Cultivating Empathy: Reflecting on Culture through Conversation and VR

Students in the Arab Student Organisation (ASO) and Modern Languages Student Advisory Council (MLSAC) were able to sample experiences in the Global Languages and Cultures Room and discuss the opportunity to use immersive technologies to support learning and research. For many of these students this was the first time that they were able to experience VR and worked through a series of applications, including Google Earth VR, Documentaries on Within, including “Clouds over Sidra” and even new experiences created for the room from the Multicultural Pittsburgh Course (more to follow). The group reflected on the depth of experience and the richness of the content. For many the session challenged preconceptions around VR as a gaming technology, whilst recognizing that many of the game mechanics inherent in developing content could be identified in non-game content, such as artist installation, documentary or tool. The group expressed a desire to return to the room and work through more experiences, they recognized that there were many, many experiences on offer, and that familiarity and confidence with the technology would support a critical approach to content viewing. We look forward to welcoming the two groups in the future.

Experiencing the journey

We wanted to share an email we received from Marissa Bongo, a high school teacher in NY.  Ms. Bongo teaches a History of the Holocaust course at Ballston Spa HS in Ballston Spa, NY.  They recently installed a virtual reality lab equipped with an HTC vive and included “Journey Through the Camps”, created in collaboration with Classrooms without Borders and Stitchbridge.
I wanted to touch base after having used your VR program to give you some feedback. The students LOVED it. They thought it was incredibly eye opening and most came back from the experience almost (or actually) in tears. I have used it with both my 10th graders and my students in my History of the Holocaust class last semester, and one of my colleagues will be opening it up to her AP World History students, as well.

Marissa Bongo
Ballston Spa HS filmed some of the students experiencing the journey and also interviewed them afterwards.

Shifting Perspectives on Virtual Reality

My name is Meeti, and I am a student worker at the Askwith Kenner Global Languages and Cultures Room. I am a second-year student in the Public Policy and Management MS program, and I am interested in improving public wellness. My first experience with virtual reality (VR) was at the Global Languages and Cultures Room. Before I tried VR, I assumed that it wouldn’t differ much from video and, as a new invention, it would have limited societal influence; I couldn’t have been further from the truth.

During my introduction I tested both games and videos, and I was quickly drawn to the documentaries. Because VR places viewers in the middle of the action, the documentaries are more enjoyable and the educational material is more impactful, than in video. Viewers are exposed to minute details without distraction, making VR a powerful tool for sharing information.

For example, I was always curious about the palm oil industry, but I didn’t quite understand the dilemma until I experienced The Curse of Palm Oil. Here, I was welcomed into the Orang Asli community of Malaysia. I stood with them on the edge of the forest and experience the habitat devastation. Not only was the message of the documentary more poignant, but I also gained a deeper appreciation of my international neighbors, their way of life, and their local environment.

The Curse of Palm Oil
Such documentaries inspired me to utilize this technology to spread awareness on physically distant issues, and I figured there was no better place to start than right here on campus. The Global Languages and Cultures Room is in a prime location between business and policy students, and its open accessibility of VR has the potential to enhance social change.

Two avenues of interest for me are environmentalism and mindfulness. I am planning on hosting an Earth Day event in April to share VR experiences that educate the viewer on environmental topics. I also hope to use VR mindfulness experiences to invite our community draw on the benefits of technology and well being.

Chinese Calligraphy in Google Tilt Brush

Students in Chinese Calligraphy experiment and play with Tilt Brush
The Global Languages & Cultures Room was pleased to welcome students enrolled on 82-137 Chinese Calligraphy to attend a session that included the opportunity to paint and draw in a virtual world using 3D tools. Students used two apps, Tilt Brush by Google and Paint VR both could be used on Oculus Rift, with Tilt Brush most effective with the HTC Vive.
Displaying the immersive space on the screens in the Global Languages & Cultures Room
The students did not take long to familiarize themselves with the menus, finding tools and features. Initially all cycled through the many brushes, and once they were comfortable with the space, began mark making and playing with shapes. Throughout the students enjoyed the possibilities, giving positive feedback, laughing and playing. As they grew in confidence they began to make brush strokes, play with line and start to create characters and symbols.
Facilitating use of the resources in the Global Languages & Cultures Room
The class will revisit and final outcomes for the course will be exhibited in the Global Languages & Cultures Room.

