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UArts has made a strategic commitment to virtual reality. Here’s a first look inside the matrix.

The school has created the new the new Center for Immersive Media with a $1.7 million retrofit of a space that had been used to build theater sets. We met up with a VR class there.

Game Art senior Azalea Rosado uses digital content creation (DCC) tools in virtual reality (projected on a large screen for classmates to see) in UArts' new VR class for arts students, gamers, and theater majors.
Game Art senior Azalea Rosado uses digital content creation (DCC) tools in virtual reality (projected on a large screen for classmates to see) in UArts' new VR class for arts students, gamers, and theater majors.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Today is make-a-“useless-object” day at Artmaking in Virtual Reality class at Philly’s University of the Arts, and senior Azalea Rosado is crafting a pair of virtual spiked underwear.

Wearing a pair of VR goggles and holding some intuitive controls, she’s drafting the uncomfortable 3D garment, which instructor Erik Van Horn can see taking shape on the monitor in front of her.

Rosado is a game arts major who hopes to one day design and produce video games, and the new VR class, the first of its kind at UArts’ new Center for Immersive Media, has given her a new way to make her art.

The “useless-object” exercise is meant to acquaint the class with the new technology as the semester starts, but Rosado is already thinking of ways to incorporate her “useless” underwear into a video game, perhaps as punishment for a gamer’s avatar that fails to level up.

For UArts, the aggressive push into VR is a way to help build the university’s brand as an innovator in creative fields, according to UArts president David Yager.

“It sends a message about our brand, which is about creativity," he said. "And that can mean dance or theater or music, but also the larger idea of expressing yourself, and VR is a tool that can achieve that in many different ways.”

Yager brought an interest in VR with him when he arrived as president in 2016, after stints at the University of Maryland Baltimore Campus and University of California, Santa Cruz, where he emphasized visual arts innovation.

He said he’d also been hearing about the importance of VR from UArts’ visiting artists, who’d been using the technology in their work across a variety of disciplines, and so made the $1.7 million commitment to retrofit space in an old campus building space that had been used to build theater sets.

Now, it has trusses and camera mounts for motion-capture performances, and classrooms where students can work on games and 3D modeling in a variety of ways.

Looking ahead, he also sees the school’s VR investment as a way to put UArts at the center of collaborative relationships with local partners, including a proposed a joint venture with Jefferson University Hospital to create a virtual emergency room that will help physicians work through a variety of high-pressure situations.

Yager, who holds a faculty position in pediatrics at Johns Hopkins, worked with doctors there to use the immersive technology to help manage pediatric patients’ pain by redirecting the children’s focus. The potential for VR applications, he said, is unlimited. “I know some exciting things are going to happen. I don’t know exactly what they are, and that’s what excites me the most.”

Spiked underwear as muse

Spiked underwear artist Rosado, a senior, enrolled in the VR class as a way to round out and expand her curriculum in gaming, a passion that started when she was 4, playing Mario Kart on a GameCube at her home in the Northeast. “When the class was introduced I was super-hyped, even if I didn’t totally know what to expect,” she said.

Now, she’s looking past the boundaries of conventional game design, inspired by the VR format to think of “how to make games in that world.”

Rosado’s keen gamer skills have obviously helped her absorb the VR process quickly. Using control devices in each hand, she’s drawing lines and adding color with impressive speed, rotating the object so that she can inspect it and add color, mass, and form in all dimensions.

Compared to the tools used to design conventional games she said, “It’s a much faster process."

That’s been consistent through the class, said instructor Van Horn, UArts’ program director for animation and game art. The software that creates the VR modeling environment may be complex, but the interface is “incredibly easy and intuitive,” he said.

“The students are able to work fast. It’s so much faster than a keyboard and a mouse. That makes it a great way to ideate,” Van Horn said.

It’s so fast and intuitive that all kinds of students find it useful.

Colin Sass attends UArts to study theater design and can use the VR technology to build virtual sets that enable him to plot and “build” the dimensions, so the elements can essentially be measured beforehand.

There are huge advantages, he said, to being able to “make something that feels physical.” Sass can construct and design a 3D stage in the VR realm, and even create virtual lighting that shows where shadows fall on stage.

That means Sass can create a space that matches the precise characteristics of his real-world stage and create objects with dimensions that can be modeled in VR before the hands-on phase. There is less worry, for instance, of “cutting the wood down too much.”

Going full Andy Serkis

Ryan Pater, a graduate student and actor, is using VR to design and create a stage mask. The data stored when the VR model is created can be plugged into a 3D printer, making the manufacturing process flexible and easy.

He’s already thinking of going full Andy Serkis (Gollum in Lord of the Rings, and Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes) — using the VR modeling capabilities to capture a performance, then add a digital outer layer, erasing the line between what can be imagined and what can be created, he said.

“It allows actors to create characters who are [physically] so different from ourselves,” he said, "and that’s very intriguing.”

Yager said the goal from the outset was to create a “cross-fertilization” of students and ideas at the new VR studio. “The concept of this was that it was a university facility and it wasn’t owned by any one department. What we hoped would happen is exactly what is happening.

The students, he said, are "figuring out how to collaborate, and how to construct a project in completely new ways.”

The university wasn’t sure it would have enough interested students to fill even one class, he said, but decided to offer three — and quickly filled every slot after word of the new course circulated among students on social media.