Immerse + Imagine with Michelle Brown

Could you tell me about your professional background Michelle?

I studied Multimedia in the early 2000s and began to incorporate technology into my arts practice, I did a lot of computer design work for musicians, bands and venues back then. About this time I also started working and playing in the music industry. I ended up managing one of Australia’s iconic community radio stations, 4ZZZ in Brisbane, so I didn’t have much time to spend on my art, but I did manage to keep producing work occasionally! Being connected to an industry like music gave me a great bunch of opportunities but I decided to leave 4ZZZ in 2016 to concentrate on a career creating art and producing content.

When did you first get interested in VR and why?

In 2016 while I was finishing up my management role I saw some really cool stuff being created with augmented and virtual reality. I started to look into what I needed to get a VR set up and also started producing AR artwork, I already had the animation and illustration skills plus the tech knowledge so it all just kind of fell into place! The biggest barrier for VR is the expense of the equipment however things are getting cheaper with stand-alone headsets like the Quest available, at the time I had to invest in a PC (I was strictly a mac user for a long time!) and a HTC Vive. Some of the artists I saw producing VR artwork include Liz Edwards, a very cool 3D artist, which got me into a VR art app called Tilt Brush, which I’ve used ever since in my workflow, from music videos to large scale installation work.

How do you currently use VR?

I mainly work with some of the VR art apps/programs like Google’s Tilt Brush, Gravity Sketch and some of the animation programs like Tvori. I paint and create environments and worlds in VR that are the base for music videos, installation work and more. Just like a 3D modelling program, many of the VR apps allow you to export 3D creations that can be used in other apps, like Unity, or traditional film editing software like Premiere Pro.

I also teach workshops in using VR and AR in arts practice, so showing ways that you can integrate illustration and animation with mobile apps and teaching people about the art apps I’ve mentioned.

What are your thoughts on VR and the creative process?

For me I love it, it really cuts down on the amount of time I spend hand illustrating or animating. The same with 3D modelling, it would take me possibly 3 times the amount of time to create something in Cinema4D that I can model quickly in VR as it’s more attune to actual sculpting/painting.

I also feel that VR can create more of an impactful experience, when you are in a headset it’s easy to ignore everything else going on and just concentrate on the narrative or user experience, no social media distractions!

What advice would you give teachers and students who are thinking about using VR for creative projects?

Allow a bit of time for all students to have a play in VR, even if you only have one or two headsets! If you are showing students how to use some of the art programs like Tilt Brush, you need to let them have a little time to get comfortable and creative. But also keep in mind taking breaks if you’re in the headset for more than 30 minutes at a time. I also would recommend giving some direction so that students experimenting with VR art have something to focus on rather than just aimlessly painting swirls, for example; get them to paint a favourite animal or cartoon.

What is unique about creating in VR instead of some other medium?

It’s mainly the speed of which I can get an idea out plus the fact it’s in a three dimensional space, it’s just so much quicker for me to produce a visual story. It’s also a way that I can communicate a theme or an idea that links to a social issue that I can address with my installation work, as it allows for more intimacy and less distraction. Being immersed in a 3D environment by yourself in the headset provides a great opportunity to just focus.

Check out Michelle’s VR art and more on her website https://www.thebadlament.com/

MB

Immerse + Imagine with Alex Bowles

Could you tell us about your professional background Alex?

I came to VR from a background in film and television production, mostly advertising. I got my start at Industrial Light + Magic (ILM) in their commercial production division. This is also where I got my introduction to a lot of the tools that have become central to VR development, like virtual cameras, 3D modelling, CG animation, and rendering pipelines.

At the time, I was less interested in the on-screen possibilities of digital effects and more interested in the ways that the tools and techniques used for effects work were changing the production process itself. Pre-visualization was especially attractive.

I loved the idea of creating virtual sets that allowed creative and production teams to explore their ideas in this relatively cheap, very elastic, and super forgiving design space. Everything about it was the exact opposite of physical production. To me, it was clear that decoupling design from execution was hugely liberating in creative terms, but also a great way to reduce a project’s risks. That’s a rare combination. The key was having a virtual production that offered enough detail, precision, and accuracy to reliably map decisions made there to the real world.

When did you first get interested in VR and why?

A few years ago I’d been researching a program for the full-dome theaters used in science centers, natural history museums, and planetariums. The story focused on the overlapping histories of astronomy and cartography. It revealed the ways that increasingly accurate models of the cosmos led to increasingly accurate maps of the world, and by extension, what people were capable of doing within the world. The goal was to make mathematics, science, and technology more accessible to middle-school and high-school students by providing them with a clear view of how they all worked together. This type of interdisciplinary understanding can make learning abstract concepts a lot easier. It can also be very hard to come by in educational systems based on strict compartmentalization of subjects. That’s where third-parties like public science institutions come in.

