ArtCenter's Jenny Rodenhouse on Integrating VR/AR Technologies into Design School Curriculum 

Jenny Rodenhouse, this year’s Core77 Design Awards Design Education Initiatives Jury Captain is an artist, designer, and researcher in Los Angeles exploring our increasingly immersive, screen-based lifestyles. As the Director of the Immersion Lab at ArtCenter College of Design, Rodenhouse works with both the Interaction Design Department and Media Design Practices MFA program at ArtCenter to discover ways in which mixed reality technologies can enhance our lives. The ArtCenter graduate also has an industrial and interaction design background, working as a designer at Microsoft Research in Social Computing, Xbox, and Windows Phone Advanced Development before returning to ArtCenter as faculty.

The Logistical Baroque by Jenny Rodenhouse

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In a recent interview, we spoke with Rodenhouse about her work with ArtCenter’s Immersion Lab and how she views AR/VR technologies becoming an educational tool:

Can you tell us a little bit more about ArtCenter’s Immersion Lab – how/why it started, what programs it houses and what it aims to accomplish?

The Immersion Lab at ArtCenter College of Art and Design is a dedicated prototyping space designed to immerse students into making with emerging spatial computing platforms from Augmented Reality, Mixed Reality, Virtual Reality, to Motion Capture. As more information is embedded within the world around us, the lab offers new opportunities for artists and designers to rethink our experiences within these overlapping physical and digital environments.

The lab hosts 8 dedicated VR and AR workstations with a diverse range of equipment: HTC Vives, Oculus Rifts, Microsoft HoloLens and Mixed Reality headsets, 360 cameras, Leap Motions, and Perception Neuron mobile motion capture suits. Through the lab’s dynamic hardware and software library students can creatively intermix and augment existing platforms.

ArtCenter’s Immersion Lab

Departments across ArtCenter can utilize the lab for courses, workshops, and lectures that explore all aspects of a field that is still very much in flux. We invite guest speakers who share their works-in-progress projects, ideas, and methods. Last year we collaborated with a local Los Angeles motion capture school, Mocap Vaults, for workshop on video game acting and digital body capture. The space serves as a center for students, faculty, and the greater spatial computing community to exchange skills and ideas. As an educational resource the lab’s goal is to advance the discourse around the future of augmented reality, mixed reality, and virtual reality, imagining new opportunities and future applications of these emerging technologies through art and design.

Immersion Lab layout

With VR and AR technologies becoming more commercially available over the last several years, it’s finally possible for more people to participate in the medium, not just a select few. Still limited in consumer use, the commercialization of VR and AR has opened up the medium to a new population of creators, including artists and designers. This continual opening of the toolset is a really important milestone for its evolution and future.

VR and AR is this incredible mix of media—3D models, interaction, animation, environments, film—which inevitably pulls together an amazing collection of people, interests, and skills that are all here at ArtCenter. It became really clear to both faculty, students, and alumni that establishing an accessible resource was a really exciting teaching and learning opportunity, where we could not only affect how we practice as artists and designers, here and today, but also the broader community of spatial computing, VR, AR, MR, XR, and every future ‘_R’. Maggie Hendrie, Chair of Interaction Design and VR club president Filip Kostic, who now since graduating teaches in the lab, were instrumental in its development!

VR & AR are so cross-disciplinary at this point, so how do you support/promote this diversity across various fields?

Because the lab is a community resource that any department at ArtCenter can use, faculty Filip Kostic and I have really focused on developing an immersive learning curriculum that helps frame the technology specifically for artists and designers. It is important to make the technology accessible but equally important to contextualize it’s use. The lab’s curriculum focuses on immersing students in prototyping day one as a way for students to learn, make, and think through the hardware and software.

“It is one thing to read about [these tools], and it is entirely different to allow them to inform your creative process, which I think only comes from actually using them.” 

Graduate Media Design Practices student, Eli Hong uses an architectural modeling as an augmented reality trigger to explore the future of AR real-estate. Citizen’s purchase seemingly empty air space in order to have more control over what digital content appears near, in front of, or on their physical location.

