Convocation Spotlight: Mirjana Prpa

October 20, 2020
About Mirjana

Mirjana Prpa comes from a diverse academic and professional background—primarily architecture, design and art—which she applies to her research in the domain of virtual reality. She completed her PhD under the supervision of Dr. Philippe Pasquier on VR expereriences. Her dissertation is titled "Attending to Inner Self: Designing and Unfolding Breath-based VR experiences through Micro-phenomenology."

About Mirjana's research

"The day-to-day scramble and ongoing distractions of life often make people feel disconnected from their embodied experiences, and frequently, technology plays a big role in that distraction. My research is guided by the question: 'How can we use experiences provided by immersive virtual reality (VR)—a technology—to bring focus and attention back to ourselves, to reconnect with the awareness of very simple yet crucial processes that makes us feel alive — such as breathing?' Through immersive virtual environments, I am helping people regulate their breathing by allowing them a space and time to be more mindful and more aware of their breathing, with the intention that this awareness can be maintained as a long-lasting effect of the experience that we can revisit, rather than having to depend on the technology.

"In parallel, as a designer of virtual environments, I research methods that allow us to understand user experiences and design process better: how are we designing immersive VR, why are we designing it in a certain way, and what impact do our designs have on users, regarding the intended use of the application? For this reason, I am specializing in a particular method called micro-phenomenology that allows us to understand one’s experience from a holistic point of view, beyond just usability testing and questionnaires that acquire low-level information but does not provide an insight in the diversity of the experiences that are valuable but often overlooked."

How did you get into this area of research?

"During my architecture days I became interested in the relation between the design—back then it was the design of buildings and interiors—and the experience of the inhabitants of those spaces. The book, “The Poetics of Space” by Gaston Bachelard was very influential on the development of my ideas. These combined, lead me to conceptually explore different kinds of environments that can provide a range of experiential accounts, as well as think about computer generated environments as a potential way to elicit some of those experiences but without having to build it in a physical sense.

I find inspiration in the writing of philosophers of technology, postphenomenologists like Don Ihde or Peter Paul-Verbeek, scientists like Eric Kandel’s and his book “Reductionism in Art and Brain Science,” or Francisco Varela’s work in “The Embodied Mind”, as well as the work of artists in various media such as James Turrell and Janet Cardiff. Joi Ito, director of MIT Media Lab, once said that Media Lab’s work is not interdisciplinary but anti-disciplinary which “isn’t a sum of a bunch of disciplines but something entirely new.” I like to think of my work in that sense, as novel and on the frontiers of art, science and technology. That is why I find it important that we seek inspiration from a variety of sources and from different perspectives, in order to grow—personally and professionally—which also consequentially reflects in the way and kind of work we conduct."

What do you feel is the most fascinating thing about your research and field of research?

"The most fascinating thing about my research is that technological advances in the fields of VR or AR opened a whole new world of possibilities to explore the relationship between us and the world we live in as mediated by technology. Whether you are technophobic or not, it is undeniable that our lives are mediated by technologies — take a light bulb as a very simple example of technology. I am fascinated by this and the potential of the immersive technologies to provide experiences that can help us in becoming more aware of our human qualities that we might have lost along the way. It is like using technology to undo the effects of long-term technology use. It is almost a paradox itself, but it sparks critical thinking."

Why did you chose SIAT for your studies?

"[I chose SIAT because] I was intrigued by the interdisciplinarity that SIAT offered, and saw it as an opportunity to bring different perspectives to explore the concepts and ideas I had at the time."

What's next for Mirjana

"Post-graduation plans were to take some time off and travel. This plan was put on hold until traveling is a thing again. In the meantime, I was offered a few wonderful work opportunities. Beside teaching one of the SIAT courses I also joined Northeastern University in Vancouver as a faculty, working with Master students in Computer Science. More recently, I took on a product manager role at the fast growing AR company. While none of these opportunities were exactly planned, they all fit nicely into  my long-term agenda to strengthen the ties between industry and academia through the interdisciplinary crossover between art, science, and technology."