The problem I found was that the places with these immersive displays couldn’t offer the economic support that this particular program required. I also discovered that these institutions shared a somewhat Balkanized culture. This made co-productions especially difficult, at least for an outside producer like myself. When Oculus announced that it was going to be making full immersion available at consumer-electronics prices, I thought wow, here’s a way to get the program developed and distributed properly.

This proved less straightforward than I imagined. As a friend of mine likes to point out, you should never mistake a clear view for a short distance. It turned out that the technology was both more complex and more nascent than I initially guessed. That’s where I realized my background wasn’t serving me well. When you’re used to life in a very mature ecosystem, you take so much for granted that simply doesn’t exist in an ecosystem that’s just getting started. Even so, I was absolutely hooked. There’s a particular kind of engagement that you get in VR that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. And I think the ability to actually develop an ecosystem around that is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

How do you currently use VR?

First and foremost, the best way to create VR is in VR. This is easier said than done, since so many of the tools, from 3D modeling software to game engines, were all developed with flat screens in mind. This makes it very easy to lose touch with the sense of presence in real space that’s key to the best experiences. The more of the process you can bring into an immersive display, the better.

I also use it for some things I never expected. One of them is fitness. I checked out games like Beat Saber and Pistol Whip just because they were getting a lot of buzz, but then I heard about people who were making them a part of regular workout routines, and getting really great results within 3-4 months and wow, yeah, they were right.

One of my favourite uses is bringing global and spatial context to news stories. Google Earth VR is fantastic for this. Simply being able to go to a place, even virtually, has this really remarkable effect on the way you understand stories, and connect them to other stories. This is due to the very different ways our brains encode spatial memories, as opposed to strictly visual memories. Once you’ve got a place-based component to your understanding, you have a much easier time absorbing retaining, and remembering everything else you learn about a topic. It’s amazing.

That phenomena is actually the basis for what I’m working on professionally, which is outreach programs for historical and culturally important sites. By giving people who haven’t visited these places in person the kinds of spatial memories shared by those who have, it becomes possible to expand the community of those who value a given place, who understand why it’s so important, and who are willing to put effort and resources into preservation.

What are your thoughts on VR and the creative process?

Let me start by narrowing that to the creative process used by film and television production, since that’s the one I know best. The biggest thing I’ve discovered is that you have to get your target audience involved a lot earlier than you would for a 2D medium. Partly, this is because immersive media doesn’t offer a century-plus of accumulated knowledge embedded in institutional structures, production tools, and so on. You can’t count on tried and true best practices to get you most of the way to a finished piece because at this stage, best practices are little more than well-educated guesses.

The other reason to make user testing an intrinsic part of the creative process is that audiences have so much more agency in immersive programs. Even game developers—who are used to having everything based on player input—have a ton of unfamiliar dynamics to manage when people are fully present in a scene, rather than interacting only via a controller and their thumbs. The more room you give people to surprise you, the more they will end up surprising you. This can be frustrating if you’re focused on a specific vision, so it’s helpful to remember that some of your most promising creative opportunities can come out of these unanticipated interactions. The sooner you can get a read, the better.

All this gets a lot easier if you recognize that the core of the medium isn’t what people see on a screen. The core is how they physically respond to events in three dimensional space. This is why it helps to get the basic physical interactions that are central to the experience prototyped and tested as early as you can, so you can use the feedback you get to determine the project’s final form.

This prototyping stage doesn’t need to be in VR, by the way. Some of the smartest studios I know rely heavily on brown-boxing, which is literally using cardboard boxes to work out where different elements should be placed in the space around users, and to make sure people can move around comfortably enough to enjoy the experience. Once that’s sorted, you can design the virtual experience on top of this real-world foundation.

What advice would you give teachers and students who are thinking about using VR for creative projects?

The first thing, and maybe most important thing to do is to experience as much of what’s already out there as you can. Paying close attention to what you do and don’t like should leave you with a general sense of direction.

One of the first things you’ll discover is that VR isn’t actually one technology so much as a bunch of different technologies that are being combined in new and interesting ways. These combinations are the source of a lot of excitement, but they can also be the source of a lot of frustration, especially since pipelines and interoperability standards are so nascent. As a friend of mine put it, in game development, everything takes three times longer than you think it will, and in VR, it takes three times longer than that. So do make a point of being kind to yourself. It’s very much a learning-by-doing effort, and you’re going to get it wrong, a lot. And don’t worry about feeling you don’t know everything about everything because you never will. It’s just too complex.

Eventually the field will deal with this complexity the same way that film and television production, and game development have. We’ll end up with armies of highly-specialised craftspeople who are deeply focused on specific details, and equipped with budgets and schedules to match. But at the moment, we’re nowhere close to that, and I suspect it’ll be many years before we are. For now, the field favours generalists. If this is attractive to you, the best thing is to start with something that seems super simple and purely exploratory, get others involved as early as you can, pay close attention to all the different ways they respond, then building the final product on whatever emerges. Keeping your mind open, especially at the outset, is going to be the most likely way to find your north star.

