By Annie E. Schugart

Glimpses of a New Reality

From the VES department to the i-lab, Harvard students and faculty are beginning to explore the potential of virtual reality, a new technology with the potential to create immersive environments. As challenges persist, many wonder whether the medium will transform reality as we know it or simply remain a novelty.
By Annie E. Schugart

Two women sit peacefully on a rock along the edge of an ocean. Turn your head to the left, then to the right, and become immersed in the vastness of the ocean alongside them, which seems to stretch into infinity. Rotating completely for a full 360-degree perspective, the sound of the two women talking becomes quieter, while the sound of waves crashing against the rock grows in volume. It’s like you’re immersed entirely in this world, completely engaged by and fully present in the scene—except the rock beneath your feet is actually just the concrete floor of the Carpenter Center, transformed by Daniel A. Citron ’16 for his senior thesis.

Virtual reality is a burgeoning medium combining art and technology to create an experience unprecedented in the immersion it offers. The relatively recent technology, which is beginning to take hold at Harvard, allows users to enter a 360-degree computer-generated or video-created environment, typically by wearing a headset. While science fiction writers have speculated about the possibilities of such totalizing illusions since the early 20th century, practical virtual reality has developed quickly over the past couple years. With the 2014 purchase of virtual reality company Oculus by Facebook, as well as efforts within large tech companies such as Google, HTC, and Samsung, virtual reality began to enter the public eye.

“You’re building an entire world where people want to spend time and have experiences,” explains Citron.

Ruth S. Lingford, Citron’s thesis adviser and the director of undergraduate studies for the Visual and Environmental Studies department, describes virtual reality as an all-encompassing illusion. “Virtual reality is kind of the same feeling of almost letting go of yourself and just being immersed in someone else’s dream,” Lingford says.

In that sense, virtual reality might be seen as a logical progression in the development of art and technology. With photography, then film, and now the projection of images in a 360-degree space, art has gained the potential to mimic life ever more closely—and some students at Harvard are exploring this possibility.

“With every new technology medium, there is always this fear it’s going to destroy the last one,” says Citron, who was the first student in the VES department to work extensively in virtual reality. He explains that people are often skeptical about new art and technology media. For example, many in the early years of film thought that movies might destroy theater. “But I think history has shown us that hasn’t happened. Each of these storytelling mediums tends to succeed in ways that the other mediums don’t. The advantages you get of telling a story in a fully immersive 3D environment are very different than advantages you get in film.”

From Citron’s senior thesis project to the virtual reality studio officially opening at the Harvard Innovation Labs this Thursday, there is a growing, if decentralized, interest in this technology at Harvard.

Thinking Outside a Frame

While the new technology creates opportunities for students and professors at Harvard, it also comes with many challenges, particularly given that no clear leaders of virtual reality development have emerged in the hardware and software industries.

Moreover, the unique advantages that Citron points out—the ability to create a space that tells different stories than those that can be told through film—are challenges just the same. Connor Doyle ’19, an avid virtual reality proponent and creator who founded the student group Convrgency: Harvard College Virtual Reality, says that an inherent issue with virtual reality is determining when and why to use it.

“The fundamental question that not enough people are asking right now [is], ‘Why am I doing this in VR? Why should I be doing this in 360?’ A lot of people think by placing a camera in the middle of the room and blocking action around the camera, that is a VR experience,” says Doyle. Doyle compared the 360-degree camera used in virtual reality to a person. To create a compelling virtual reality or 360-degree experience, the camera probably shouldn’t just be standing in the middle of a room, he says. Instead, for Doyle, the movement and action directed around that “person” or camera in the space is what can make virtual reality particularly compelling.

Another issue that creators of virtual reality must consider is the limits of humans’ visual field. Even with the assistance of peripheral vision, humans have only a 180-degree visual field. A viewer cannot digest the entire space at once. Citron and Doyle agree there isn’t one answer to this issue. Citron, who now works as a virtual reality designer for Google, often uses sound to direct a user’s focus.

A student at an event hosted by Harvard AR/VR Student Alliance tries on a virtual reality headset. The event was hosted in conjunction with Harvard Business School’s CODE student organization and featured HBS alum Richard Dulude.
A student at an event hosted by Harvard AR/VR Student Alliance tries on a virtual reality headset. The event was hosted in conjunction with Harvard Business School’s CODE student organization and featured HBS alum Richard Dulude. By Annie E. Schugart

On a more logistical level, however, the industry of virtual reality faces another significant challenge: limited accessibility, both on the consumption and creation sides. These challenges are ones several students interested in virtual reality at Harvard have seen.

In terms of hardware necessary for virtual reality consumption, headsets have often proven to be expensive as well as clunky. The virtual reality industry has grown more accessible to consumers through cheaper options such as Google Cardboard, but with the cheaper devices comes reduced functionality.

