New live broadcast and virtual reality lab brings VR to the general public
As the world moves more and more online, the line between physical reality and virtual reality has become increasingly blurred. But with the high cost of today’s virtual reality technologies, few have the opportunity or access to experience these digital worlds themselves. With that in mind, Ilya Brookwell, assistant professor of media and cultural studies, founded the new live broadcast and virtual reality research lab at UC Riverside – the first of its kind for campus.
Housed in the UCR Department of Media and Cultural Studies, the lab was established by Brookwell in early 2020 to provide students studying gaming and online communities with the opportunity to experience the virtual worlds forming some of their first-hand research.
“It takes what our students learn on the page, and that makes it real,” said Brookwell, who is known as the “VR teacher” by his students. “It serves as a portal to many different worlds that our students can now go to in class.”
The lab hosts a series of lower and upper division courses open to students on campus, with more than 330 students using the facility so far to advance their studies in video game studies, la live video policy, online research methods and virtual reality studies. Brookwell, whose research focuses on video gamers, live streaming and online communities, said the lab will advance research methodologies and provide new avenues of inquiry in the field of gaming studies.
“For a very long time we have studied the game from a theoretical point of view, sometimes visiting players at their homes or going to events to interview them,” he said. “Being able to really step into the game and into the world is a real research opportunity that didn’t exist before. You don’t write something in the abstract – you report what your real experiences are. “
The lab currently offers a variety of equipment, including Oculus Quest 2, Vive Pro, and Valve Index headsets, as well as three terminals where students can experience virtual reality and stream their experiences live on platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitch. Along with improving student access to virtual reality, one of the lab’s main goals is to make virtual reality more accessible to society as a whole.
“A small percentage of the population is fortunate enough to experience virtual reality, and what our lab aims to do is broadcast those experiences and share them with a larger audience, like a radio station,” Brookwell said. “We are opening it to our students and our research partnerships, but eventually we hope to make it public as well. We are democratizing virtual reality. “
Due to the pandemic, students have yet to make full use of the lab, but in the meantime, Brookwell has used it as an opportunity to create what he calls the “virtual reality school,” noting that While many schools have successfully adapted to work, the pandemic has also exposed some of the pitfalls of online learning, including a lack of social interaction and increased isolation. In response, Brookwell used the lab as a way to create a more immersive learning experience.
Using the lab equipment, Brookwell can take its students to virtual worlds through open source software including Google Earth VR and VRChat by broadcasting live VR experiences on their screens. Students can also chat and interact with Brookwell and other students as they move around virtual reality worlds and discuss lecture topics. A recent class took students back to a conference room with Brookwell teaching from a virtual whiteboard as Dr. Who.
“When I talk about violence in video games, I can go to a location in Google VR and stand on the street of a city in a location that I’m talking about, so we’re not just sitting on a Zoom call doing a discussion seminar, ”he said.
A UC-wide VR course, open to students from all campuses, is also being considered for the future.
“Online education is seen as a barrier for many, but there are huge opportunities when you create a virtual reality school, including increasing and increasing enrollment,” he said.
Students will also be able to acquire technical skills through the lab, including using VR technologies, sound engineering and video production. Brookwell also works in partnership with several VR media studios and other organizations interested in various virtual reality applications where students can collaborate on projects, gain industry experience and secure internships and work opportunities.
One of these projects is already underway. Drawing on ethnographic data and research developed in partnership with Coventry University, the lab will be used to help develop a prototype of a virtual reality museum exhibit focused on medical implantation and the experiences of those who live with various medical implants. The laboratory is also partnering with UCR ARTS to develop the project and possibly house the future exhibition.
“We try to create a virtual reality experience through interviews and careful design that helps educate surgeons, students, outpatients and other researchers on the entire process,” Brookwell said. “These types of virtual reality experiences can create practical bridges within institutions that do not normally overlap.”
Brookwell said the department hopes to expand the lab’s capabilities by offering more equipment, including large-format screens and a set of VR headsets, so that each student can experience and interact together in virtual worlds. He also plans to make the lab mobile, allowing students to set up VR experiences and video production from anywhere. As virtual reality technologies continue to evolve, Brookwell hopes the lab will serve as an incubator for new digital applications and expand possibilities for learning and immersive experiences.
“Ultimately, we hope to find a balance between training and education, and be at the forefront of VR,” he said. “The possibilities are limitless.”