Virtual reality platforms developed in the DALI Lab are being integrated in classes ranging from theater to chemistry, giving students and faculty a new tool to facilitate education.
When Macy Toppan D’22 first came into the DALI Lab, she had never worked on a virtual reality project. But the technology quickly swept her off her feet.
"The feeling of creating something and then being able to actively interact with that object gives so much more life and an amazing feeling of accomplishment,” said Toppan, who is currently getting her masters in Computer Science and Digital Arts (MSDA).
Virtual reality (VR) technology is a burgeoning area of interest within DALI and across campus. Students in the lab are actively working on three virtual reality projects, some of which are making them rethink learning and cross-disciplinary interactions at an institution like Dartmouth.
Tim Tregubov, Senior Lecturer in Computer Science and Director of the DALI Lab, said that VR offers the opportunity to open up the world—not withdraw from it. Done well, VR can encourage empathy and connection, while offering opportunities for a new type of hands-on learning, he said.
"You can only learn so much by reading. Sometimes you need a virtual experience,” he said.
Toppan knows first-hand about the differences in perception of VR versus the reality of a thoughtfully constructed VR project.
“It's such a futuristic and abstract concept that I think it can be hard to picture, but once you're in one of these worlds— dancing with robots, gazing over the edge of a floating island, slashing blocks to a beat— the magic of it clicks,” she said. “VR can truly immerse you in an unmatched experience that the 'real world' can't feasibly depict.”
DALI students are currently working on or have helped prototype three distinct and powerful VR projects.
The Jaliyaa, or Theater VR, is the brainchild of Monica White Ndounou, Associate Professor of Theater.
“I’ve been thinking about Black theatre and VR for years, long before COVID and the near racial reckoning, which exposed the need for alternative ways of teaching, learning and producing theatre remotely," White Ndounou said. "When I started my theatre courses during the lockdown, I longed for the platform I had been imagining. I wanted to create a safe space that centers the perspectives and experiences of people of African descent, who are too frequently left out of the development, design, and use of such platforms due to lack of access. Jaliyaa is that platform; a safe space for teaching, learning, performing and producing stories in VR.”
A DALI team helped prototype the project. Over the last year and a half White Ndounou, the SilVR lab, and the DEV Studio have built a new project that expands on the ideas in that prototype. The Jaliyaa has moved ahead with grant funding from the Leslie Center for the Humanities, aimed at encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration.
“The early prototypes with DALI Lab students, combined with my ongoing work with James Mahoney’s SilVR Lab and John Bell and the DEV Studio with most recent support from the Leslie Center’s Venn Vision grant, have been an exciting way to implement my practical experience as an actor, director, and educator through interdisciplinary collaboration," White Ndounou said.
In addition to bringing together different departments on campus, the project has encouraged ongoing conversations about how theater is accessed, and even how it’s defined, explained James Mahoney, Senior Lecturer and Research Scientist in the Computer Science Department and head of the SilVR Lab.
“VR offers opportunities to rethink how to tell stories and how to experience them,” Mahoney said. “We're asking a lot of questions in that space right now.”
More than a dozen students are working on the project.
“This project has allowed us to explore and amplify the rich stories and diverse voices within Black theater in a unique and unconventional platform,” said Gia Kim D’22, a current MSDA student who works on the project and is incorporating it into her thesis. “By pushing the boundaries of how we conventionally view theater and storytelling spaces, we've had the opportunity to create an immersive and transformative experience for our audiences.”
John Bell, Director of the Data Experiences and Visualizations Studio and Lecturer in Film and Media Studies, said that theater is less mediated than other mediums like television or movies. That gets to the crux of what a theater performance is.
“Reframing theater to exist in an environment that is entirely dependent on technological mediation means we have to examine what it is that makes theater the unique and powerful art form it is,” he said. “Is it the intimacy of the connection between actors on stage and a live audience? Is it the shared experience of a crowd of people getting together to see a show? Or maybe it's an opportunity for interaction that breaks down the wall between performer and audience?”
As the team has questioned the values of theater, it has allowed them “to break apart typical notions of theater, carry forward the pieces that are most critical, and introduce more diverse practices from other long-standing performance traditions that haven't been as prominent in Western theater as core principles of the new medium,” Bell said.
In the future, VR could facilitate more equity around theater, said Kim.
