear those.

“The more time we as humans spend in VR, the less time we’re spending trashing this planet,” he said.


School of Architecture/College of Engineering and Computer Science

On the second floor of Slocum Hall, 40 students sat clustered in the front of room 224. Their worktables lay abandoned, covered with paper and wooden objects, as sunlight streamed through the windows. Images of sensory experiences, geometric shapes and videos projected onto the wall.

Five students were presenting a virtual reality proposal, part of a joint architecture and engineering class taught by Amber Bartosh, an assistant professor of architecture, and Mark Povinelli, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science. The students are creating a Climate Disruptor Awareness Generator, which will be installed in April in E.S. Bird Library.

The Climate Disruptor Awareness Generator is meant to demonstrate to students the impact of climate change, with virtual reality and augmented reality adding an interactive component to the experience.

The VR/AR team is still in the early design stage for its contribution to the project, said Cliff Bourque, a graduate architecture student on the team. Right now, the group is focusing on the process of creating the elements, rather than the content.

Povinelli said that with the proper amount of real-world prototyping and testing, VR can add to the strength of the design process for engineers. Bartosh said she has been experimenting with VR to visualize things architects can’t see easily, like energy and solar radiation.

“It’s very difficult in architecture to study anything at full-scale,” Bartosh said. “We do almost everything either through models or drawings, and even in a digital model, it’s difficult to get a scale or perspective.”

Bartosh added later, “I’m always telling the students that right now VR is largely used for representation of simulation, but it’s not inconceivable to think of VR as a future material, the way that we think about physical materials.”


S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications

A card swipe protects the entrance to the Alan Gerry Center for Media Innovation lab while the Department of Public Safety monitors it. The room, tucked in the back of Newhouse 2, is stocked with Oculus Rifts, HTC Vives, Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VRs and 360 cameras.

So much new equipment comes into the lab that the glass case in the back is nicknamed the “digital petting zoo,” said Dan Pacheco, Peter A. Horovitz Chair in Journalism Innovation and spearhead of Newhouse’s VR courses.

But despite the high-tech equipment, students still sign out VR equipment with a pen and notebook.

The lab is where Asa Worthley, a junior Whitman student, came to work on his 360 video “Pale Blue Dot in 360: VR Carl Sagan.” The three-minute clip collages images of iconic people in a galaxy skyline, accompanied by a narration by Carl Sagan.

Worthley is a part of 5th Medium, the first virtual reality club at SU that works with The Daily Orange on 360 videos. Students of any major or discipline can join the club, giving students like him — who aren’t in Newhouse — support and access to the technology. The club has been working on projects like the Greek Peak Mountain Resort 360 video, where viewers can watch a ski lift and snowboard.

The innovation lab is also a space for students taking one of the two Newhouse virtual reality classes: Virtual Reality Storytelling or Introduction to 360 Video. Pacheco was first exposed to VR in 2012, when he met Nonny de la Peña, the “godmother of virtual reality,” he said.

Pacheco convinced her to come to SU to demonstrate it. After further exposure over the next few years, he asked his department head to create a VR storytelling class for spring 2015. Pacheco thought no one would sign up, but the class filled within a couple of days.

Now, about 160 students have taken either of the two classes. While mostly Newhouse students enroll, Pacheco said he leaves a few spots open for students from other colleges. The exposure students get is about the same at current media companies, he said.

“When I’ve taken students down to The New York Times, people at The New York Times are telling me, ‘Yeah, your students are pretty much at the same level as where we’re at,” Pacheco said.

Ken Harper, an associate professor of multimedia photography and design who taught the first 360 video course at Newhouse last semester, said the hardest part about teaching immersive technologies is that he is still learning himself. He said it isn’t uncommon to pick up skills on the weekend and then teach them in class the next week.

Harper and Pacheco said they created a faculty group for professors across the university who teach VR.

For journalists, the most promising aspect of VR is its ability to enhance storytelling, educate — like teaching students about the solar system — and its accessibility for less privileged people, Harper said.

And while there is need for caution about VR, like the possibility for addiction or tricking people into false memories, Pacheco said that in his experience, people don’t want to just “check out” of reality, but rather make reality better. Journalists need to start using immersive technology now, Pacheco and Harper said, because their content will define the ethical boundaries for the medium.

“My role in this is to keep the humanity in it,” Harper said. “I think if we could convey information, and offer up new worlds for people who otherwise couldn’t have them, if we could develop the storytelling techniques that further empathy, maybe we can make the world a little bit friendlier.”

— Sports Editor Tomer Langer contributed reporting to this story.


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