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.

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.


  • 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.

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. Rémi A. van Compernolle – 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