Preparing Students for a Virtual Future

Student using VR in a classroom
A VR class at Ringling College

In fall 2018, Ringling College of Art and Design welcomed the inaugural class for its new Virtual Reality Development Bachelor of Fine Arts program. The program is the first Fine Arts degree of its kind in the world. “My parents have no idea what virtual reality is,” says Troy Xia, one of the 14 students in the new major, “but they are very curious about it and support me. It is a very new field.” The 19-year-old freshman says there are not many places to try virtual reality where he is from in China.

The College will be at the research forefront of the innovative field, and things are just gearing up with the first courses in the program underway. The quality of research in the program will need to be “next level,” explains Interim Department Head Morgan Woolverton, who oversees the VR program. “A good VR experience has to be rooted in good research for it to be effective,” he says. “We may rely more on the resources of Alfred R. Goldstein Library and its staff to help set up research structures for the students to be better organized.” 

Students will be defining their vision in the state-of-the-art, newly-renovated Virtual Reality Development Wow Space, located on the second floor of the Verman Kimbrough Building. The space is designed with student collaboration in mind, offering three large “explorer spaces,” where students can demonstrate and view their projects. Projects will range in scale from a seated experience to a 12-by-12 foot room. 

Woolverton says students will also get an understanding of ergonomics — how high a table is or how an object interacts with other objects. “In VR, the primary goal is how does it feel—how do you comfortably move someone through an experience?” Woolverton says. In the end, Woolverton explains, students will create a full body and mind experience that is meaningful, positive, and germane to the goals of the project. “There are ideas on what VR can do, and some of those will be exceeded.”

Students will need to give themselves the space to think big. Woolverton will be encouraging students so that they feel empowered. “My job is to show them the door and their job is to step through and discover what is on the other side,” he says. For students who have something unique they want to say, portray, or experiment with, the VR medium has amazing capacity to make that happen. 

“Art can change the way people think,” says Dr. Larry R. Thompson, President of Ringling College, “and graduates of the Virtual Reality Development major will be able to use VR in all of its various forms to create empathy, educate, and entertain.”

Right Place, Right Now

Ringling College was in a unique position to foster the creative energy behind the burgeoning field that’s predicted to change the way we approach everything from tourism to medical advancements.

While there are existing virtual reality-based programs that have a heavy focus on the technology, this fine arts curriculum focuses on the content and production sides. Having the “real-time rendering” technology, as well as the knowledge base in place in the Game Art program, Ringling College was poised to be at the forefront of offering an education in virtual reality development. “We’re the most technologically-advanced art college, so we had the capacity to embrace virtual reality,” says Dr. Thompson.

President Thompson likens the College’s position to when the BFA in Computer Animation was developed just before the first Toy Story movie came out. “This major, I believe, is as revolutionary as Computer Animation was in the 90s,” says Dr. Thompson. “When [Computer Animation Department Head] Jim McCampbell proposed the idea for the creation of this new major, he had the insight to begin developing the curriculum.”

Far Beyond

McCampbell, who helped create the new curriculum for the program, said he has been keeping an eye on innovations in VR since he saw the first Oculus Rift headset being demoed at the Game Developers Conference in 2013. “I looked at how we could integrate it into Game Art first since you have to use a game engine (UE4 in our case) to make true VR.”

Realizing the tremendous breadth of possible applications for the medium, McCampbell says he proposed it as a separate major so that students who may have no interest in working in games could learn to create a virtual reality experience. “It comes down to the difference in using VR as a tool and VR as a medium,” he says. “VR as a medium is when the technology is used as an actual end experience. We need people who design and create those experiences. Yes, it can be used as a gaming experience, but there is a breadth of usage that goes far beyond that. And really most of the usages haven’t even been discovered yet.”

Dr. Thompson recalls with a grin the anxiety he felt during his first taste of virtual reality. “I was on a plank, 20 stories high and moving trying to get this cat,” he says. “I remember feeling like I was going to fall.” However, on a more serious note, he acknowledges that in addition to the entertainment world, virtual reality has the capacity to be a major social benefit, especially with regard to the medical field. “In talking with [representatives from] Moffitt Cancer Center and Sarasota Memorial Hospital, there is a huge interest in what VR might be able to do for them, how it can help patients understand what is happening inside their body, and then explaining what it is that the physicians will be doing as they treat the patient.”

The new program’s promising potential is what in part inspired a $15 million gift from Ringling College Trustee Dr. Joel Morganroth, an academic cardiologist and founder of a global company that evaluates risks in clinical trials, and his wife, Dr. Gail Morrison Morganroth, a nephrologist and medical school administrator at the Perlman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Morganroth says that he believes virtual reality’s primary value will be as an educational tool providing a picture experience instead of “1,000 words.” If a cardiac trainee stood inside of a heart and could see exactly how the valves and the muscle work together versus reading about it, he says, it would clearly show the value of VR. “If I want to teach people how the heart works because there might be a diseased heart valve, think about how easy it is to stand in the middle of the heart and see what is happening,” he says. “VR is a huge advancement in the educational process.”

He hopes their gift—the largest donation in the College’s 88-year history, which in part helped launch the new VR program—will inspire others to give and assist in providing resources for Ringling College to become preeminent. 

By Rachel Drouin | Photos by Elan Photography
Rachel Drouin works as the Accreditation and Research Assistant at Ringling College.