Dialogue Summer 2017

Keeping it Real

Future Game Designers on the Leading Edge of Virtual Reality

One bright January morning, radio/television/film assistant professor Özge Samanci is teaching her students the importance of setting a scene. After drawing a cube that is then projected onto a screen at the front of the class, she does something unexpected: She steps into the cube.

This is the magic of virtual reality, or just another day in the media arts and game design module, where students learn how to create complete three-dimensional virtual realities—possibly the future of video gaming, movie watching, and our interactions with entertainment and news.

“What you’re seeing here, many other students don’t get to see,” Samanci tells her class. “It’s a new medium we’re only just beginning to understand. We’ll be drawing in 360 degrees, in three dimensions, on a canvas that’s only limited by your imagination. So explore and experiment with the affordances and limitations of this environment.”

Samanci developed the course to introduce this technology —not yet common in Northwestern’s curriculum— to students in the media arts and game design module and thereby help them develop a creative edge. The module tasks students with building virtual realities that include a “surprise” element. Their pieces are then recorded and saved for playback on a two-dimensional screen.

 “This is going to be a unique portfolio piece,” says Kate Kowalski, a radio/television/film senior who took the class. “We’re all creating something unique, something that will set us apart.”

Chris Landy, also a radio/television/film senior, relishes the opportunities to work with cutting-edge technology.

“The School of Communication has really given me a skillset, a toolbox of skills that I can take into the real world and market,” he says. “When I came to campus, I set out on a quest to discover how to work with cool new mediums, and I’m so glad I’ve been exposed to virtual reality. There are so many different applications for it, and I think it’s going to be the future of entertainment.”

During class, Samanci wears the equipment’s visor over her eyes, immersing herself in the experience while the class watches what she does on an oversize monitor. She points at the virtual menu, and suddenly a backdrop from Marvel’s Dr. Strange changes the entirety of her three-dimensional space. Instantly she’s inside a movie where she can create her own characters. Students then come forward to take their turns at the device, building different universes and using tools to create animated fire or an underwater landscape.

Samanci discusses with her class how augmented-reality games like Pokemon Go allow players to interact with their actual environments in new and surprising ways, which might also have a place in future entertainment.

“One day in the next 40 years we might even have contact lenses that change the way we see the world,” she says. Gabriel Caskey, the school’s audiovisual systems engineer for information technology, installed and helps run the HTC Vive virtual reality system in Samanci’s classroom. Calling it the best model currently on the market, he says, “It has the most sensors, the widest play area, and intuitively designed controls.”

Although the technology is still in its infancy, he said that some companies are already using it for such practical applications as architecture and stage design.

“I also think it’s not too far-fetched to imagine a time in the near future when this technology could be used for immersive training, scene reconstruction for legal proceedings, and even medical therapy,” adds Caskey.

The equipment in Samanci’s class is the same model used at the Garage, Northwestern’s 1,100-square-foot tech innovation space for students hoping to launch their own businesses. “To build the future, you have to understand the future. Augmented and virtual reality will play a larger part in our lives,” says Garage director Melissa Kaufman. “Students need to see where the technology is now so they can guess where it will be going.”

Kaufman reports that several Northwestern students in the Garage are working with HTC Vive as a launching point for business ideas. A medical student is using it to model three-dimensional bone structures and map aneurysms; another student is creating programs that might “stage” an empty house. One day, says Kaufman, we might wear a virtual reality headset to “walk through” a home we want to buy.

Samanci does caution students about putting too much faith in an emerging technology. Virtual reality is amazing, yes, but there could be unforeseen limits to its applications.

“With any new technology, we don’t know how it will be adopted in the future,” she says. “Google Glass was supposed to change our world, but then some people didn’t like the idea of being recorded without their knowledge. Virtual reality can be a very lonely and isolating experience, and you’re very vulnerable as well, because when the headphones are on, you can’t see or hear your environment. But right now, this is the novelty, and we’re just discovering what we can do with this technology, so it’s important to learn.”

Students, however, see only the upsides to a new technology that might have endless possibilities in changing how we interact with the world around us.

“I’m looking forward to a time when you can watch a basketball game from courtside,” says Jonny Wang, a radio/ television/film junior who took the class. “Or maybe even watch it from the top of the backboard, or sit on the basket. Think of all the possibilities of how this could change the way we watch sports, or the way we watch anything.”

- Cara Lockwood