Our New Reality has arrived.

And we know it will change the way people live, work, and interact with each other. What many don’t know is the critical role creatives will play in building and shaping how virtual reality is received, utilized, and interpreted during its early years and beyond.

That’s why, starting in fall 2018, Ringling College will be the first institution to offer a four-year BFA in Virtual Reality Development. The program will target a wide range of industries, such as architectural visualization, healthcare, education, and entertainment. Students will focus on designing these experiences- not just creating the assets, but navigating the unique opportunities and challenges that VR will hold.

Jim McCampbell is the College’s Computer Animation Department Head, head of the Game Art program, and author of the new program curriculum. When reflecting on the need for the major and the emergence of VR, he compares the field to the early days of aviation, specifically just before the First World War and the remarkable advances made during that time: “The [Virtual Reality] medium is now in its infancy. It’s like going into aviation- not just after the Wright brothers’ first flight, but sometime around World War I when planes were solid enough to be used effectively in a lot of arenas but new designs and techniques were being discovered every day. Five years later, commercial airlines formed and the entire world changed forever,” he says.

While there’s certainly some crossover between the Ringling College Game Art program and Virtual Reality Development, Game Art focuses on content design and creation specifically for the game industry. VR students will be able to partner with other majors and with professional studios to create experiences using content created for many different industries.

McCampbell describes this distinction: “Virtual Reality experiences are user-centric. They intentionally involve you in order to give you a sense of presence. Characters will look directly at you, acknowledge your existence, and encourage you to participate. Instead of staring at a screen and imagining yourself in a different world, you genuinely feel that you are there. This is vastly different from any other existing medium, and the impact it has on you is both lasting and intense. Unfortunately, most people have not yet had the opportunity to experience true VR at the high end. They have only seen 360-degree videos where they are shown a linear narrative lm in which they do not participate. In true VR you have agency. Your choices and actions dictate what happens, just as they do in real life. It is not a passive experience.”

Student VR work by Michael Filipek (Game Art, ’18).

The Ringling community – especially the current and incoming students – couldn’t be more excited. President Larry R. Thompson explains that leaping forward into this venture of the digital age makes perfect sense for a college at the cutting edge of what’s happening in digital media.

While other colleges and universities have VR programs, certificates, and workshops that focus on engineering and coding, VR students at Ringling College will focus on content- designing, creating, and analyzing immersive experiences within the VR medium that inform, educate, and entertain. “Without our part, it’s like having a projector or a camera, but there’s nothing to show,” says Dr. Thompson.

Like many of Ringling College’s majors, the VR program is career-focused, partnering with numerous companies and VR production studios to bring real-world projects into the classroom. To help make this happen, VR industry experts were consulted on how best to design a program that prepares students for success. One of those experts is Oscar-winning film director, illustrator, designer, and Ringling College alumnus Brandon Oldenburg (Illustration, ’95), who serves as Chief Creative Officer and co-founder of Flight School, a content creation studio launched with Reel FX Animation Studio.

“Flight School is providing input on curriculum and mentorship of students, and we’re working on a project-based opportunity with students as well,” says Oldenburg. “When they go to an interview, the students won’t just be showing a demo reel or a portfolio, they’ll actually be able to share a download code of a finished product/game, which will really help them in the hiring process. What Flight School gets out of it is the opportunity to work with some of the best students in the country. They bring the freshest, most unique perspectives to the industry and the world. They also bring unfiltered and fearless ideas to the table. I’m also excited to expand a relationship with Ringling that reaches back 20 years to when I graduated and started recruiting students.”

Oldenburg is quick to echo McCampbell’s point that VR is moving fast. So many technologies that emerged in the market- place a year or two ago—such as Alexa or other AI-driven home assistants—are now more common despite being considered strange or unnecessary when they were first introduced. Oldenburg explains that’s what is happening now with VR. “This past year, when we had an initial dialogue with Ringling faculty, we discovered that every major wants to learn VR. It clicked with me. VR isn’t just for game art design; but that’s normally where first adopters are with new tech. While we were on campus, it also occurred to me that VR is just like the pencil. It’s just a tool; another medium to work with. Interior design, architecture, fine art sculptors, photography, and filmmaking: everybody can find a use for VR.”

Oldenburg adds that “what’s interesting about VR is that when you’ve stepped out of an experience, you’re left with your take on it—like a memory. This is unlike a TV show or a film where the director of the show tells you exactly what to see and what emotion to feel. So in VR, you create worlds and situations for people to have their own unique experiences, where they take away their own memories. The way you move in space and the way you interact with the world can be unique to you. Therefore, your takeaway is more like a memory, instead of playing back a recording.”

“If you’re not moving forward, you’re going backwards. We are bound and determined to be the preeminent art and design college…period. And it takes forward thinking and risk taking—two pillars of creativity— to make this happen.”

The forthcoming VR major has already garnered national recognition and got a huge boost this January when Ringling College Trustee Joel Morganroth and his wife Gail Morrison Morganroth donated $15 million to the College. That gift—the largest single donation since the College was founded in 1931— will bolster various programs and initiatives including capital projects, scholarships, the Sarasota Museum of Art, and the   VR program, which will have a brand-new endowed department  head  position.

At the press conference where this transformative gift was announced, Joel Morganroth reiterated the significance of the program, remarking that VR “will be the way our children and grandchildren will learn everything.”

President Thompson added that “if you’re not moving forward, you’re going backwards. We are bound and determined to be the preeminent art and design college…period. And it takes forward thinking and risk taking—two pillars of creativity— to make this happen.” Thanks to the generosity and support of Ringling College alumni and trustees, and the commitment from industry leaders like Flight School, the future looks very bright indeed.

Photography by Karen Arango (Photography & Imaging, ‘13)