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Virtual Reality | Feature

Reliving History: Virtual Reality in the Classroom

CAVE at U Arizona
Photo: University of Arizona

For 16 years Bryan Carter has pursued a vision of immersing his students into the worlds they're learning about in his Africana Studies classes. As an assistant professor teaching African American literature at the University of Arizona (and previously at the University of Central Missouri) that means taking them back to Harlem of the 1920s and early 1930s, a period when jazz set the rhythm of the day and the Harlem Renaissance dominated much of the American cultural scene.

Now, the use of a high-end gaming platform could provide students with the opportunity to interact with historic figures in their former environments in a way he could only have imagined a decade and a half earlier. Eventually, users could reside in the real world and see what life was like in a different era.

Of course, dreams often come with catches. In this case, the catch is that the latest version of the virtual universe that Carter wants to build requires accepting the help and expertise of a company that has built its rep creating virtual communities in the porn business.

Evolution of a Virtual Recreation

Carter was working on his PhD at U Missouri when a call went out for projects on campus to make use of a new technology called virtual reality. Only three proposals came in, Carter's among them, and it was accepted. His idea was to recreate Harlem as it was during its Renaissance as a virtual environment that could be explored by students.

At that time, according to Carter, the Advanced Technology Center was setting up CAVEs -- a "cave automatic virtual environment" powered by high-end Silicon Graphics (now SGI) computers. Participants would wear liquid crystal shutter glasses to view images in 3D, projectors displayed huge images on walls, and a motion platform provided the sense of movement. That was state of the art for virtual reality in the late 1990s.

Carter worked with the center's developers and graphic designers to set up "Virtual Harlem," as he called it. "We spent months just gathering photographs and information and going through a very interesting reflexive exchange, whereby I was teaching them a little bit about the Harlem Renaissance, and they were teaching me about programming and things that went into building an environment that people would be able to navigate."

The result was a 10-square block representation of Harlem as it existed during the Renaissance. Initially, students were brought into the CAVE, given goggles to wear, and experienced a virtual "flight" through the environment. Users could visit popular venues such as the Cotton Club, Apollo Theater, or Savoy Ballroom; or listen to speeches given by famous intellectuals of the day, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Marcus Garvey among them. Or they might visit a site where they could hear readings by Zora Neale Hurston or Langston Hughes.

In the following semesters Carter's intent was to have students work on projects that could be incorporated into the environment. That's when funding ran out.

Seeking a more affordable alternative for hosting Virtual Harlem, Carter received a grant from the National Black Programming Consortium, which would allow him to rebuild the environment in Second Life, Linden Lab's virtual world. Eventually, his project received grants from the same consortium, as well as the government of Norway and the University of Paris-Sorbonne to work with faculty from other institutions to create a virtual version of Montmartre, the 18th arrondissement in Paris, where jazz was introduced by African American troops during and after World War I. By 2004, Virtual Harlem had morphed into the Virtual Harlem Project, including both locations.

The Shift from a CAVE to Second Life

The port from Virtual Harlem to Second Life was a challenge, Carter says. For example, where the CAVE used polygons to render images and objects, Second Life uses primitives or "prims," represented by a set of parameters defining shape, position, size, rotation, etc. Those parameters are sent to a user's computer, where the local video card renders the appearance of the object. That fundamental difference forced most of the environment to be reconstructed.

The challenges in moving to Second Life weren't just technical. Students had to go through a mindshift too. Suddenly, says Carter, they experienced "something that was more like the real world in the sense that anything could happen." Rather than having a third-person viewpoint of Virtual Harlem, which the CAVE offered, students created virtual versions of themselves and could watch their avatars interacting in the environment. That included encountering people from outside of academia too, because "it was wide open."

But the use of avatars confused students, who may have been used to their use in games but not in an open ended environments. "They had to be instructed on Second Life, because it wasn't a game," he explains. "They weren't being told who to shoot, who to race, how to level up." This non-gaming environment threw students for a loop. They'd enter the virtual world and ask him, "Now what?" His response: "Well, explore. Do these things. Look around the city. See what you can find. Go and experiment with things."

The instructional approach had to change. The class now took place within Virtual Harlem. Students could be anywhere physically, as long as their avatars appeared during the class period. That was a benefit, says Carter. "I got to know them through their avatars even more so than [when] I got to know them face to face. After the first two weeks of class, I saw only their avatars until the last week of class."

When class was in session, everybody would congregate at The Dark Tower, a virtual representation of the home of A'Lelia Walker, daughter of Madame C.J. Walker, a business woman who made her fortune from beauty salons and hair-straightening products for black women. The younger Walker maintained a popular salon in her sizable Harlem home, attracting black and white novelists, poets, artists, intellectuals, business professionals, and royalty.

During the meetup in the virtual version of the mansion Carter could share documents, images, PowerPoint presentations, and assignments, and then students would disperse to various locations around Virtual Harlem or Virtual Montmartre to work on projects related to their readings. Carter would move around, meeting with groups, answering questions about the readings, and hear the students talk about the status of their project work.

