New Virtual Reality class to hold open demos on campus during Dead Week

Film and New Media Senior Ben Hartzell (in VR goggles on left) shows the progress of his team's final project in class on April 10. Photo by Michael Reinmiller.
Film and New Media Senior Ben Hartzell (in VR goggles on left) shows the progress of his team's final project in class on April 10. Photo by Michael Reinmiller.

New Virtual Reality class to hold open demos on campus during Dead Week

calendar icon17 Apr 2017    user iconBy Kathe C. Andersen

Lincoln, Neb.—University of Nebraska–Lincoln students from the film and new program of the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film teamed up with computer science students from the Department of Computer Science & Engineering in a new class this spring titled Projects in Virtual Reality (VR) team taught by Associate Professor of Film Steve Kolbe and Assistant Professor of Practice in Computer Science Christopher Bourke.

Over the semester, 19 computer science and film and new media students in five groups built applications and environments in Virtual Reality.

The groups will present a VR Demo over three days to give a live demonstration of their projects during Dead Week.

The three open demonstrations are scheduled as follows:
Monday, April 24 from 1-3 p.m. in the City Union in the “Crib” area (14th and R sts., first floor, south side)

• Wednesday, April 26 from 1-3 p.m. outside of the Student Resource Center in Avery Rm. 12 (1144 T St.)

Thursday, April 27 from 1-3 p.m. in the Van Brunt Visitors Center Great Hall (313 N 13th St.)

The projects include a house environment where the participants solve puzzles; a museum heist game, a space adventures environment, an application for creating film storyboards and a two-player game where participants compete in separate rooms.

Becca Horzewski, a senior computer science student from Oakdale, Minnesota, said her team created an interactive space for their final project.

“My team’s goal with our final project is to see how immersive and realistic we can make a space by making everything in the space interactive,” she said. “We also drew influence from The Stanley Parable and The Witness, and we’re creating a game where your goal is to figure out the important thing you need to do that day, with some guidance from the narrator, some environmental storytelling and a fair amount of humor.”

She has enjoyed taking the class.

“I’m fascinated with Virtual Reality because it can put people in situations they otherwise wouldn’t get to experience, in a safe, but still very real-feeling environment,” she said. “The applications of VR include training simulations for high-risk jobs like medical and military, medical rehab, virtual low-cost travel, and immersive worlds and stories that give users a different perspective on their own world and experiences.”

Ben Hartzell, a senior film and new media major from Lincoln, and his team are making a tool to use in VR so filmmakers can pre-visualize a scene or movie in VR and have storyboards and other information on the day of production.

“A lot of what we’re trying to do is make it so you can block a scene and kind of set the camera angles and set the lighting in VR before you even touch a set, so when you get on set, all of that process is streamlined, and everyone is on the same page. You have hard data that you’ve tried before so you know what’s going to work and what’s not,” Hartzell said.

Hartzell likes the way the class has been taught, allowing the students 10 weeks to create their final project.

“My favorite thing is the open sandbox environment and creating your own curriculum and being able to only really do whatever interests you,” he said. “That has given me a lot more enthusiasm and a lot more drive to get work done.”

He also likes the high expectations, too.

“My other favorite thing is the fact that I told them what I wanted to do at the beginning, and I’m expected to reach that,” he said. “That’s also pushed me a lot.”

David Cao, a senior computer science major from Lincoln, is working on a multiplayer VR game for his final project with his team.

“Two players in separate VR setups, maybe in separate rooms or buildings, would join that same team,” he said. “One of them would be a gunner or someone in the field fighting enemies, and then the other one would be in the control room. They would be in separate places, and they have to collaborate.”

Each of the five teams has a mix of both film and new media and computer science students, so the students in the class have had to learn to work together.

“This is the first class I’ve had that’s been truly cross-disciplinary, and I think it is a great experience to collaborate with people whose skillsets are very different from my own,” Horzewski said. “The film and new media students were able to make all the art assets and record professional-quality audio; whereas, the computer science students, such as myself, were able to write the code that makes the objects behave like we want them to.”

Hartzell said, “The two are working in a mutually symbiotic relationship, and there are two very separate interests and two very separate experiences. That’s a great relationship, and we’ve been able to get a lot done through that.”

Cao was drawn to taking the class specifically for that collaboration.

“This one specifically stood out because it was new, and it was collaboration,” he said. “Just learning about how our process of coding and developing is a very time-consuming process, but also for the film and new media students, the modeling and Maya is just as time intensive. So to recognize we are not the only ones putting in all the work, and other people are working just as hard, that collaboration allows me to get a view on a different field I wouldn’t be touching too much, but to get an insight on how other people are working in this industry of gaming and emerging technologies.”

Kolbe said he reached out to the Computer Science department because he knew he didn’t want to teach the VR class without their assistance.

“I knew there was no way we could actually pull off a class by ourselves,” Kolbe said. “We’d end up spending most of the semester just learning the scripting language enough to where we could do something rudimentarily simple.”

Computer Science Chair Matt Dwyer said yes almost immediately.

“I pitched it their chair, Matt Dwyer, and I didn’t even get five minutes in before he said, ‘Yeah, we’re in,’” Kolbe said.

Bourke had already been interested in VR, so he joined Kolbe in teaching the class. They handpicked the students to take this first VR course.

“We knew that if we just opened it up to anybody that wanted to, we would get 50-100 people, and we only have two VR sets, and we would end up with a bunch of people that didn’t have the skills that were required,” Bourke said.

On the computer science side, Bourke was looking for students who were mature and skilled in teamwork. They also had to already have some coding skills. On the film and new media side, Kolbe said the students needed to know how to navigate 3D space and build assets, so they had to have already taken his animation or visual effects class or be concurrently enrolled in Christopher Ervin’s 3D class this semester.

They ended up with 10 computer science students and 9 film and new media students this semester. And both Bourke and Kolbe are pleased with the results.

“We were impressed with the projects after week five,” Kolbe said.

Both hope the course will return in the future and would like to explore either a year-long course or also including augmented reality.

“Another aspect of this course is that by next year, everything we taught this semester will be obsolete,” Bourke said.

Kolbe said, “I’ve never taught a sandbox or open-ended class like this. It’s actually really fun.”

The students agree.

“We’ve all learned so much by dreaming up something that interests us and bring it to virtual life,” Horzewski said. “Another thing I love about this class is that the technology is so new, and the tools we are using are continually updating. We have gotten experience working on the edge of a very new and rapidly developing field, and I’m really enjoying it.”

Cao hopes people come to the open demonstrations and try out their VR projects.

“It’s definitely something that very few people see on a daily basis,” Cao said. “Usually there are tutorials of just a simulator where you’re sitting in a fish tank, and you see fish swimming around you. But all of our projects are much more interactive, much more immersive.”

Horzewski is looking forward to showing off the projects.

“Virtual reality is still new enough that not many people have experienced it, and I think there’s a tendency to underestimate the potential this technology has,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to showing off the projects!”