Personalized experiences in Developing Nations

Educator Sophie Le Blanc invited her class on The Politics of Developing Nations to the Global Languages & Cultures Room to use the technology.
Still from “Clouds over Sidra” from UNVR
I used the Global Languages & Cultures Room to show students the reality of a refugee camp through the VR “Clouds over Sidra”. Watching a video in class would not have given everyone an individualized experience. The VR really let the student get closer to the main character and experience her life in a refugee camp. I prepared specific questions on the video so students’ attention could be guided before even starting the video and we all debriefed together so their individualized experience could be shared together. At the semester debrief, students suggested that I should add more VR experiences in future iterations of the class, as it really helped them understand the reality of refugee camps and thought it would put a clearer picture of life in developing nations. Overall, it was an awesome experience! ” Sophie Le Blanc – Adjunct Instructor, Institute for Politics and Strategy

Finding friends in Moscow

A Russian Lesson using Google Earth VR

This session was led by Olga Klimova-Magnotta Professor in Slavic Languages and Literature. After initial discussion and a useful visit to the room, we settled on a series of activities for her two Russian classes looking at “People: Appearance and Personality” (Int.) and Family Photo album (Elem.)
screencaptures from Olga’s phone as she used Google Streetview to find the people 
The brief to students was to “…travel to Moscow using Google Earth VR to meet with our Russian pen pal, with whom we have been corresponding through emails/social media.” Ahead of the session we visited specific places on the map in advance and created a short narrative about what their Russian friend looks like and what they might be wearing.  Our hope was to have the students find these people on the map using a series of descriptions (and the info for the location of the meeting). In class, they would be working in pairs helping each other to find this person.  We also planned a “pretend” phone call from this Russian friend and describing the people next to them in order to better help the American student in finding them.
We thought about the length of time that this might take and how useful it would be as an activity. One of the issues in preparing the session was that the information in Google Earth (for desktop) was inconsistent with Google Earth VR, so sometimes made finding the people quite challenging. On the whole the session was very successful with most groups finding at least two or three of the four people. They were able to describe what people were wearing and celebrated when they found them.

Takeaways:

  • Students commented that they had some challenges, including getting use the VR where they had no previous experience.
  • It was difficult to find the exact frame depicted on streetview, this required a degree of skill with Google Earth VR.
  • Comments were that this was a fun engaging session
  • Students were using their language skills
  • Some students went “off piste” to visit other landmarks, including the inside of a gallery and a church (whilst remaining in Moscow).

Student Worker Reflection

My name is Yuxi, one of the student worker in the Askwith Kenner Global Languages and Culture room. I’m a first-year undergrad student from the Big Apple currently studying business here at Carnegie Mellon.

First Experience With VR

When I read about the Global Languages and Culture Room, I was very intrigued. When I thought of VR, the first thing that popped up in my mind were games. I was surprised that VR technology can be used to educate students on culture and promote global experience. On top of that, I had never tried VR before arriving, so I was very excited. To get started, Stephan introduced me to the “First Contact” VR tutorial on the Oculus Rift. It featured a friendly robot guide who showed the user the basic of using the controllers and how the user can interact with it. Through fun little virtual objects like butterflies and rockets, I learned to use the controller to perform actions like picking up an object or pushing a button. Though the tutorial was short, I was able to learn all the basics I needed to start exploring the other programs Oculus has to offer.
Screenshots from the Oculus "First Contact"
Since then, I have had a lot of fun trying out all the different experience the room offers, such as Google Earth VR, Coco VR, 360 music videos, as well as numerous documentaries.

Visitor Experiences 

As a student worker, part of my job is to show visitors around the room. I especially love showing them the VR experience and often, they come into the room never having experienced VR like me.
One faculty member tried Coco VR because her son was a big fan of Coco and he was going to be dressed up as the main character, Miguel, for Halloween. After completing the Oculus VR tutorial, she was ready to explore the world of Coco. She excitedly pointed out the familiar characters and settings as she walked around the virtual town. A friend of mine also explored the room. He was especially excited about Google VR and was able to ‘fly over’ his mom’s hometown in Korea using the HTC Vive. It was not only nice for him to be able to virtually visit Korea and it was also convenient because the Vive was able to accommodate his glasses. He also enjoyed the rollercoaster game on the Oculus and described it as feeling very real. I believe there are endless possibilities when it comes to the future of VR and everyone should definitely give it a try! Be sure to visit the Global Languages & Culture Room during our open hours.

New Worlds in VR

Introducing faculty to first-time use of Virtual Reality in the Global Languages & Cultures Room.

Over the last few weeks we have run a program of introductory welcome sessions for the Modern Languages Faculty, inviting them to an hour long workshop to familiarize themselves with the new room and some of the technology it contains.

First Steps

For many this was their first visit to the Global Languages & Cultures Room and it was important to provide a short overview and discuss some of the objectives of the space. This flexible space allows for different configurations of tables and chairs and in this workshop we grouped four units together to make a longer boardroom style table to comfortably sit 8-10 people.
Chinese teachers and post-graduate students visit the Global Languages & Cultures Room
Pens are paper were left on the tables and used to record comments, keywords and even to highlight concepts, including time-lines and diagrams.