Immerse + Imagine with James Calvert

Could you tell us about your professional background James?

I started an animation studio called the People’s Republic of Animation when I was 18 years old with a couple of friends. The studio grew over the next 15 years and was producing animated films for global clients. I was, and still am a director and storyteller at heart. In addition to animation, I started and ran a small video games company called Six Foot Kid. Life as an academic only began four years ago when I joined Torrens University Australia, in the design and creative technology faculty.

When did you first get interested in VR and why?

I was working with the ABC in 2017, trekking along the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea, capturing material for the educational VR experience ‘Kokoda VR’, when my interest in VR really kicked in. I was immediately drawn to VR as a storytelling and educational medium that could transport users to immersive virtual worlds.

2Landscape Phone

How do you currently use VR?

Primarily for telling stories. As a researcher, I am exploring how an immersive story or narrative can benefit education in schools.

What are your thoughts on VR and the creative process?

I’ve spent my entire professional career embedded in the ‘creative process’. VR poses some new challenges to the creative process, due to the newness of the medium. Tricks and techniques that have been developed for video games or film making, need some adjustment before applying to VR development. Motion sickness is the prime example here. A great idea that might have worked in games or film, would need rethinking if it causes motion sickness when experienced in VR. However, obstacles such as this are important to the creative process and can always be overcome.

What advice would you give teachers and students who are thinking about using VR for creative projects?

Go for it! But always test your ideas in VR. The capacity for VR to provide truly memorable embodied moments is incredible. As a tool for creative projects, it is a very rich playground.

Jame’s latest project, Thin Ice VR, weaves together Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic survival story with a tale on the effects of climate change.

 

An educator’s advice on what to look for in a 360° platform

360° content creation platforms are gaining popularity in schools as a way for students to create their own virtual environments and narratives (linear and branching) to demonstrate mastery of learning objectives.

Professionally, I think that students should be creating and sharing this content and not teachers (we should be worrying less about whether students can make a ‘perfect’ product and more concerned about the many technical, thinking and social skills they are learning as the create and share virtual environments, especially if they do this collaboratively.

360° content creation is certainly developmentally appropriate for primary school children and can be great fun for primary and secondary school students. Students can import scenes and annotate them or, better still, create their own 360° photo or video scenes to use as the basis for learning task. Here are some of things I look for as an educator in a 360° platform:

  1. Intuitive no-code mainly ‘drag and drop’ or easy content creation tools with good tutorial and online/real-time support.
  2. The ability to put in your own 360° video or photo foundation environments which can house media-rich content that students can create (video, photo, text, animation/gif) and that can link though hot spots or portals to create linear or branching way (joining environments with different media).
  3. Options for sharing and publishing 360 creations from private class to public viewing.
  4. Clear intellectual property and privacy policies including consideration of biometric* data harvesting – demonstrated knowledge of privacy legislation is required.
  5. Accessible analytics which make sense for learning at content creation and viewing/interaction phases.
  6. Preferably linked or supported by a teacher professional learning community who can share creations, pedagogical experiences and curriculum material.
  7. Easy to manage school and student account arrangements.
  8. Simple to understand advice on and ways to manage network compatibility and bandwidth implications for your school (and if it is a streaming platform, if your school network can accommodate this).

*Biometrics can be defined as the automated recognition and collection of measurable data on biological and behavioural characteristics of individuals. Behavioural data includes vocal patterns, eye tracking/gaze attention, gait tracking or typing recognition.  For more information on biometrics and other legal and ethical issues related to VR and AR technologies see this report for educators.

– This post bought to you by A/Prof Erica Southgate.

Feature image: Screenshot from https://www.360cities.net/search/@tags-aerial

New report & infographics on immersive learning

A/Prof Erica Southgate was commissioned by the Australian Government to produce research on emerging technologies for schools including current state-of-evidence, and pedagogical,practical and ethical advice. The project produced the Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technologies  (virtual, augmented and mixed reality) in Schools Research Report, a short read version of the report written for teachers and infographic posters for students. You can find these here:

Full report – Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technologies in Schools Research Report 

Short Read on Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality in Schools

VR and AR infographics for students

 

Virtual Reality for Deeper Learning

How can we expand our understanding of learning in/through virtual reality in ways that move beyond training scenarios or simple ‘facts and figures’ knowledge acquisition?

In our latest paper we take a deep dive into how VR can help students develop elusive 21st century thinking skills. We apply the Deeper Learning framework and the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy (featured image above) to explore student collaborative and higher order thinking.

