There is a particular population of individuals who are often left out of research on experience design for technology like VR, and that is people with chronic illness.

Denise Quesnel receives 2019 Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship

Congratulations to Denise Quesnel, who has received a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship for $150,000 to support her PhD program in School of Interactive Arts & Technology (SIAT). Quesnel's proposed research, Positive Technologies for Enhanced Well-being: Designing VR Applications to Address the Social Consequences of Chronic Illness, hopes to contribute to adaptive, accessible technology for adults with chronic illness, thereby improving their overall social, emotional and mental well-being.

May 24, 2019

School of Interactive Arts & Technology (SIAT) PhD student in the Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology

I am a graduate student under the supervision of Dr. Bernhard Riecke, in the iSpace Lab at SFU's School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT). My PhD research focuses on how positive technologies can be designed to help enhance the well-being of individuals. Specifically, I am investigating virtual reality as a positive technology. I am honoured to have received a 3-year Vanier Graduate Student Scholarship to support this research. I have been exploring virtual reality for close to 20 years now, having been fortunate enough to be introduced to the medium/technology as a teenager. My early experiences with VR were life-changing, and I have been exploring VR’s potential to people in the technology and art communities for several years. Before coming to SFU, I enjoyed a career in the visual effects and film industry; as an experience designer and creative; and as a research associate at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. I really like utilizing the skills I learned in all my previous jobs to the research I do today.  

In 2014, I became involved in the non-profit ACM SIGGRAPH (Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques) which hosts the largest computer graphics/interactive techniques conference in the world. Within the conference, I helped create, and was chair (2015-2017) for a new program for the immersive realities, including VR. This volunteer involvement was amazing, because I was able to experience hundreds of immersive installations, demos, films, and games as a result. I was exposed to some of the most incredible developments in research and art, years before many of these immersive creations were deployed to the public. I can’t quite put into words how inspirational that was. Development of incredible technology and art doesn’t happen in a silo, and what I love most about the immersive realities is how a multidisciplinary team is necessary to create virtual/immersive experiences. I love the collaboration, and creative aspects of designing immersive experiences. 

When I am not working on my research, I am raising my baby boy who was born in 2018 and love spending time with my husband and family. I do some volunteering in the local health region, and I decompress by working in my yard. Gardening has become an excellent form of self care, which is so very important to do when you are pursuing graduate studies.  


The decision to come to SFU was extremely straightforward. I actually had considered SIAT when I was looking to do my undergraduate degree, back in 2001-2002. Back then, the program lived at the now defunct Technical University of British Columbia (TechBC), and it was in the process of being transferred to SFU when I was exploring it. I chose instead to attend Emily Carr University of Art + Design (ECUAD), and later in 2011 when I became research staff at ECUAD, I met my now PhD supervisor Dr Bernhard Riecke! Bernhard was kind enough to contribute on several research projects we were undertaking at ECUAD, and this introduced me to his research approach. Bernhard’s knowledge on all things VR/immersive is incredible, and it turned out we had many similar philosophies on life in general. I had expressed interest in pursuing a PhD, and he was very encouraging. When he invited me to join his lab, I was honoured, because I never considered myself to be someone capable of the research excellence his lab undertakes. I feel incredibly fortunate to have not only an excellent supervisor, but friend in this journey. The iSpace Lab is comprised of genuine individuals who continuously inspire me, and I love working with my peers. I am amazed by the level of talent at the faculty level at SIAT; there are many pioneers here from a remarkable variety of backgrounds. Yet everyone is humble, and the conversations are always eye-opening. In many ways, coming to SFU’s SIAT feels like a full circle in my pursuit of knowledge and experience. It feels like home, and I can’t imagine a more supportive and suitable environment to be undertaking graduate studies. 


I try and be straightforward in explaining my research, but I am still working on getting better at that! Using lay language is genuinely difficult to do. Here is my best attempt: VR has the potential to transform people’s lives for the better, as a ‘positive’ technology. But because it is so new, we still have a lot to learn about how VR can do this. So I research, and create design guidelines for VR by focusing on ‘positive’ aspects of human flourishing, mental function, and well-being that affect social and emotional domains. There is a particular population of individuals who are often left out of research on experience design for technology like VR, and that is people with chronic illness. Yet, more than 53% of Canadians live with the pain and burden of chronic illness, and while many technologies make us more productive and higher performing, few enhance social and emotional well-being in individuals with chronic conditions. There’s a pretty big gap in knowledge on how we can make VR experiences and technology that may support these individuals, but the health care and technology sectors are aware of the transformational potential of VR. I want to help bridge that gap with my research. 

The title of my Vanier supported research is "Positive Technologies for Enhanced Well-being: Designing VR Applications to Address the Social Consequences of Chronic Illness". 


I have already mentioned the enjoyment I get from collaboration. This is what I like most at SFU. Our work often goes beyond the lab, and into other lab’s at SIAT, departments at SFU, and even international collaborations. One of my favourite collaborations is work that we undertook at iSpace Lab with the Centre for Digital Media (CDM). It is called “AWE: Awe-Inspiring Wellness Environment” and in a short 8 weeks, our team comprising of about 16 individuals created a VR experience with 3 different environments, with original art and assets. The work was rooted in empirical research gathered by us at iSpace, user data gathered by colleagues at CDM, and published research by respected peers around the world. Since this initial collaboration in 2017, we have worked with a new team at CDM again in 2018 and several SIAT undergraduate students, and Global Mitacs students to iterate on the project. We use the VR experience in our research as stimulus and continue to experiment and learn from it. More about the project can be found here.


The advice I most frequently offer to people considering graduate studies is that they pursue a thesis topic that they are absolutely in love with. I can only speak from my personal experience, where it took me 10 years to properly articulate and focus my research topic. By that point, I was very certain that I wanted to pursue my topic for the next five years. In pursuit of graduate studies, complete immersion in the topic is necessary and it makes for some particularly long days and nights. Being passionate about your research area is one of the best ways to incentivize this time. I also want to say, that for individuals who may be considering a return to student status after a long hiatus (whether it is because of a career, childminding/family duties, service, or health-related interruptions) please take the leap! Often, mature students or those who had to interrupt their studies are unsure about what it means to be a student again. The future might feel very uncertain and the campus may seem foreign. While it does take time to adapt to a student career, you will soon find your village and support. Reminding yourself why you decided to be a student and a knowledge seeker will help to focus your goals and provide direction. Being a graduate decision is a huge decision, and I think it takes a lot of courage to change or interrupt a career to pursue studies since the decision impacts not just the individual, but often a whole family. Finding a lab or peers who share research interests and hobbies really helps.  


The iSpace Lab website has information about our work at SFU. We have been very busy, especially with publishing our research lately! I also maintain a personal website with my work over the years and more publications. 

Contact Denise: