Virtual Worlds and VR at CMU

Last week we were proud to be featured in CMU’s popular Across the Cut series which features some of the innovative and interesting projects that faculty and students have been engaged with in the past year.
Our Director, Stephan Caspar, and his Multicultural Pittsburgh class were featured with an article and accompanying video highlighting some of the recent sessions taught using in VR using headsets that we distributed to students or already had access to. Students reported positive experiences, enjoyed meeting up and as Stephan says in the article, he is certainly looking forward to running more sessions in VR.

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.

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

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.