Pre-conceptions of VR

We talked as a group about the promise of VR, whether they had encountered headsets before. Some people had tried Google Cardboard or Samsung Gear experiences, some reporting how they initially felt some dizziness and disorientation. We talked about how widely the term VR is used in the media and often how it is a short-hand for innovation and new technology. Many of the keywords were technical, thinking about 3D, immersion, transportation, motion sickness – but less about the experience itself or the content they had viewed.

Journeys into VR

The group tried a variety of experiences, often in pairs with one person watching the (2D) screen and helping to orientate the viewer. There is a particular disconnection between what is viewed externally and what the wearer is actually experiencing. This often lead to miscommunication – “look to your left” “go down a bit” “over there” from the 2D external viewer against “where?” “oh, behind me” “where should I go?” from the wearer. Many were unfamiliar with the controllers and experienced a degree of cognitive overload as they coped with the range of visual stimuli, learning the mechanics of the experience (flying, dragging, zooming etc), understanding the use of  handheld controllers and coping with the limitations of the headset itself. Once over the initial disorientation, many were able to fly and zoom in Google Earth VR, or experience a documentary from one of the many channels – Within or LittleStar or try a game or even the introductory tutorial. This last experience was incredibly useful to many who had never tried on a headset. “The wow factor shouldn’t be denied, it’s pure enjoyment and great fun!” It should be noted too that there was much fun and expression of enjoyment in the room, laughter and amazement.

Returning to Earth

When we came back together as a group and discussed our experiences, much of the language changed to experiential and emotional, thinking about the quality of the content, the feelings that it had induced in the wearer.
We discussed some of the possibilities and opportunities, thinking about other experiences that the group would like to try out and importantly, which experiences would be valuable to learners.
Some of the group talked about the frustration of having to understand the controls and quickly learn the mechanics of movement and navigation. Some with Google Earth VR found the tutorial useful and would have liked to spend more time. Some were happy to wear the headsets for a short time and some found the whole experience slightly disconcerting and disorientating, preferring to pass the headset to the next person. Some of the group talked about the frustration of having to understand the controls and quickly learn the mechanics of movement and navigation. Some with Google Earth VR found the tutorial useful and would have liked to spend more time. Some were happy to wear the headsets for a short time and some found the whole experience slightly disconcerting and disorientating, preferring to pass the headset to the next person.

Session Takeaways

The sessions with academics were useful for a number of reasons.
  • Creating a process for first-time experiences
  • Exploring preconceptions of VR
  • Identifying the “wow factor”
  • Thinking about the use of content in VR
Almost everyone agreed that these experiences offered a level of engagement, but most could not agree whether this was due to the novelty of wearing the headset and exploring an immersive world; or because content was useful and enjoyable. By far the most important questions raised were about the pedagogic value of VR experiences. We talked about the need to support the wearer, how much of the value of the workshop had come from the facilitation, that wearers needed to reflect on their experiences for them to truly have value, or for the educator to measure the learners’ experience. Finally, there was a broad agreement that content needed to be explored more deeply and that a lack of critical discourse around the content, that some of the documentaries weren’t rich enough to be used as learning objects, for instance many of the travel documentaries betrayed westernized views, a tourist’s experience of a particular place or location. We talked about the opportunity to create bespoke content to be used in teaching and learning and how students on study-abroad programmes might be able to capture 360˚ footage for possible use. There will certainly be more conversations about the practical and technical challenges this would present.

Exploring Commodified Language through Google Earth VR

Exploring commodified language using Google Earth VR
This session was arranged for 82-283 Language Diversity & Cultural Identity, a course exploring contexts of multi-lingualism and how language underpins cultural identiy and shapes regional, local and national politics. This is one of many new courses in Modern Languages taught in English, which aim to provide learners with the tools to understanding theories around linguistic culture. In this session, we introduced the learners to Virtual Reality (VR) and set up a series of Oculus Rift stations to explore Google Earth VR.  Within the experience you can fly around the world, zoom into specific locations, get on street view and have a walk, etc. We then had a nice discussion about VR, their experiences before heading back to the stations to explore commodified language in Pittsburgh.
It was nice to connect the in-class readings and discussion to a more immersive experience.

Remi A. Van Companole – Associate Professor – Second Language Acquisition and French & Francophone Studies
I think there are some really interesting possibilities for learners as well as for the educators in terms of exploring content that is current available but also (and maybe more importantly) creating new content. One student is working on an idea for a senior thesis in linguistics following their visit to the room. Students reflected on the surprising nature of the experience, for all of them, this was their first experience of using VR. They enjoyed the immersion and the sensation of flying in Google Earth, but more importantly appreciated the ability to pinpoint exact locations and explore them from different vantage points.
We shared these experiences as a group and it was just as important for the students to enter into discussion and “exit” the experience in a thoughtful way, much like a diver decompressing before rising to the surface.
Students working in VR