A participant immersed in a VR experience at the Fall 2016 VRSC Showcase. Photo/Valentina Suarez
Animation and engineering, narratives and interactive worlds, dreams and reality came to an intersection at VRSC’s Fall 2016 Demo Night on Thursday, Dec 1. Founded as a partnership between USC engineering and cinema students in 2015, VRSC is the first student-run VR club at a major American university according to club president Jyotsna "Jyo" Kadimi, a graduate student in the USC Viterbi School's Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering.
The lobby of the School of Cinematic Arts buzzed with development teams made up of engineers, animators, filmmakers, architects and designers. The result? An array of VR experiences as diverse as the backgrounds and interests of the students who've built them.
“In VR, any experience you want to create has to come with collaboration,” said Kadimi. “Engineers develop programming while cinema students design the interactions between the program and the user and create animations. Journalists can also use this foundational work to tell a story. We’ve worked with architects and music students, and now business students are even coming to find out how to get involved.”
Highlights from VRSC's first VR Festival in April, 2016
Corporate sponsor Unity, a leader in VR/AR content creation software was represented by keynote speaker Tony Parisi, its global head of VR/AR. Parisi, one of the early pioneers in VR, is an entrepreneur, researcher and developer of 3D computer software, including VRML, X3D and glTF, the new file format standard for 3D web and mobile applications, said he was impressed by the complex projects USC students had undertaken.
Here are a few of these interdisciplinary creations:
When struck with a brilliant interactive design idea but handicapped with limited formal programming knowledge, what’s an animator to do? Julian Ceipek, a graduate student at the USC School of Cinematic Arts Interactive Media and Games Division, sought to resolve this challenge with a program of his own: a VR tool called Paraspace. Paraspace, empowers designers to craft interactive worlds through an immersive experience, manually training objects to respond to certain behaviors, rather than through traditional programming languages.
“Designers are usually reliant on programmers to materialize their ideas, but Paraspace aims to liberate creators and help both programmers and designers better understand their processes,” Ceipek said. “An interactive experience is not a traditional way to build a world, but breaking through that barrier and being unconventional, that’s what VR’s best for.”
Just as Kadimi promised, the cinema and engineering students were joined by a number of journalism majors for USC Annenberg’s ‘Jovrnalism’ course, taught by Professor Robert Hernandez.
“In previous years, Annenberg has had these sorts of incubator classes with Google Glass and such, but for the past two years we’ve had ‘Jovrnalism’ with VR,” said Cameron Quon, a ‘Jovrnalism’ student.
Quon and his fellow classmates showcased their interactive documentation of California’s drought at VRSC, an experience relayed both through VR goggles as well as their app, live on the App Store.
When USC alumnus Nick Lerum co-founded Lux Virtual, he aimed to explain “complex ideas through Hollywood-grade visuals.” At VRSC, however, his showcase transformed visuals into the virtual, with a VR tour of the Colorado River’s path to Los Angeles.
“We created this tour for the Metropolitan Water District to teach kids how complicated and long the path for their water to get to them is. We actually drove out and took 360 photos of the aqueducts and river,” Lerum said. “You can actually click on the map’s locations and experience them through VR.”
In other words, it’s a virtual field trip.
Jaunt Cinematic VR Lab
VR’s utilitarian purposes have rendered its artistic merits no less desired. Just ask the designers and producers at USC’s Jaunt Cinematic VR Lab.
“Jaunt teamed up with USC to create VR experiences which are story driven and meant to really take all of the taboos of VR production, such as not moving the camera, and see what really holds up,” said Kathy Liu, a cinema production major and director of the Jaunt-produced short, ‘1969.’
Jaunt VR partnered with the USC School of Cinematic Arts to create a cinematic VR lab dedicated to understanding storytelling mechanics of the medium and subverting some of the typical limitations that accompany VR production. The first project term, for productions greenlit by the Jaunt Lab, only started during the second half of 2016.
“We created a mixed-media environment and props that were integrated with live-action footage captured with the Jaunt One VR camera," explained Liu. "We shot our actors on a 270-degree green screen and composited it with a lot of the same techniques used in regular digital filmmaking. Our project is continuing into the next semester. This is just the beginning."
Into a new reality
“It’s not just virtual reality anymore,” Kadimi said as the crowded evening wound down. “It’s mixed reality. I see people diving into that with so much enthusiasm because it’s a whole new medium. The rules haven’t been defined yet. You can create them yourself, and with the network we’ve built here in such a short time, we know that anything can happen.”