“With The Jaliyaa project, individuals are able to enjoy Black Theatre together from anywhere around the world,” she said. For now, however, there are challenges to accessing VR technology too, she noted. Even so, there are plenty of benefits to the project right now, Kim said.
“Working on The Jaliyaa Project has been an enriching and rewarding experience that has allowed us to push the boundaries of theater and storytelling, amplify underrepresented voices, and foster interdisciplinary collaboration,” she said.
White Ndounou agreed.
“Interdisciplinarity is the future and projects like Jaliyaa are the next frontier," she said.
While teaching remotely in 2020, Katherine Mirica, Associate Professor of Chemistry, realized that her students would benefit from digital tools to help them model molecules and materials. Unsatisfied with existing options, Mirica and her collaborators decided to work with the DALI Lab to develop Veridium, a VR platform that allows students to interact with chemical compounds.
“You can pick a molecule or compound up, see its 3D structure, and grab it with controller,” said Natalie Svoboda, Design Manager at DALI Lab and Lecturer in Computer Science. “The molecule is larger than your head, so you can put it over your body, wear it, and see it from different angles.”
The unique approach gave students a new way to learn about chemistry. Now, Mirica integrates Veridium into her classes.
“VR helped the students visualize 3D structures, and also helped the instructor assess the students' understanding of course materials through interactive quizzes,” she said.
She says that innovations in teaching tools, like this, are critical for students.
“Tools can help students grasp complex concepts, and also give feedback to students and instructors about learning outcomes that can lead to more effective teaching practices,” she said.
It’s not just the chemistry students who are learning, Svoboda notes.
"Students have really appreciated the need for scientific understanding as they’re developing for it,” she said. “It’s a nice interdisciplinary experience.”
"For that project in particular, the amount of chemistry and math that ends up on a white board in DALI is pretty cool,” he said.
Anivision, which allows users to experience aspects of animals’ sensory systems, is DALI’s flagship VR project. What began in 2017 as a student project, then called Tarsier Goggles, is now used in multiple classes including BIO14 and Psych65. Faculty, alumni and current students are all involved with the project, which has its own steering committee, Tregubov said.
Sam Gochman, D’18, had the initial idea for the technology.
“Working with professors in Anthropology, Psychology, Education, and Architecture, DALI and I were able to create a project that only could have happened in an environment like Dartmouth that thrives on cross-disciplinary thinking,” Gochman said.
Working with faculty including Nathaniel J. Dominy, the Charles Hansen Professor of Anthropology, Gochman integrated Anivision into his undergrad project and eventually published a scientific paper on the technology, which was then centered on the vision of tarsiers, nocturnal primates that live in Southeast Asia.
“In the years since, the DALI team has expanded the idea to other organisms, and I adore everything they're doing,” said Dominy.
Jasmine Mai D’20 is on the steering committee for Anivision. She chose to remain involved with the project after graduation because she had made valuable friendships on the team, and was invested in seeing the future of the project. Plus, she believes in the power of the technology.
“The immersive and interactive aspects of VR can help students and players understand theoretical concepts more easily and make them more engaged and excited to learn,” Mai said.
“It’s one thing to learn about, for example, the anatomy of a tarsier’s eyes from a textbook or read about how their eyes help them catch prey effectively in the dark, but being able to experience that in an immersive environment with engaging gameplay will make these concepts more digestible to players and help foster a sense of curiosity, empathy, and appreciation for the natural world around them.”
Mai is currently helping recruit play testers for the newest, gamified version of Anivision. Anyone who is interested can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Creating Anivison required students to step into many roles, said Gochman.
“Working on this project has challenged each of us to think as a perceptual scientist, game designer, software developer, artist, and educator to craft an experience that encourages both critical thinking and wondrous exploration,” he said.
In that way, creating VR is an educational experience on its own, said Jasper Tucker, incoming AR/VR Lead at the DALI Lab and a first year MSDA student. To simulate the world around us, VR requires interdisciplinary thinking.
“Even though my title is ‘developer,’ I’m pretty heavily involved in discussions about design, as well as implementation,” he said. “You get to wear a lot of hats, and talk with a lot of other people who are doing the same.”
With major companies investing in the space and rapidly evolving technology, Tucker only expects VR to expand in the future. The current projects at DALI are, in a way, test cases for the widespread application of VR.
“They demonstrate how VR can serve a larger purpose outside of gaming alone, and how interaction in these immersive spaces can add real personal, social, and educational value,” Tucker said.