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Get ready for the new reality

Seneca has entered the virtual world

The goggled, slack-jawed look says it all.

“It’s called the VR face,” says Sumit Bhatia, a digital media guru, of virtual reality. “Every time you give someone a VR headset, you see this amazement and surprise on their face. They are completely immersed.”

Sumit-Bhatia with VR headset

Sumit Bhatia with a VR headset

Sumit, Program Co-ordinator and Professor of Seneca’s Interactive Media and Design (INM) program, still gets visibly excited when talking about his first brush with VR five years ago.

“I got to play a game that was being developed and what I experienced was this parallel life — a different experience,” he recalls. “I was transported to a new world.”

Devin Andrade had a similar encounter with VR.

As part of the first graduating INM class, Devin admits she wasn’t that interested in VR.

That changed when she was introduced to it in the final-semester Interaction Design course, for which she created a VR game that teaches people about HTML coding.

“VR is so new you don’t really know what you can do with it,” she says.

“But once I played my own game, I was like, ‘This is awesome.’ It was such a good experience, it was amazing. It’s kind of weird at first, but then you relax into it.”

Yimeng Shi, another INM student, created a VR app called Neon Story that takes users to cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai to experience the lighting effect of neon signs, which he says are vanishing today.

 scene from Neon Story

A sample view of Yimeng Shi's Neon Story. Adjacent images, when viewed in VR, become a single three-dimensional video with 360 degrees of visibility.

“The big deal with VR for me is that you can lose yourself in a virtual environment,” Yimeng says. “Nowadays, VR is easily accessible with a smartphone and a Google Cardboard. For kids, it can bring fun and knowledge, and develop an interest in science and technology.”

Whether it’s being seen through a low-cost viewer like Google Cardboard or a high-end headset like the Oculus Rift, VR is used in more fields than just gaming. Filmmakers, journalists, medical researchers, educators and many others are turning to this new technology.

That’s why Seneca is one of few colleges to have introduced a VR curriculum in a formal capacity. Through working with industry partners, the Faculty of Communication, Art and Design developed INM to teach students about publishing and creating VR content.

Google cardboard viewer

Google Cardboard is a low-cost VR viewer. Just slip your mobile phone behind the lenses, and you're ready to experience VR.

Students gain a sense of working in a different environment to create a spatial dimension, and skills to work as concept developers, producers and interaction designers.

“VR is a fairly new direction in industry and academia, but it’s a new way of getting people to interact with content,” says Sumit, who argues virtual reality is more of a medium than technology. For example, part of his postgraduate research on VR explores its impact on behaviour and decision-making, including dementia.

“The potential of VR is huge. Imagine the ability to transport a travel experience for someone who couldn’t travel,” he adds. “We know the role media plays in our lives – we experience it as a third party, an outsider. With VR, and VR with 3D, you can place yourself within an environment and experience it in first person. It gives you a new perspective on things.”

Morgan Young, a seasoned 3D artist, game developer and VR entrepreneur, is pushing the boundaries of digital human interaction with VR and 3D. A graduate of Seneca’s Game Arts and Animation, Morgan is president and co-founder of Quantum Capture Inc., which creates immersive interactions with hyper-real digital humans. The company has a full-production photogrammetry studio and is regularly contracted by major game studios, visual effects companies and film productions.

A sample of a Quantam Capture digital double shows the detail that can be captured and displayed in VR.

“VR and 3D is the perfect marriage,” says Morgan. “It’s about connecting people in a meaningful and impactful way. The term we use in the industry is ‘presence.’”

That presence can take many forms. Some virtual reality applications, such as the NYT VR app from The New York Times, feature news reports created as 360-degree videos. Quantum Capture goes a step further. It creates an entire digital world to explore and interact with, providing a more immersive experience.

“We create the 3D world out of geometry with video game engines. We create digital doubles,” Morgan says.

In addition to working on VR game development, Quantum Capture has worked on research and educational applications, short- and long-format narrative VR experiences, and marketing campaigns.

It has worked with medical companies to train surgeons on digital humans, as opposed to cadavers. It has also worked with Nike on product shoots.

“VR will be a huge medium in the years to come,” Morgan says.

Looking back, Morgan says Seneca gave him an advantage in the field. “I still draw from stuff I learned at Seneca every day,” he adds. “The video game course taught me the foundation of everything I know and VR is just another way of displaying your creation back to you.”