THROUGH THE EYES OF VR
Imagine that a person could hop into a magical car which would teleport them to a Beatles concert in the 1960s. After the concert, the person could get back into the car and be teleported into a sci-fi world of Dungeons and Dragons. Soon after that, the person might decide to get back into the car and be brought back to the 21st century—only this time they'd find themselves on the other side of the world discovering new cultures. Imagine the opportunities for learning, given a car like that.
This is an experience that Stuart Cooley, a professor for the Sustainable Technology Program at Santa Monica College, wants to give his students—through the use of virtual reality or VR. Sitting inside his office in the HSS building, Cooley exudes a fresh sense of hope for this new technological innovation.
The Sustainable Technology Program is part of SMC's Career Technical Education Program, a course of study aimed at equipping students with specific skills for a given industry. In Cooley’s case, his solar installation classes make students proficient in working with the installation and use of solar panels. “My thought was to bring virtual reality in, film the experience of the installation, and then have that experience available with Google cardboard devices, so that they can put it on, turn their heads and be ‘on the roof,’” he says. Cooley’s plan sounds like the most practical use for VR, both efficient and accessible. However, the road to VR is still quite primitive, both in his arena and the broader technological world. “We’re just starting out with this,” he discloses.
In 1935 the American sci-fi writer, Stanley G. Weinbaum's short story, Pygmalion’s Spectacles, was published in Wonder Stories magazine. It presented the idea of a magical pair of goggles that could allow the user a fictional, yet realistic, experience through the engagement of the senses. Fast forward to 1962, and an American cinematographer, Morton Heilig, who patented the Sensorama—a simulator machine designed to wholly engage individuals in artificial experiences. With stereo speakers, 3D-footage, wind-blowing fans, aroma meters, and a vibrating chair, Heilig’s Sensorama stimulated all the senses, creating a realistic environment and planting the seeds of modern-day VR. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Jaron Lanier created the virtual programming lab (VPL) and was credited with coining the term “virtual reality.” In the 1990's several attempts were made at introducing VR as an everyday accessory in video games. However, companies such as Sega and Nintendo failed at incorporating VR into their respective consoles primarily because the development of realistic graphics had not yet been achieved.
In our modern, technology-driven world where smartphones function as an extension of human thought, it seems only natural that virtual reality is the next big thing in the realm of technological innovation. The formation of the Global Virtual Reality Association (GVRA) in Dec. 2016, stimulated the further development of VR by “promoting the growth of the global virtual reality (VR) industry,” according to their website. With companies including Google, Facebook’s Oculus, and Samsung supporting the non-profit organization, the perfection and incorporation of VR into various fields ranging from psychological therapy to gaming, is on the horizon.
“I see the gaming world is jumping all over this, and of course it makes for very engaging games. But to me, it can make for very engaging education as well,” says Cooley. His plan for SMC's Sustainable Technologies program is to utilize VR technology and create an interactive experience with the types of tasks students will be expected to perform in a workforce focused on the installation of sustainable tech.
Some conditions that VR may expose students to include working on a rooftop and crawling through a tight attic but without exposure to the risks of actually being in either situation. “There’s a reason for colleges to like this, because we have to pay for the insurance if we take students up on the roof,” said Cooley.
With the use of VR, Cooley imagines a near-future where students can experience and adjust to possible conditions while never leaving the classroom. “We’re now at the point where I think we can do some good filming,” Cooley explains. His classroom at Santa Monica College’s Airport Campus has the equipment needed to create the VR experience.
Among the gizmos and gadgets are several types of VR goggles, from Google Cardboard to Oculus Rifts. There are VR cameras from the Ricoh Theta S 360 Camera, to a seven-camera GoPro Rig, and an ambisonic microphone, which captures full-sphere surround sound. The important purpose of the tech behind VR is to make the experience more engaging. Immersive is how Professor Cooley describes it. He discusses a short VR film, 'Clouds Over Sidra," that moved him emotionally. The film highlights the devastating circumstances facing Syrian refugees in Jordan. “It really brings home what is really going on in the refugee situation,” Cooley says of the powerful short film. “If it can be more immersive, then it can be more compelling.”
Justin Feldman, Director of Education of the Students Supporting Israel (SSI) Club, uses VR as an effective method of storytelling. “I think ultimately storytelling is going to play a big part in virtual reality as people realize that sometimes it’s a necessity, not just for people who work for different organizations or fields, but also for people who might not otherwise have any exposure to any other parts of the world,” he explained. As SSI’s Director of Education, Feldman’s main goal is to engage students in Israeli culture, politics and daily life. To do so, Feldman set up an SSI booth in front of the Santa Monica College library displaying pamphlets, flyers, and banners with Middle Eastern history, and a VR headset containing live footage from Israel. “When you put it on, you’d be taken to Israel, and you’d be traveling to different cities throughout the land from Jerusalem to Haifa, to the beaches of Tel Aviv,” said Feldman.
Chris Milk, a filmmaker and CEO of Within, a leading VR production company, describes VR in his TED talk as being “an empathy machine.” Using "Clouds Over Sidra" as an example, Milk described that when looking at the film's footage shot in a 360-degree perspective, the user is 'sitting' with Sidra, whom the film follows, in her refugee camp. “And because of that, you feel her humanity in a deeper way. You empathize with her in a deeper way,” said Milk.
Using 360-degree footage, SSI's VR headset brought students an immersive experience in Israel. With awareness and knowledge being at the core of Feldman’s hopes for immersive storytelling, VR also brought to students who viewed the film a greater sense of what Milk had described, empathy. “The greatest thing about it was that it really humanized the situation in the Middle East, and especially in that region,” Feldman tells me. “You got to see a lot of the stories up front, even though a lot of people don’t get to fly there, even out of this country.” When asked about what the reactions were like of those who were able to experience the film on Israel at the SSI booth, Feldman laughed and imitated the “Wooow!” that students shouted as they experienced VR. According to Feldman, some students were speechless and many began asking questions about Israel as the VR experience opened the door to an engaging conversation.
VR may also have a strong influence in advertising and marketing campaigns of the future. What if an individual in Sweden interested in attending Santa Monica College could gain a quick preview of each program at SMC using VR technology on their computer? Professor Cooley, along with Redelia Shaw, a Santa Monica College Media Adjunct Professor, has been working on a project that could bring the SMC experience to a series of VR films for potential students to view.
Along with VR's innovations comes anxiety and fear of its power. Because VR exposes users to a stew of stimuli Shaw wonders what the effects of viewing an entire feature-length film through a VR experience would be, and she points out that constant exposure to any stimuli can desensitize people from its subject matter. This is paradoxical compared to Chris Milk’s description of VR as an “empathy machine.” However, Shaw makes the case that the benefits or drawbacks of VR "depends on how it’s used.” To prove her point, she holds up her iPhone and smiles knowingly. To some people, it’s a distraction and a catalyst in the personal disconnection from others. While to others, it’s a device of convenience that helps students stay in-the-loop and connect with others.