When Josh Antonuccio attended the famed SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, in March, he talked to companies that were hungry to find college students with skills in the virtual and augmented reality technologies in which many industries—from media and entertainment to tourism—are investing billions of dollars.
“Every industry is trying to figure out how to incorporate this technology to connect with consumers and fans because it creates a whole new level of tangible experiences,” said Antonuccio, a lecturer in Ohio University’s School of Media Arts and Studies.
Ohio University is stepping up to meet this industry need. In February, the university’s Innovation Strategy program awarded $878,000 to the Immersive Media Initiative to develop a new curriculum and hands-on research and creative projects for Ohio University students to gain the experiences they need to join this burgeoning field.
John Bowditch, an instructor in the School of Media Arts and Studies and director of The Game Research and Immersive Design (GRID) Lab, is leading the cross-campus, interdisciplinary effort, working closely with Antonuccio and Eric Williams, associate professor in the School of Media Arts and Studies, to spearhead efforts to create a formal immersive media program.
“We are so fortunate to have received this grant from the Ohio University Innovation Strategy because as far as higher education goes, we’ll be a leader in the pack in this field. That’s going to be huge for this university,” Bowditch said.
The initiative includes partnerships with colleagues within the Scripps College of Communication, as well as faculty in the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, College of Health Sciences and Professions, College of Arts and Sciences, Russ College of Engineering and Technology and Patton College of Education. These partners are exploring how to use virtual and augmented reality for issues such as reducing anxiety in blood donors, helping patients recover from low back pain, training health care professionals, offering virtual visits to paleontology field sites and museums to explore fossils, and remotely connecting humans and robots.
The Immersive Media Initiative team already has a solid foundation on which to build the new initiative. The GRID Lab has offered students a facility, equipment, software and real-world learning experiences in research and development in game design and immersive media for more than a decade. A portion of the second floor of Scripps Hall home to the GRID Lab’s computer equipment and video production space is expanding to include a new motion capture studio and an audio recording and editing suite.
The initiative has engaged Ohio University students in several projects to date that serve as a preview of what’s ahead.
The Immersive Media Initiative team wrote, shot and produced a nine-minute short film titled “Re: Disappearing” during summer 2015 that used a 360-degree camera rig to shoot scenes at various angles to offer viewers an immersive story experience. Students learned how to use the equipment and how to adapt traditional film production processes to the virtual reality platform.
“On a film set, the whole crew is behind the camera. In 360-degree filmmaking, there is no behind the camera,” Williams said. “How do you set up shots, where do you put people?”
The Immersive Media Initiative team also employed its 360-degree camera rig at OhioHealth in Columbus to help enhance emergency room training for medical students. Bowditch and Ohio University students worked with firefighters and medical professionals to film a rescue from a mock car accident scene.
“Because we did a lot of legwork over the last 14 months, we’re right at the cutting edge of where everyone else is in terms of developing a new language and production process,” Antonuccio said. “There’s an exchange of knowledge and a race of sorts to figure out how to make it work.”
This summer the Immersive Media Initiative will offer its first classes, in which students will work with the 360-degree camera rig, audio equipment and other tools and will “have a direct hand” in developing research and development processes for projects, Williams said. The initiative’s three-tiered Student Mentorship Program will advance Ohio University students through levels of training and responsibility. New students will serve as apprentices to faculty or experienced students, and then may serve as project members. Finally, students are trained as mentors to tutor program apprentices.
In addition, the Immersive Media Initiative has received five new paid student jobs through the university’s Program to Aid Career Exploration (PACE) and Honors Tutorial College that will offer additional opportunities for students to get involved with the program.
The first cohort of students will work with WOUB Public Media to bring virtual and augmented reality to journalism. The team is developing a plan to use the 360-degree camera rig and Google’s virtual reality cardboard viewing devices to capture events such as town hall debates, press conferences and other news events that will provide an immersive experience for audiences.
At SXSW Interactive, virtual reality was hailed as “the ultimate empathy machine,” Antonuccio said, given its power to trigger emotions and move audiences to action in ways that traditional news articles or photos may not. Entities ranging from the New York Times to the United Nations are enthused about the possibilities that immersive media offers to engage audiences in issues, he said.
At Ohio University, the Immersive Media Initiative team is excited about the opportunities ahead. Bowditch hopes to attract students and collaborators from a wide variety of disciplines and backgrounds to join them.
“This isn’t just a space and technology for a select few,” he said. “We really want this to be open to anyone who wants exposure to it.”