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Students are now spending class time fighting zombies and flipping through coloring books, thanks to a new course that lets them explore the art and science of virtual reality storytelling.

A collaboration between the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication and the Fred DeMatteis School of Engineering and Applied Science, the course brings together students from diverse majors such as journalism, film, graphic design, and computer science to create digital storytelling projects using the latest in virtual reality and 360-degree video technology.

“The use of digital storytelling tools and techniques has exploded over the last decade, as the communication and electronics industries began merging game design and interactive web development,” said Aashish Kumar, associate professor in the Department of Radio, Television, Film (RTVF), who teaches the class. “Journalists, in particular, now have the ability to bring stories from far and wide and allow audiences to be immersed in those environments – not just read the text or look at photographs or watch a flat video, but to be in the center of the action.”

In Fall 2018, a joint one-credit VR Creation Lab will be offered, which will be cross-listed in RTVF, journalism, computer science, and possibly fine arts/design.   

Students shoot and edit several short 360-degree videos on their own and then move on to work in interdisciplinary teams on projects that employ virtual reality in a computer-simulated 3-D environment. When the videos are experienced through a VR headset, viewers get the sensation of physically being in the depicted scene.

“This is the first time I’m collaborating with people outside my major,” said journalism student Mackenzie Caldwell ’18, whose team worked on the zombie project, which takes a viewer through a dark warehouse inhabited by the living dead. “I’ve never been in a class where you have both a journalist and a game designer, and those two people make something.”

Caldwell says he jumped at the chance to try some of the cutting-edge equipment that is used by media outlets such as The New York Times and the Associated Press, both of which produce regular VR features that allow viewers experiences such as joining Iraqi forces in battle with ISIS or traveling inside the brain to see how Alzheimer’s disease develops.

Students in the class learn to shoot using Samsung Gear 360 cameras, edit photos and videos with Adobe Premiere Pro in the Herbert School, design interactive elements using Unity game design software in the DeMatteis labs, and learn how to display their finished work on platforms such as Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard.

“When I first came to Hofstra, I was really into writing,” said Caldwell. “But taking a class like this has really kicked down the door to everything else journalism could be. My idea of how to tell a story is different now.”

Senior Brandi Kinard said the VR course was “a perfect marriage” between her graphic design major and engineering minor, and provides a good foundation for graduate school.

“I aspire to be a consultant who can connect the tech world and the art world, and I think virtual reality can be a good tool to tell stories about others and even promote social change,” she said.

Her team’s project allows viewers to jump into the pages of a coloring book, view its contents from every possible angle, and add color to black and white images.  Kinard is also working on adding virtual reality elements to a painting she did several years ago in an art class.

“VR takes you places you couldn’t have imagined.  You’re transported into someone else’s shoes, or even places where people don’t live, like outer space or a digital world,” she said. “I was surprised that people with different backgrounds could work well with this kind of technology, but we’re all learning together.”

Professor Kumar says it’s the blend of different disciplines that make the projects so successful.

“One of the ideas behind team-based work in the VR environment is that you won’t have all the skillsets you need to create something in this medium,” he said. “So I’ve put people together who have different skills – graphic designers, coders, editors. It’s paramount we start to taste what that interaction is like.”

The vision for the course began evolving in the summer of 2016, when Professor Kumar met with Herbert School Dean Evan Cornog and DeMatteis School Dean Sina Rabbany, as well as Krishnan Pillaipakkamnatt, chair of computer science, and engineering professor Edward Currie.

“Cross disciplinary initiatives like this cannot take place without faculty and administrators working together,” Professor Kumar said. “Thanks to their encouragement and additional support from the Provost’s office, we were able to secure space, equipment, and the cooperation of other faculty and administrators of the two units.”

In Fall 2018, a joint one-credit VR Creation Lab will be offered, which will be cross-listed in RTVF, journalism, computer science, and possibly fine arts/design.

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Neena Samuel

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