School of Communication, School of Interactive Arts & Technology, Technology & Society, Art & Design

The Barriers team: Lukas Ritter, Ioana Sandor, Zoe Temple-Sandison, and Ana Karen Martinez.

Semester in Alternate Realities students teach people to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes

March 04, 2019

By Anne Hainsworth

While the gaming industry and commercial media compete to make virtual reality a hot economic commodity, interdisciplinary student teams at Simon Fraser University are taking a different approach. They’re using virtual reality (VR) to address real-world problems. 

On Feb. 1, students in the university’s first full-time Alternate Realities course premiered four immersive projects that featured the theme of greater social or environmental good. The two-week prototype projects were presented at the Surrey campus mezzanine in theatrically staged viewing booths where the students combined a VR immersive experience with pre- and post-experiences designed to create empathy and understanding. 

“We thought the best project we could do for good was raising issues about the environment,” explains interactive arts and technology student Elene Wanner. “We send people to the future to the year 2100 to explore the land and to see if it’s inhabitable.”

In Rising Waters, the immersed viewer’s virtual mission is to collect three environmental samples to measure pollution. To bring the message home, the students set the scene locally in Richmond, B.C.

Two of the projects looked at specific conditions from a patient’s perspective. The immersed viewer in Restless Sleep – A Waking Coma Experience learns how it feels to be a coma patient. The students chose this subject because they found a lot of misinformation and ignorance surrounding comatose states. Before and after the immersive experience, the viewer fills out a questionnaire to see if VR had an impact.

In A Pitch of Red the user experiences what it’s like to have  synesthesia, a perceptual phenomenon where stimulating one sense (e.g. vision) leads to the automatic and involuntary experience of another sense (e.g. hearing different sounds triggered by seeing different colours). Although rare, the students discovered that the famous Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky had a condition where he ‘heard’ colours, which greatly influenced his work. The VR experience gives visitors a chance to hear and see his paintings simultaneously. 

“He had synesthesia and our team is trying to get the user to embody what it’s like to have synesthesia, and evoke empathy for people who are different,” says film student Sheri Wong. 

She and her team discovered that VR is a more visceral experience than reading or 2D video. 

“There’s an affordance in VR where the user can experience synesthesia first-hand,” says Wong. 

“If I tell you to care about people more, understand people more, it might go in one ear and come out the other, whereas if you are really experiencing it first-hand you have more empathy and compassion for others.”

Says communication student Lukas Ritter, “There’s a big difference between hearing about something and actually experiencing it yourself.”

His team produced Barriers, a virtual experience in which the user experiences interactions through the eyes and ears of someone who is in an environment where they don’t undertand the language. 

As Ritter explains, “you can hear about language barriers and read first-hand accounts about how people reacted and what they did, but it’s a very different experience to put yourself in that and say, ‘what would I do with the frustration, vulnerability and need to rely on others to communicate?’”

Judging from the crowds at the first project showcase for the Semester in Alternate Realities, there is growing public interest in learning more about virtual reality. 

“Most of the people who tried Rising Waters were surprised at what we achieved in such a sort period of time,” says Wanner. 

“The reaction was really positive,” recalls Ritter. “It’s much more personal than other media and has a lot of potential to be used for a lot of good if you use it right. Once you get down to the heart of the medium and how it communicates and what it communicated to them, that’s how you start to get really valuable things out of it.”

This is just the beginning for the pioneering students in the Semester in Alternate Realities program. They’re already working on new ways to expand the greater good through their next virtual reality project showcase, scheduled for March 8 at the Surrey campus mezzanine. 

Read more about the Semester in Alternate Realities and future showcases here.