Morgan Woolverton, portrait by Matthew Holler ’11

“How do we use virtual reality to make the world a better place?”

Virtual Reality Development and Game Art Interim Department Head Morgan Woolverton wonders. “Virtual Reality is trying to solve problems in the real world. That’s where I see a lot of opportunity.”

For those still firmly ensconced in real reality, virtual reality, or VR, is a computer-generated, immersive environment that allows users to experience a simulated version of an external situation or context, complete with sensory cues, especially those of vision and sound. 

The new VR Development major teaches students how to create these virtual environments, and Woolverton is excited for the challenge. “The opportunity to be interim head of the VR program reaffirms my decision to come to Ringling in the first place,” he says. 

Illustration by Jamie Green ’20

He first encountered virtual reality six years ago as a senior world artist at Monolith Productions. A colleague brought in a VR kit and Woolverton was among several others invited to play.

“I fell to the ground,” he says. “I couldn’t believe what I had seen. I was blown away. My wheels were turning. What could I do with this?”

A lot, it turns out. Woolverton, a fine artist by training, uses VR in his projects. “I’m really interested in what people throw away, like an archaeologist,” he says, “so I collect little things I find and use them to build thumb-high cities you can stand in. I use a photogrammetry technique to capture that. To me that’s a great statement about the culture we live in and what we leave behind. To use VR to put somebody in that experience and talk about those social concerns seems pretty effective.”

Woolverton is attracted to installation pieces like those of contemporary artists Gary Hill and Tony Oursler, as well as the work of VR artist, Goro Fujita. “Goro Fujita uses VR to draw in a 3D space,” he explains. “The work he’s producing is being shaped by the VR language in a really interesting and compelling way. I think you’ll see more people doing that, so the experience will become more of an extension of what the medium offers and users will adapt additional refinements to the tools.” 

Prior to his video game industry career, Woolverton lived in New York, working at the Guggenheim installing artwork, while painting and printmaking during his off hours. He attended the University of North Carolina School of the Arts for high school, did undergraduate work at Hampshire College, then earned his MFA in Fine Art at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His credentials include stints as an environmental artist at the Nancy Drew Franchise, senior artist at Snowblind Studios, and environmental artist at 343 Industries, where he worked on Halo 5

When asked about the future of VR, Woolverton describes an array of applications. “It’s already happening: medical training, architecture, sports, news media, retail. You could use VR to train welders to work on underwater oil rigs. VR is already being used to help trauma victims; people suffering burns are using VR distraction therapy by being projected to a faraway place. We recently met with the Occupational Therapy team at Sarasota Memorial to discuss how VR could help people recover from strokes or severe injuries, and with Moffitt Cancer Center to help cancer patients.” 

Woolverton emphasizes the importance of teaching students teamwork and collaboration. He collaborates with Jim McCampbell in Computer Animation, Jeff Bleitz in Graphic Design, Ed Cheetham in Motion Design, and Martin Murphy in Game Art, leveraging their expertise and what they understand about the end user to make a powerful and meaningful experience, and to create purpose in art. Woolverton wants students to know that “it takes a village to create a new major and they’re in good hands.”

He adds, “It’s important to me that students find their creativity and their voice, but that they also look back on this as a time when they forged some of their best friendships. In Game Art and now in VR Development, we’re always working as hard as we can to get students to understand that if we work together we’re going to get a lot more done. If you get into the mindset of celebrating other people’s successes, your work just starts blossoming so much faster. I’ve seen that shift happen time and time again. That generous spirit is definitely what Ringling College is about and it makes for amazing art, irrespective of the medium.”

By Nicole Caron
Nicole Caron coordinates the First-Year Writing Program at Ringling College.