Logo: University of Southern California

Students take VR into uncharted realms at first VRSC Festival

From improving memory to designing cities, one of the first student VR clubs in the nation is stretching the limits of the emerging technology
By: Daniel Druhora
April 20, 2016 —


A participant trying one of the many VR experiences at VRSC's Student VR Festival Photo/Alexis Britt

Limes regiones rerum. Reality ends here.

These three words carved on a passageway above the entrance to the USC School of Cinematic Arts welcomed industry professionals, students and VR enthusiasts on April 15 at the first-ever Virtual Reality Festival organized by VRSC – a trendsetter in the student VR movement.

USC Viterbi mechanical engineering student Jake Green founded VRSC in January 2015 to fulfill his dream of a community where engineering and cinema students unite to become the next generation of storytellers.

Animation senior Lindsey Townley now leads the club which numbers over 800 students from architecture, film, engineering, animation, business, medicine and music.

“In reality, these people were not supposed to collaborate,” said Jyotsna “Jyo” Kadimi, a USC Viterbi graduate student in electrical engineering and VRSC’s VP of industry relations. “But reality ends here.”

VRSC founders believe this creative spark and their university-wide inclusiveness is what allowed them to open wide the vault of creative possibilities in VR.

A story fest with a twist

“At the time we did a search, and as far as we know, we were the first VR club in the country,” said Green who is now collaborating with VR producers and the Smithsonian Institute to create a VR experience of the Wright Brothers first flight.

“Our goal was to open the medium to the university at large. You have an idea? We’ll give you the training, the tools, and connect you to the right people. You just bring your dream.”

Green was introduced to VR while working on Project Holodeck – a do-it-yourself virtual reality platform he built with his colleagues using off-the-shelf components and custom software. The project was part of USCGames, a joint effort between the Department of Computer Science at USC Viterbi and the Interactive Media & Games Division at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Holodeck has since spun out into a VR start-up, Survios. 

A year after its founding VRSC exploded into an energized a hub of students, staff and faculty come together from various disciplines to test the bounds of virtual reality.

Don’t call it simply a festival – call it a “revolution in storytelling”, said VRSC organizers who invited students from University of California-San Diego (UCSD), University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), Chapman University, Loyola Marymount University (LMU) and University of Colorado-Boulder.

Title sponsor Disney, together with major VR players, NVIDIA, Google, Maker Studios and Industrial Light and Magic’s X Lab, formed an expert panel of judges and put up $25,000 in prizes to be split up among winners in four categories: 360 Live Action Videos, 360 Animation, Interactive VR Games and Immersive Technology/Augmented Reality.

In all, 34 student projects showcased eye-popping VR/AR works ranging from healthcare to games, journalism, interactive design and interpretive dance.

The festival is a living paradigm of the industry’s “cross-pollination,” says St.John Colón, who teaches the advanced games course in the Department of Computer Science at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

“Look around, you’ll see VR pop up everywhere. Medicine, architecture… you name it,” said Colón, referring to “Recall,” a memory enhancing game developed at the GamePipe Laboratory, and “Sandbox VR” built by USC Viterbi-Cinema duo Ashok Kuruvilla, a graduate in computer science and Sagar Ramesh an undergraduate in animation. 

Sandbox VR allows users to build virtual worlds with their own hands.

“Think of it as creating a scene in Maya or Unity, but being able to scale the entire world up and down, walk around your world, and make precise adjustments as you’re building,” illustrated Kuruvilla.

“I can’t wait to see how we can integrate this new media with urban design and landscape architecture,” said Blake Weber, a master of landscape architecture and urban planning student at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, who was at the festival looking to collaborate with content creators and engineers. 

The beautiful thing about VR

Something that immediately hits you at a VR festival is the sheer silence of it all. Gone are the multitude of voices shouting above the fray of short attention spans and the draining psychodrama of elevator pitches. Instead, you’re immersed in the whispers of “wows,” in the “oohs” and “aahs” echoing in the hum of hard drives. It invites you to put on a VR headset and experience the exultation in the room. Contrary to popular belief, the future is silent. But in a far off corner there was excitement. People were congregating around Recall.

“Recall is more than a game – it’s a VR mind-hack,” said Kadimi, Recall’s co-lead designer and producer.

Hatched by USC Viterbi biomedical engineering student, Lukas Ferrer, Recall uses the most powerful memory tool known to man, The Method of Loci.

