An Expansion of Your Perceptions: The New Student Media Festival’s VR Exhibit

Photo courtesy of UCSD ArtPower.

This year’s New Student Media Festival, formerly known as “Up & Coming”, added a new form of media for students and judges to explore here at UC San Diego: Virtual Reality (VR). According to Art Power’s Associate Director of Artistic Planning and Education, Molly Clark, due to the rise in popularity of virtual reality media in recent years, Art Power decided to add it to the festival. This marked a transition from the standard film festival atmosphere and gave individuals new ways to experience the ideas of others. With this new addition, there was no better representative to spearhead the event other than our own Virtual Reality Club.

The festival doubled as a competition between the different projects, with each one judged by three individuals in related fields: Scott Mcavoy, a Tech and Media Specialist at the UCSD Digital Media Lab; Jon Paget, Visual Arts Affiliate of the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination; Hussain Currimbhoy, Sundance Institute Programmer.

During the event, I had the opportunity to speak with Connor Smith and Dale Tubat, President and Vice President of UCSD VR Club, respectively. The VR Club has an exceptional track record in terms of their outreach in educating others of the potential uses and benefits of VR in research, communications, academics and more.

Tubat is head of a project known as “Ground Crew”, which will be installed in the San Diego Air and Space Museum. “Ground Crew” will be one of the first VR exhibits placed into the museum. It will replace the current flight simulator with an HTC Vive setup aimed to give a lower intensity experience of flight, as the current simulator physically rotates and alters the participants’ spatial orientation. When asked about the project, Tubat described the project as an initiative to expand the abilities of the traditional flight simulation experience. His project aims to replace old flight simulation machines with HTC Vive setups that allow the users to simulate flight in the plane’s cockpit, manipulate the size of various aircraft to see the details of each one, and simulate the experience of being a member of the ground control team.

In addition to outreach, the club has connections with the industry’s leading VR companies, and uses these companies’ resources to further spread VR-use education. Smith explains, “Right now we’re working with HTC; we’re working with Google; we’ve collaborated with Red Bull, Microsoft. I mean really bringing them to campus, getting recruiters down here is a big priority […] We actually collaborated with SD Hacks back in the Fall to also put on the biggest VR space to ever be at a Hackathon […] And then actually, next year, we’re planning on having our very own Hackathon and we want to put on the biggest VR hackathon ever.”

The attractions at the VR festival were diverse and each one represented a unique take on the abilities of what VR can do. For example, an exhibit entitled “Sensory” was created by Connor Smith, Kristin Agcaoili and Anish Kannan in order to give users the opportunity to experience what people with various sensory disabilities see, hear and experience. He and his team created it for “Tree Hacks” at Stanford, in which they won first place. The experience is divided into visual, auditory and cognitive disorders.

“The purpose of Sensory is really two-fold,” Connor explained. “One is education–to teach people more about what these disorders are, what their names are, and what they’re like. Second is empathy–to actually let you identify what it’s like to live with these disorders, what someone is going through that might actually experience […] and as I mentioned earlier, all of this was made in 36 hours at a Hackathon.”

For those who don’t know, a hackathon is essentially a weekend in a large auditorium in which participants lock themselves into a space filled with many other technological experts, creating mind-bending projects to bring entertainment and educational applications into the world.

Another project that caught my eye was one entitled, “VR Movement Disorders Test,” a 3D project modeled by VR Club member Jeanne Vu and her PI Sebastian Obrazut, who is a physician at the UCSD Hillcrest Medical Center. The project aims to detect abnormal movement patterns of Parkinson’s Disease patients by simulating everyday tasks. Anish Kannan, Projects Manager of the VR Club, was able to show me the ins and outs of the program.

Anish commented, “Right now the program is based around bread slicing, but the idea is to get the patient to do other basic tasks. With the [HTC] Vive, we can accurately track positions to one one-hundredths of a second…we can do data analysis on the positions of the hand, [as well as] rotations of the hands and the head to detect microtremors, even ones you can’t see visually [that] the system picks…up because it’s that sensitive.”

After experiencing the program, which simulates the user slicing multiple loaves of bread in a kitchen, I had the chance to speak with Vu and Dr. Obrazut about the inspiration for the project. Jeanne, a double major in Physiology and Neuroscience and Cognitive Science at UCSD, hopes to facilitate implementation of her vision combining  fast-moving modern technology with the ever expanding medical field. Dr. Obrazut explained that patients at the UCSD Hillcrest Medical Center were fond of virtual reality experiences and that it prompted him to explore other options for VR to be implemented in the medical field–specifically, to diagnose or treat patients with other movement disorders besides Parkinson’s.

Other projects included “Escape165”, a project by VR Club member Janice Zhao. “Escape165” was an escape room simulation in which users had to find their way out using clues found within the environment. There was also “VR Deep Packet Inspector” by Marlon West, which allowed people to visualize network connections and communications using virtual reality.

The event had three prototype virtual reality games in attendance. One was called “The Fear and Sound” by Isaac Garcia Muñoz. The second was “Phillip’s Lucid Dreamland” by Phillip Aisling, which aimed to teach players various techniques on how to lucid dream. And finally, a virtual reality role-playing game called “Mahou~!” was developed by Familiar Works, which was headed by Michael Gonzales.

The winners of the awards presented at the festival are as follows:

Best Interactive Experience: “VR Deep Packet Inspector” by Marlon West
Best Art Direction: “Escape165” by Janice Zhou
Best Sound Design: “The Fear and Sound” by Isaac Garcia Muñoz
Best Visuals: “Sensory” by Anish Kannan, Connor Smith, and Kristin Agcaoili
Best Project: “Mahou~!” by Michael Gonzales

Much of what was shown at the event pushed the boundaries of established tropes in the VR world and expanded the capabilities of expression through virtual reality. The UCSD VR Club has many more upcoming events and workshops to help those interested, which you can find on their Facebook page. As Smith stated, “One thing that is so cool about the VR club is that it is multidisciplinary, because VR is…open to everyone. There [are] so many different people required to make a VR experience […] We really have a place for anyone that wants to get in; it’s not exclusive to engineers.”

Saunil Dobariya is a staff writer for the Arts and Entertainment section for The Triton.