In terms of hardware for production of 360-degree videography, there are several cheaper options available now such as Ricoh Theta, which allow for entry-level virtual reality producers to get a head start. But it’s a science that hasn’t yet been perfected: A 360-degree camera works by stitching together different frames, sometimes causing distortion. And the quality of many 360-degree cameras, particularly the amateur-grade ones, is limited. Even high-quality video can become fairly pixelated in virtual reality.

Carol Dysinger, a professor at New York University—one of the few universities that have classes teaching production-side virtual reality—has noticed this barrier with video quality. “A student [in one of my classes] made some work that got into a fairly big festival, but they couldn’t show it because the video wasn’t high enough resolution,” she explains.

These limitations have proven to be a barrier at Harvard in particular, affecting the work of student groups like Convrgency. Doyle uses his own headset for virtual reality demos, and he purposefully crafted the student group to be one primarily based on critical discussion rather than pure creation, largely due to hardware shortages. “At Convrgency, we don’t even have a room,” Doyle explains—let alone several thousand dollars for headsets.

To provide resources that allow for innovation by removing some of these initial barriers, the Harvard Innovation Labs (i-lab) recently opened a virtual reality studio space, which will have its official opening this Thursday.

“If we can help make those connections and bring people together, that’s what we want to do,” says Jodi Goldstein, Managing Director of the i-lab. “Building upon that we decided that so much of what we do is providing resources and access to innovators. If you’re looking to innovate in [virtual reality] you actually need the equipment to do that. Why not build out a lab?”

Just a Novelty?

While virtual reality as a concept may seem exciting to many people, these limitations lead some at Harvard to wonder if perhaps virtual reality more a technological novelty than an art form.

“Everyone I demo to is super excited about it and wants to think about it,” Doyle says. “Usually, I’m going to be honest with you—usually, people after that never email me again.”

Doyle speculates that this lack of sustained interest could in part be due to a lack of quality content in virtual reality. He says that there is only so much you can show a person in virtual reality at present and that seeking out further “good” virtual reality can be a difficult task. “And I think part of it, again, is [the] limitation of resources,” Doyle explains.

 Students pass around a virtual reality headset to try on during a Harvard AR/VR Student Alliance event last Wednesday. The event, “VR and Entrepreneurship with _Underscore.VC” attracted over 30 attendees.
Students pass around a virtual reality headset to try on during a Harvard AR/VR Student Alliance event last Wednesday. The event, “VR and Entrepreneurship with _Underscore.VC” attracted over 30 attendees. By Annie E. Schugart

Others say that the novelty appeal of virtual reality may in fact be the cause of this lack of quality content. “The thing I’ve worried about ... is the feeling of being in love with the technology and just being obsessed with what the thing can do,” says Lingford. Lingford refers to it as the “siren call” of the technology’s potential, which can often distract from more artistic work. She says that Citron was an example of someone doing the exact opposite: exploring potential in the new medium while staying focused on what he wanted from the technology, rather than what the technology wanted from him.

Lingford admitted that some colleagues had been skeptical about her approval of a virtual reality thesis. But by the time Citron’s thesis was complete, those with doubts had completely changed their minds, she says.

“It is kind of magical and wonderful what this medium can do, and it’s important to keep critical of the work,” she adds. “So that’s maybe a problem for the medium. It could get aesthetically weak by a lack of critique.”

VR at Harvard

Despite the challenges in the industry, students and faculty across Harvard continue to explore virtual reality.

Goldstein, the i-lab Managing Director, lists off name after name of students and affiliates at Harvard who are working on virtual reality projects. She says that many of the students and affiliates don’t know anyone else working in virtual reality at Harvard. This isolation may be due in part to virtual reality’s close relation to several disciplines, from filmmaking to computer science. “Industries that are seemingly unrelated are coming together,” Goldstein says.

Jodi Goldstein, Managing Director of the Harvard Innovation Labs, assisted with the creation of the new AR/VR Studio at the i-lab. “For a platform that is predicated upon cross-discipline innovation, Harvard should really be a leader,” she said.
Jodi Goldstein, Managing Director of the Harvard Innovation Labs, assisted with the creation of the new AR/VR Studio at the i-lab. “For a platform that is predicated upon cross-discipline innovation, Harvard should really be a leader,” she said. By Annie E. Schugart

To help remedy this disconnect, the i-lab stepped in to create the AR/VR Studio—a space that provides resources and guidance in virtual reality and augmented reality. After a one-day AR/VR-focused event hosted by the i-lab last fall that attracted 1,200 registrants, Goldstein and her team came to the realization that there needed to be a central space for virtual reality innovation. “There is a lot of demand and a lot going on but it’s all happening separately,” she says. The i-lab aspires to create a space that brings those interested in virtual reality together and provide them equipment. The i-lab also officially sponsors the Harvard AR/VR Student Alliance, a student organization that includes both graduates and undergraduates.