 

The joy of high school science through virtual reality

The VR School Study has been a two year journey in school-university collaboration. Throughout this time there have been many moments of frustration but also of an excitement that can only be sparked by collective intellectual endeavour. Among students there has also been frustration when the technology fails but these times are in contrast to what can only be be described as moments of pure learning joy.

Sadly, joy is not something that is spoken about enough in relation to schooling, and especially in regard to high school science classes. The joy of discovery is, of course, a central feature of the discipline of science, especially after the trials and tribulations of long periods of hard thought and experimentation. This quote from a lecture published in the journal Science back in 1936 captures the delight of scientific inquiry:

“While it is true that scientific men (sic) must make an impersonal study of the laws of Nature, there is ample evidence from historical records of the joy they have felt on achieving their goal. Newton, it was said, was so agitated when his work on the law of gravitation approached completion that he had to beg a friend to complete his calculation. …Harvey (the first to describe how the heart pumps blood around the body) said that ‘the pains of discovery are amply compensated by the joys of discovery.’ …The joy of the creative intellect, whether in art, literature or science, is one of the most exalted human emotions.”

How often do students experience the joy of scientific inquiry in high school science classrooms? This is a question worth asking because learning through discovery should be serious fun. How have technologies, across the ages, been instrumental in producing feelings of curiosity, wonder, excitement and that ‘exalted’ human emotion, joy? These emotions are intrinsic to the ‘creative intellect’ and they lay at the very heart of ideas in broader educational discourses about student engagement, school climate and motivation for learning.

During the VR School Study there have been moments of pure joy. As part of a unit of work in science, Year 9 students (14-15 years old) were asked to research an organ of the body, model and label it in desktop PC Minecraft Win 10 or Pocket Edition on mobile devices, and then import it into Win 10 Minecraft VR run on networked Oculus Rifts. There, they continued collaboratively building and refining the model in preparation for presenting what they had learnt about that body part to an audience.

Some examples of the pure joy of learning stand out. For instance, the first time a group of girls imported the levitating eyeball they had built in desktop computer Minecraft into Minecraft VR, there were squeals of excitement, raucous laughter, and a rapid flow of ideas about how to refine the model. They flew under and around the eyeball which was as large as a house and then into its interior via the eye’s lens. When they met inside the eye, and started lighting it up with torches, the amazement of the experience was palpable. A screenshot of the eyeball is below and the scale of it is discernible by the box on the ground which represents 1m x 1m. The square gap on the top of the eyeball was  used by the girls who would fly high and then dive into it.

floating eye from above2

A group of boys had built an eyeball with an optical nerve attached to it which the player could run through until they reached the internal part of the eye. They then began to make a rollercoaster for others to tour the eye with plans for it to extend through the optical nerve. The sheer fun of running up and through a nerve while discussing the function of it was wonderful to observe.

One group of girls had built an artery and they had labelled the various layers of the artery wall after researching the correct biological terms. As they refined their model in VR, the girls excitedly discussed how they would take peers on a tour of it, travelling through the artery ‘like a platelet in the bloodstream.’ Below is a screenshot of a side view of the artery with a pig in front of it and below this is a screenshot of a cross-sectional view of the artery with the key identifying its part.

Artery from side

Artery with legend

A group of boys took great care in building a spinal column with nerve endings, spinal fluid (or spinal juice as one fellow called it) attached to a detailed brain in cross-section. In VR, the structure was as high as a skyscraper and flying up and around it as they commentated on what work was still required was an astounding experience. They had provided, at ground level, an informative key to parts of the model. To hear students talk authoritatively and with great energy about how they went about selecting materials to try to accurately reflect the biological components of the spine, nerves and brain, while simultaneously working to improve the representation, provided a glimpse into the power of virtual reality for learning. Below is a screenshot looking up at the spinal cord with nerves and the brain; the floating white cubes are lanterns to illuminate it at night, although one boy did remark they might be thought of as electrical impulses emitting from the brain.  The feature image for this blog post is a screenshot looking down at the brain at night.

Brain looking up

While the study is not all smooth sailing, with the technological hitches demotivating some students, it has yielded insights into how collaborative inquiry using immersive VR can promote deep, authentic learning. The discovery component is twofold. Firstly there is a visceral discovery in how much more wondrous 3D models and cross-sections can look and feel in a truly immersive environment; the uniquely embodied and affective qualities of an experience that it is all around you compared with looking at or generating something on a computer screen. Secondly, there is discovery in researching and applying what is often fairly dry theoretical scientific knowledge in a process of collective creative intellect stemming from collaborative experimentation with the learning affordances of VR such as manipulation of size or unique navigation techniques (flying or diving).

The study provides a tantalizing glimpse into the (near) future of immersive education.

 

Keeping it real – A/Prof Erica Southgate (who is still recovering from flying around that skyscraper of a brain!)

 

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