“We’re going to improve your memory by allowing you to explore mind-palaces made out of your own digital documents,” explained Ferrer as he slid Oculus Rift over the eyes of a fascinated participant. “In essence, it turns your data into a playable level designed for easy memorization. Rather than just read something, you explore it like a child.”

Jyo Kadimi takes a festival participant into her award-winning experience "Jyo Rahi!" Photo/Alexis Britt

Ferrer’s faculty advisor, Colón, who has designed games for DreamWorks, Warner Brothers, Nickelodeon and Disney’s Pixar, said he wasn’t surprised a biomedical engineer like Ferrer was attracted to VR.

“There’s a real hunger out there for project-based learning and VR lends itself seamlessly to that.”

Colón has judged hundreds of industry projects and said, in his mind, these students are ready to compete with the professionals. “When you compare what they’re doing with the pros who have the money, resources and time, it’s just astounding. There’s virtually no difference.”

YouTube star Sam Macaroni of Disney’s Maker Studios, also one of the judges, agreed, but took it a step further.

“They’re already ahead of Hollywood studios. We hear it from studio execs all the time ‘Oh, VR, sure, we’re getting into that.’ You should’ve been in it ten years ago. These young people are way ahead of you.”

VRSC president, Lindsey Townley, is excited about the limitless potential of the medium and how far it has come.

She showcased her own thesis project at the festival, “Children of The Moon” – an abstract narrative telling Plato’s myth of the soul mates. A collaboration between USC engineers, artists, animators, filmmakers and composers, “Children” takes you into the minds of two dancers struggling to find out if they are each other’s soul mates.

“The beautiful thing about VR…it’s a medium where art, technology and social justice converge,” said Townley. “But it didn’t just happen overnight. It’s been years in the making and USC has had an historic role.”


Immersive Technology/AR
1st: Sagar Ramesh & Ashok Kuruvilla "Sandbox VR"
2nd: Anshul Pendse "Inner Activity"
3rd: John Francis "Fraice"

Interactive VR Games
1st: Steve Cha & Natalie Gravier "Squawk!"
2nd: UCSD VR Club 
3rd: Miranda Due "Nurature"

360 Animation
1st: Cecilia Sweet-Coll "Anicca"
2nd: Robin Cho "Vancouver, December 2015"
3rd: Lindsey Townley "Children of the Moon"

360 Live Action 
1st: Sam Wickert "Channel Surfer"
2nd: Jerry Hoffman "Celine"
3rd: Noah Yoseloff "Lions & Deer"

Nvidia best in show winners

Grand Prize: Jyotsna Kadimi "Jyo Rahi!"
Platinum: Anshul Pense "Inner Activity"
Gold: Sagar Ramesh & Ashok Kuruvilla "Sandbox VR"
Silver: Steve Cha & Natalie Gravier "Squawk!"

She pointed to the USC Institute for Creative Technologies where Oculus Rift was developed, and where, for at least 20 years, researchers like Albert “Skip” Rizzo have used VR simulations to treat patients with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), severe pain and phobias or fears; USC Viterbi professor Evan Suma's invention of a novel redirection technique for enabling walking through virtual environments that are much larger than the physical tracking areas; the USC Center for Body Computing (CBC) that sponsored “Hacking Virtual Medicine” a 2015 hackathon where teams of biomedical engineers, computer scientists, physical therapists and even toy designers took part in a marathon that challenged them to create virtual reality health care solutions for patients and providers.

The winner of that 2015 competition was Hyndsight Health, a VR experience that engenders empathy in doctors and patients dealing with diabetic caused blindness. Hyndsight is none other than a trio of cinema, engineering and business students from the nascent VRSC club.

“It’s a place where the engineer can be the creative and the creative can be the engineer, said Kadimi, who won NVIDIA's grand prize for "Jyo Rahi!" - a collection of three distinct VR/AR experiences: a 360 video documenting her journey through iconic monuments such as the Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty; an AR demo that lets people play around with her business card; and an interactive VR game that uses binaural audio.

“All beginners level stuff,” said Kadimi.

She takes the baton from Townley who graduates in May 2016 to join the ranks of other VRSC alumni already shaping the industry. Together, they make up a cohort of futurecasters – Trojan VR evangelists who will push the boundaries of reality for years to come.