Seven College students are on the board of Convrgence. Twelve are on the board of Dreamporte, an organization working to bring virtual reality into local classrooms. Still others have created their own virtual reality startups.

Though no academic classes related to virtual reality exist, students have persisted in finding ways to explore the emerging medium.

“There is definitely an appetite [for virtual reality] on campus,” says Doyle.

Beyond Novelty

Virtual reality at Harvard isn’t being explored just for storytelling. While much of the mainstream, like Citron’s, revolves around the world of entertainment—art, video, animation, and gaming—applications extend beyond this purpose. Some student startups have worked to push the boundaries of virtual reality.

Alex Wendland ’19, who is currently taking time off from Harvard, founded Luminopia during his freshman year along with two other students. Luminopia is a company aiming to use virtual reality to treat amblyopia, or lazy eye. The current common treatment for lazy eye is to use eye patches.

“Healthcare normally feels medical. It feels sterile, not comfortable and approachable,” says Wendland, whose startup was a part of the venture incubation program at the i-lab. “With virtual reality, you’re able to leverage consumer design trends and art oriented features in order to make it much more comfortable.”

Wendland says he believes that virtual reality will be most applicable in the medical field and offer a variety of potential purposes—many of which are currently being developed—such as stroke rehabilitation or practicing surgeries.

Matthew R. McGill ’17 is currently working to bring virtual reality to classroom education, mainly in middle school, both as after-school programs as well as during the school day. He is a co-founder of Dreamporte, a startup that also was a part of the venture incubation program at the i-lab. Dreamporte’s mission is twofold: first, they are helping schools find physical resources to bring virtual reality hardware to the classroom, and second, they provide teachers with virtual reality lesson recommendations.

McGill said the biggest pushback from schools is the lack of concrete evidence about whether virtual reality technology actually raises test scores—and therefore whether the new technology merits budgeting and fundraising. McGill has seen firsthand, though, the impact of virtual reality on student learning.

A student tries on a virtual reality headset, as a part of Dreamporte. Dreamporte is a student group at Harvard that aims to bring virtual reality into classrooms at middle schools.
A student tries on a virtual reality headset, as a part of Dreamporte. Dreamporte is a student group at Harvard that aims to bring virtual reality into classrooms at middle schools. By Courtesy of Matthew R. McGill

“There’s definitely an upward trend that I see [in students]. In that first part [of the classroom lesson] where I’m trying to give them a little bit of a lesson and teach them, they seem more eager to answer my questions and gain something from what they see, once they start to realize how fun and how interesting the videos can be,” McGill says, who has taught virtual reality in the classroom as a part of Dreamporte. “As the semester goes on, they’re getting so much more enthusiastic and we have great discussions after we watch the video.”

Viewing the Future

Lingford said that the VES department would “absolutely, absolutely” consider adding courses related to the virtual reality medium.

Because it is such a new medium, only a few schools across the nation have introduced academic courses about the creation of content in virtual reality. New York University is one of the schools that currently offer classes. Professors Sarah Rothberg and Carol Dysinger, both of whom teach a graduate course called “Directing Virtual Reality,” say that the main challenges keeping virtual reality from being taught in the classroom are a lack of experienced professors and the cost of hardware.

Rothberg and Dysinger also note that NYU didn’t simply come knocking on their door asking for someone to teach a virtual reality class. They proposed and developed it themselves, though administrators encouraged cross-school collaboration in classes, Dysinger says.

At Harvard, Lingford is excited. She has started looking into Tilt Brush, an app to create animations in a 360-degree space. Yet she says that the department will have to wait and see where the technology goes before making an investment in virtual reality and 360-degree technology.

“You can do the thinking through any medium. There’s nothing that special about pencils, and you can certainly do a senior thesis at Harvard using pencils,” Lingford says. “It’s about thinking. And certainly [virtual reality] can be used for that.”

Students like Citron and Doyle express their hope that despite the current challenges, students at Harvard can continue to explore virtual reality, whether inside or outside the classroom. Goldstein says that she hopes that the AR/VR Studio at the i-lab will mitigate some of these challenges.

“For a platform that is predicated upon cross-discipline innovation, Harvard should really be a leader,” Goldstein says. “My hope is more and more collaborations occur, and more and more innovations occur, that maybe we haven’t even imagined yet. We can talk about things that already exist, but what about what we haven’t even thought about yet? It’s the unknown that’s most exciting. We don’t even know what we don’t know.”

—Staff writer Annie E. Schugart can be reached at annie.schugart@thecrimson.com.

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