Technology is often criticized for its isolating effects and it’s easy to make that argument when texting has replaced talking and people retreating into their phones instead of interacting IRL (in real life.)
But a new field of study at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Middle Tennessee State University is harnessing an emerging technology to help people better understand each other.
At UTC, students in the Department of Computer Science are developing virtual reality programs that will one day help train firefighters for real-world fires. Students visit fire stations to learn about variables that can affect a fire’s burn rate, such as temperature, wind, and chemicals in the environment, and building hazards that firefighters might face.
Understanding those real world conditions helps the students create better simulations. That could potentially cut the cost of training for fire departments by reducing the number of expensive live fire exercises they have to stage.
“In the virtual environment, we can simulate all kinds of situations,” says Li Yang, assistant dean for the College of Engineering and Computer Science and lead researcher in the UTC project. “For example, there are different kinds of chemicals and they have a different burning rate. Also different scenarios, it can be an apartment, it can be in a subway; it can be in some of the complex, office buildings.”
Students in MTSU’s new degree program in interactive media are learning to produce content for the powerful medium of virtual reality, which immerses the viewer in a three-dimensional, 360-degree world. By removing the distance that is created by phone and TV screens, virtual reality can be a powerful tool for sensitizing people to the experiences of others. Some even call it an “empathy engine.”
“Virtual reality is a new set of tools for telling stories,” MTSU professor John Merchant says.
“Rather than simply describing something, you can actually have a look around and really understand what that environment is like. People may say, ‘I watched a movie or a TV show’ but with VR they say, ‘I’ve experienced it. I was there.’ It can generate empathy in a way that perhaps other media do not.”
The MTSU program, offered through the College of Media and Entertainment, trains students in such fields as virtual and augmented reality, game theory and social media and user design and experience. It is designed to prepare students for careers in a rapidly evolving area that has attracted heavy investment by venture capitalists and is just beginning to show its transformative potential in commercial applications.
Students in the interactive media program learn to write screenplays, direct actors, shoot video and code in Unity, a software platform that turns the content into the world that viewers experience in VR. The program is a multi-disciplinary effort involving all of the school’s departments and a total of 18 different classes.
“The strengths we have here are phenomenal,” Professor Stephanie Dean explains.
“Our recording industry, our animation, our media makers … we have all of these great competencies in the College of Media and Entertainment, and this project brings them all together to get the best from each one under this storytelling project.”
The project is co-led by Dean, a professor of media arts who teaches 360 video filming and screenwriting, and Merchant, a recording instructor and music producer who was once chief engineer at the Bee Gees’ Miami studio.
They say the program is unique for its focus on developing content for VR rather than perfecting VR hardware and software, which is more in the wheelhouse of universities like Stanford. MTSU’s strength is fostering creativity.
“We’re not capable here of building better optics or headsets but what we can do is take those tools and create better experiences,” Merchant points out.
“If you have this wonderful hardware but there’s nothing of substance to experience while using it, what value is it? It’s just a fancy game console.
“You need producers and actors and scriptwriters to create stories that bring people to the technology. That is our strength here. So that was the motivation to move forward.”
Dean, who also teaches social sciences, developed a grounding in digital humanities during her 15 years living in Sweden.
“My lab there had great funding and really blossomed with cutting-edge equipment and research. I missed that spirit terribly (when I came back),” Dean says.
Joining MTSU’s faculty offered the chance to recapture that spirit. In a series of serendipitous occurrences, Dean and Merchant discovered a shared interest in virtual reality and began to conceive of an experimental lab where students and faculty could explore the potential applications of VR technology.
From that meeting MTSU’s Immersive Storytelling Lab was born. It’s an experimental space equipped with high-end PCs for film editing and coding, VR headsets, film equipment and even a treadmill for learning how to walk in a virtual world. It’s a place where students and faculty explore how to tell stories through a new technology that is still in its infancy.
“You can make the reality that you want to make in these spaces,” Dean says.
