Research assistantships are incredible opportunities to engage with innovative projects on campus. As part of their Research Assistantship, Meric Dagli and Vikas Yadav, Master of Design (MDes) students from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design, are working with Associate Professor of Art Ali Momeni to improve user experiences of a new virtual reality storytelling platform called SocialVR.
SocialVR, which was developed at CMU and led by Momeni and Aparna Wilder of IRL Labs, is an easy-to-use browser-based authoring tool designed for non-technical users and youth to create VR stories based on 360 photographs, videos, and interactive media hotspots. Using a simple browser, phone, and low-cost camera, individuals who otherwise would not have access to VR technology are empowered to build personalized immersive experiences. In addition to providing an intuitive design interface for creating VR experiences, SocialVR also provides a mechanism for multiple people to view the experience concurrently.
"Creating sophisticated VR experiences not only requires expertise with graphic design, 3D modeling, and video editing, it also requires programming skills," said Momeni and Wilder. "While VR experiences appear poised to play a major role in how we create and consume digital media, the cards are stacked against non-commercial applications. Left behind are our communities, public education, and non-profit cultural institutions. There is much scope for using VR technology to document lived experiences, build virtual worlds, and present new ideas through creative mediums. If VR is made accessible, it can become an essential tool to engage youth voices, agency, and storytelling."
Developing SocialVR is challenging since some features of the experience are unique and have to be designed keeping in mind its primary users, such as school-aged children.
“This project is different from some other more popular social virtual reality products, like ones developed by Facebook and other developers, in a way that we are trying to build a concurrent experience,” said Dagli. “Multiple people can be co-present in the same space and can be sharing things together in the virtual space.
“Some core challenges around such an experience is to create proper signifiers and affordances, which can allow users to effectively share as well as properly oriented in the space.”
One example of SocialVR at work was during Rec2Tech week, in Pittsburgh, PA. During Rec2Tech, five Pittsburgh Recreation centers were transformed into tech centers where kids used technology to express their creativity, solve real-world problems, and build job-ready skills.
This opportunity for Yadav and Dagli is due in part to the broad avenues of exploration the School of Design offers to its students.
“The transdisciplinary nature of things on campus make CMU such a diverse and truly interdisciplinary university,” added Yadav. “You can be learning how to play piano by morning and working on complex machine learning algorithms to create automated music by evening, isn’t that wonderful.”
Over the coming months, SocialVR will continue to be presented to schools, while continually testing the product’s usability. SocialVR has alread worked with MozFest and they will be partnering with the Allegheny Intermediate Unit this winter to organize a professional development workshop.