With this method of prototyping as research, students use their own personal observations on the technology to develop new interactions, aesthetics, products, and future scenarios. Through our cross-disciplinary space, diverse technology library, immersive learning curriculum, we are purposely confusing disciplines, mediums, and the _Rs in order to open up new opportunities within the field. We also host many transdisciplinary studios. Any student in ArtCenter can enroll in the course, encouraging cross-disciplinary collaboration and diverse investigation. We find that through these collaborative studios, students discover new opportunities for design, VR, and AR.

VR & AR technologies are evolving at a such rapid rate. How do you as an educator in this field go about teaching students the skills they need to take with them as software and hardware continues to evolve each year?

Artists and designers can readily access VR and AR now, so concepts we previously made through simulated video or drawings have new life and should take on different forms by actually engaging the tools. Like any new tool or material, you have to go through a process of understanding how to shape it—giving it context, form, and meaning. What is the technology really good at, what does it want to do?

Inspired by an introductory assignment on photogrammetry, graduate Media Design Practices students Nan Tasi and Nicci Yin propose a future where you can immediately scan any physical object and bring it into VR, overlaying the physical cup and the virtual copy. The project was selected to be exhibited at Microsoft’s Design Expo.

We focus on teaching strategic prototyping through the creative use and misuse of the medium. We believe in stepping students through the process of how to research by making with the technology—what can VR and AR technologies do that are unique, interesting, novel, bad, good, ect? It is one thing to read about it, and it is entirely different to allow it to inform your creative process, which I think only comes from actually using it. As artists and designers, we often critique or try to consider how to make new technology relevant/useful/better within our society, and this need isn’t going away. Overall, whether it is VR, AR or any new technology that follows, we want students to come away knowing how use this process of resourceful play/experimentation/exploration as a way to learn about an emerging technology, how to make with it, and how it could be used.

Interaction Design student, Sam Giambalvo designed a line of VR Furniture that is tracked in both physical and virtual space. Designing the furniture from within VR, Sam proposed new material qualities and affordances that are informed by digital aesthetics found in the Unity game engine.

In our introductory immersion weeks, we focus on rigorous exploration, abstracting VR or AR capabilities, and deconstructing the parts. The overall package or layers can be quite complex, but in those layers are a lot of really interesting projects. VR and AR use game development software, cameras, machine vision, and track objects, people, or spaces in order to render a digital scene. The camera doesn’t have to be worn just on a person’s head. It could be held in a hand, or taped on a chair, or on top of a Roomba vacuum, or embedded within architecture. The controller doesn’t have to used as a gaming controller but could be a worn or used as a scale model of a car to explore autonomous vehicle scenarios. I think in this repurposing of the parts we get most excited because it challenges the popular or stereotypical notions of the field, extending it beyond its existing bounds. There is still so much to explore with VR and AR, it just might not be how we are currently imagining it.

What are some cool projects that have come out of the Immersion Lab or are currently being developed?

This year faculty Elise Co and I ran a transdisciplinary studio called High Resolution Body Tracking where students used mobile motion capture suits and other forms of tracking to think about future scenarios when our bodies—from our skin to our skeletons—are tracked, moving away from the estimated GPS blue dot to a high rendered copy of ourselves.

High Resolution Body Tracking transdisciplinary studio

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I am also currently teaching a course with furniture designer Benjamin Borden for graduate Media Design Practices called Mixed Reality Furniture: Make Room for the Interface. The studio explores the impact of the virtual interface on our physical interior spaces, from hyper-real materiality to the collision of interior design and information architectures.

What are you looking for in entries to the Design Education category of the Core77 Design Awards?

A few things I’m looking for are:

– Creative learning that extends across our entire lifetime, going beyond the classroom model

– Methods that teach how to constructively critique, disagree, listen, and question one another

– Pedagogy that uses non traditional perspectives and non western design histories

– Affordable spaces that increase access to tools, community, discussion, and job opportunities

– Critical use of emerging technology that deeply embraces the new practices, process, aesthetics, and projects that come out as a result

Thinking of submitting to the Design Education Initiatives category in the 2019 Core77 Design Awards? Submit today—your final day to submit is April 1st at 9 PM EST!

Source: core77

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