Projects brought together students and faculty members from around the world. Cross-university teams of students might work together expanding the collection of museums with images and videos; creating tours of historic sites; or scripting interactivity for avatars of historic figures. Students could also wander around the virtual neighborhoods and listen in as other teams discussed their projects.

Having students work in Second Life, a public forum, made a distinct impact -- the quality improved, says Carter. "They knew I wasn't the only one consuming it," he explains. "Whatever they were doing was going to be -- in some cases -- a permanent installment into the Virtual Harlem project and people from around the world would be visiting. They needed to make sure it was up to par and not something they just kind of threw together. They spent a lot of time making sure that things were perfected... something they would be proud of, that they could bring their parents back to."

OpenSim and Virtual World Web

By 2012, however, Carter decided it was time to move operations once again. Linden Lab had done away with its 50 percent educational discount and he had found its lack of dedicated support for education untenable. In fall of that year Carter received an invitation from Scotland's University of St Andrews to port his project to OpenSimulator. OpenSim is an open source multi-platform, multi-user 3D application server that can be used to create a virtual environment accessible on a multitude of client devices.

Alan Miller, a St Andrews lecturer in the school of computer science, wanted to encourage other faculty at the university to experiment with immersive environments and considered Virtual Harlem a "prime example." St. Andrews programmers spent about a month building a "relatively accurate copy" of Virtual Harlem in the OpenSim environment.

Shortly after, however, Carter also received an invitation from Utherverse, a Vancouver, BC company that runs an adult-oriented virtual social network. The executives there were trying to create a new operation -- the Virtual World Web -- that would "distance itself from the adult orientation and focus more on education and business," he explains. The idea behind VWW is to spawn creation of a network of interconnected 3D communities and video game technology with traditional 2D web pages.

The company's business diversification goes hand in hand with its adoption of Unity Technologies' Unity, a multi-platform game tool that allows the programmer to develop for Web, PC, Mac, Wii, and every major mobile platform.

The VWW team developed an environment that sits on top of Unity to provide the essentials needed for users to create their virtual worlds: infrastructure (data storage, communications, etc.), components (such as property, a clothing system, and currency), and "businesses" (such as education environments). The VWW team also created Curio, a 3D browser that allows users to navigate through the Virtual World Web.

Like the St Andrews project, VWW's education operation was interested in using the Virtual Harlem Project to showcase what could be done with its platform.

Getting Closer to Reality

In spite of some misgivings (such as the prospect of university administrators hearing about the history of the company and saying, "Wait a minute..."), Carter was intrigued by the proposition from Utherverse. The gaming environment was a tenfold improvement over anything he's seen in Second Life -- "not only graphics-wise, but also with regards to the quality of the avatars, the movements, the programming that can go into it." (Watch a two-minute MP4 video showing the latest version of the Project on Vimeo here.)

But exploiting that platform requires a stricter alignment between what's real and what's in Virtual Harlem. Carter accepted Utherverse's help, and now he's feeding their programmers the content they need to create an ever-more accurate version of the neighborhood, including a street grid layout of Harlem and East Harlem and photographs of every physical building, which VWW will "age" to make them more representative of what they may have looked like during the '20s and '30s. The new Virtual Harlem will also include many more interiors of "iconic locations."

"I wanted to get something more accurate because as we get closer and closer to augmented reality and geo-location, the only way we're going to be able to connect the virtual world to the real world is to have a higher level of accuracy based on these two environments," he says.

Carter foresees the day soon when somebody could be sitting on a park bench in the real world facing a brownstone and wearing Google Glasses "or one of the other augmented reality headsets" and watch an avatar from Virtual Harlem explaining what the building originally housed 80 or 90 years ago.

While the new virtual environment progresses, Carter has continued evolving his course. Over the last year he has been collaborating with Georgia Tech Associate Professor Celia Pearce, who teaches game design. As part of that class, Pearce assigns teams of students to build game prototypes using either Unity or Flash. Now Pearce's students will work with Carter's students to expand interactivity within the VWW version of Virtual Harlem; his students will provide subject matter expertise and hers will do the programming of game-like interactivity.

With a possible move to VWW planned for spring 2014 and in anticipation of the changes to come, Carter has renamed his literature course to "Experiencing the Harlem Renaissance." As the students read representative works for class, he says, "They're going to be incorporating that knowledge into the projects they'll be working on."

For example, the student teams might decide to create an exchange between two avatars at the front door of the Harlem-based white-only Cotton Club, one telling the other that he can't come in because he's African American. Or an avatar might be programmed to say certain things as he or she walks from one end of the block to the other or joins in a parade with Marcus Garvey.

Carter believes augmented reality could be useful in multiple subjects beyond literature -- history, medicine, "any kind of training where you want to have a single place where students are able to display their work or interact with one another more so than just seeing a headshot in a video conference. It makes it so much more engaging. Almost any discipline can benefit from something like this."

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