Inside the Shapiro Design Lab, located on the first floor of the Shapiro Undergraduate Library, is a new form of experiential learning: augmented, virtual and mixed reality, or “AVMR” technology.
Virtual reality has been widely adopted within fields like nursing, medicine and dentistry, allowing for modeling and simulation in complex circumstances where using real people might be too painful or expensive. It can be as elaborate as locating symptoms that link to Alzheimer’s or as simple as simulating an elementary school’s trip to a zoo or museum across the globe.
In fact, VR has already found its way onto the University of Michigan’s campus. Jim Harbaugh, head coach of the University’s football team, uses VR to recruit potential team members, allowing them to experience “a day in the life of a Michigan football player.” The Mcity Test Facility uses virtual reality to test the reliability of self-driving cars in a multitude of different traffic scenarios that would otherwise be both costly and difficult to produce in a real-life environment. In the Duderstadt Center, medical students can examine a human cadaver through the lens of the Michigan Immersive Digital Experience Nexus. Similarly, the Computer and Video Game Archive in the basement of the Art, Architecture and Engineering Library on North Campus includes a Sony PlayStation VR, open for reservations for all students.
Now, virtual reality has made its way into the humanities classroom. About a year and a half ago, faculty approached the Shapiro Design Lab in a search for space where they could utilize this new technology and produce an immersive experience within their own coursework and research. The Shapiro Design Lab’s equipment is available by request and includes Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard and PlayStation VR. It opened for students, staff and faculty last year.
Justin Schell, director of the Shapiro Design Lab, has seen a spike in interest in the incorporation of virtual reality in all types of classrooms.
“Virtual reality was something that more people were interested in using on central campus,” Schell said. “Different faculty wanted to use it to explore and add it as part of their classes. It ranges from fully immersive headsets like Oculus and HTC Vive and PlayStation, to more lo-fi VR like Google Cardboard. There’s been interest from American culture and history classes; film, television and media studies classes — all the way to electrical engineering and computer science.”
English professor Sara Blair took her How to Read Images class to the design lab to create a dialogue pertaining to the way in which images shape societies’ “collective experience.” In this setting, students were immersed in a video experience related to the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis.
“One of the longstanding concerns about imaging and particular photography is wondering what damage or injury we might do to other people by capturing them in photographs and sharing and responding to their experience from a distance,” Blair said. “Are we appropriating the experience? Are we in some ways impeding their opportunities to tell their own stories? But, around a series of VR projects, those questions become even more powerful: What does it mean to try to know the experience of refugees or people who have been traumatized by wars or subject to disasters either human or natural? What kind of knowledge do we get?”
Lisa Nakamura, director of the Digital Studies Institute, brings many of her classes including The Internet is a Trash Fire to the Design Lab to use virtual reality as a way to relate to marginalized people, and thus create a greater scale of understanding.
“I was originally interested in virtual reality because there is so much journalism about how it can create more empathy,” Nakamura said. “People who don’t understand or want to feel more kind to refugees, the blind, people of color can now experience life through their point of view and stand in their shoes. Studies even show that having a female avatar in a video game can be empowering because you see yourself there.”
However, one of Nakamura’s students, LSA sophomore Riley McMahon, had a negative experience with the device when someone over virtual reality used derogatory terms in an attempt to have a conversation with her.
“I was a little uncomfortable using the device and talking to people I didn’t know,” McMahon said. “He got angry that I wasn’t conversing with him and started swearing.”
Nakamura acknowledges this risk when working with virtual reality and decided to use the experience to generate a conversation about the negatives spawned by the certain affordances the internet provides.
“It became an interesting lesson on how the internet can be toxic and not necessarily a kind place,” Nakamura said.
The Shapiro Design Lab is not just used by humanities professors, but by humanities students as well. Jeff Edelstein, recent graduate from the School of Education, has used Shapiro’s VR within his own work regarding students with disabilities and the ways in which they are represented in video games.
“I worked with the Shapiro Design Lab in partner with a group I ran called Disability Culture at U-M,” Edelstein said. “VR is still relatively a new thing; they are still finding new ways to make it work. One great game is ‘Moss.’ You are able to choose a mouse character that communicates with you via American Sign Language. It helps start a conversation related to inclusivity and representation in gaming.”
VR is not just a tool for STEM fields, Nakamura said. It can be applicable to any type of classroom setting, even those in the humanities. She hopes to see a rise in this technology, a technology she believes can help create a new story.
“I think our students should be using the latest technology in our humanities classes,” Nakamura said. “North Campus has a lot of that, and we take it for granted. People doing arts and literature and media should get the same access. It is a new kind of storytelling, and a new kind of medium, where I feel like people who are more interested in the humanities are able to talk about how it works on emotions and what visual traditions it’s in, and what kind of experiences you can have there, which is different than using it as just a tool. We’re talking about it more as an object to study, as well as a tool.”