“We are running a class this semester in 360 filmmaking and we’re asking our students, ‘Where do you place the audience? How do you become an audience member in the film?’ It’s a completely different way of making films, and it’s brand new for everybody, so it’s all us in the lab figuring it out together.”
Classes focus on creating VR stories that have emotional impact. One such story places the viewer at the scene of an actual domestic violence situation.
When viewers put on the VR headset, they find themselves in the middle of a living room witnessing a tense standoff between a man with a gun and the girlfriend he is threatening. The reenactment is based on an actual murder-suicide that took place in 2013, and the viewer hears the actual 911 call in real time.
As terrified family members try to defuse the situation, the viewer is free to look and move around the room. When the gunman orders everyone out of the house, the viewer moves to the street with the family and waits for police to arrive.
Shortly after officers pull up, shots are heard from inside the home as the gunman kills his girlfriend and himself. The viewer must process the disturbing outcome along with the distraught family and sorrowful police officers.
Such scenarios can be powerful tools for talking about empathy and ethics. Dean uses virtual reality as a teaching tool in a class on gender and media representation.
“In this class I want the students to understand what it’s like to be a different gender,” she adds. “There are quite a few different VR scenarios that will do that.”
She recalls one class where a male student became incensed while “sitting” in a virtual office meeting where males repeatedly interrupted and talked over a female executive who was trying to make a presentation.
“It started this great conversation about what it’s like to be a woman in the workforce,” Dean says.
“It is so immersive and it embodies someone in this scenario so it can really start affecting how you feel about things,” Dean continues.
“I’ve always been interested in how technology changes us internally, how we maintain our identity. This is the next step.”
A practical major
It’s also the next step in media. Outlets such as the New York Times and USA Today are already developing VR content for journalistic coverage. They anticipate the technology will go mainstream as VR headsets become smaller, lighter, cheaper, and more widely used and more content is optimized for smart phones.
That will give MTSU students with VR skills a leg up in the job market.
“If you want to be a reporter now, writing isn’t enough. You have to have these digital skills,” Dean says.
“It’s important for our students to understand that they can’t control the story in the same way that they could previously. It’s a challenge but they’re really excited about it.”
VR has applications in health care. It can allow a surgeon halfway around the world to assist a physician who is actually in the operating room. And in Washington State, researchers have found they can significantly lower the pain level of burn victims – by virtually immersing them in “snow.”
There are many potential applications in business and industry, where companies could use VR to train new employees or upgrade their skills.
VR has plenty of fun uses too, from gaming – Dean is faculty advisor for an e-sports club that has 500 members – to virtual travel.
Some schools are beginning to incorporate VR in their curricula, allowing students to explore under water, take field trips to another country, go back in time for history lessons and even meet other students around the world through social platforms that allow VR users to connect in virtual worlds.
And when Dean’s father was bed-bound in hospice this past summer, he expressed the wish to visit the Smoky Mountains. He was able to do so – virtually – by watching 360 degree videos uploaded on YouTube through a set of cardboard VR goggles.
One issue with virtual reality is scalability. Currently the headsets used to experience VR are large, unwieldy, and tethered by a cord. Those cords can take the viewer out of the experience. But the next generation of headsets are smaller, lighter, cheaper and wireless. And as the technology evolves, content eventually will migrate to the smartphone, making it available to a broader audience.
“If you think about how compelling the little screen of your phone is, imagine taking something that’s not that much bigger than that and having it become your universe,” Merchant says.
“Conceivably in five years the phone will have the capacity to produce images that rival this.”
And when that technology catches fire, Dean and Merchant want MTSU students to be in the game.
“The current generation of students is going to become the next generation of storytellers and filmmakers and producers who are going to figure out how to harness this in ways we can’t imagine,” Merchant adds.
“That’s really what this lab is all about – giving them the tools and the time and the freedom to go play and build something.”
Dean adds, “That’s our slogan. ‘Make cool things that matter.’”