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SFU Alumni, SFU Philanthropy

Bridging human connection in the world of immersive technologies

January 22, 2024

Katerina Stepanova, a PhD candidate at SFU’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology, is deeply passionate about cognitive science, education, and emerging art. Generously supported by multiple donor-funded scholarships, her work explores the fascinating question of how the design of immersive technologies impacts human social connections, our perceptions of the world, and place within it.

Focusing on leveraging modern technology to foster deeper connections with oneself, others, and the environment, Katerina’s research examines the potential of creating transformative experiences using Virtual Reality (VR) and biofeedback technologies (I.e. sensors to measure physiological responses like heart and breathing rates or brain activity).

“Today, we have all this technology that is deeply integrated in our day-to-day interactions. But sometimes it doesn't actually benefit society’s health and well-being,” says Katerina. “Technology often tries to grab our attention and capitalize on it—turning us into mere consumers.

“If we can work toward designing more meaningful human experiences and encounters within technology—prioritizing values like emotional connection and empathy—then maybe we can start a paradigm shift in the industry.”

Encouraging empathy and curiosity in virtual spaces

Among many intriguing projects she has worked on, ETC (Embodied Telepresent Connection) is an art installation she collaborated on with John Desnoyers-Stewart, Dr. Bernhard Riecke and the team at SFU’s iSpace­Lab

Using technology to connect people in person through VR installations in a festival space, participants would interact with each other with technology as a mediator, affecting the way people engage with each other and challenging social norms.

Simulating interactions for people to playfully explore sharing space, they used simulated physics, sounds and colour changes to elicit an illusion of tactile sensation—the feeling of touching another person. With a person’s body represented as an aura of light particles, people reached out, virtually held hands, high-fived, tapped shoulders and danced with one another.

“These were very different than typical avatars you might see, which might look more animated or cartoonish. Instead, you’re interacting with an ethereal shape, which people sometimes associated with an energy source, and this suggested a more human essence.”

Even when the COVID-19 pandemic prevented Katerina and her team from putting people physically in the same room, they pivoted to online installations.

In the absence of traditional communication methods, Katerina says participants focused on connecting with each other without being influenced by age, color, or gender differences. The human-like shape encouraged open curiosity and interaction, leading people to naturally reach out, play, and explore with one another.

Donor support opens doors for academic growth

In addition to funding from a SSHRC CGS Doctoral Fellowship, Katerina is also the recipient of multiple donor-funded awards at SFU including the Helmut & Hugo Eppich Family Scholarship, the Century 21 Charlwood Family Graduate Scholarship, the IODE Seaman Morley Scott Memorial Graduate Scholarship, and a Tom Calvert Scholarship.

This financial support and recognition, she explains, has enabled her to focus on her research and sustain her long-term academic growth and motivation, and also helps legitimize her work as she seeks future funding.

“My field is interdisciplinary and innovative but also novel and risky—many of the things we're doing are being done for the first time. As you spend hours upon hours working on your PhD research, once in a while you have an existential crisis, asking yourself ‘why am I doing this?’ But knowing that somebody believes in and cares about your work gives you the boost to keep putting your energy into it.”