Digital technologies and modes of thinking continue to change the world. Hamilton is providing innovative opportunities for students to communicate and work effectively with new digital teaching tools. Creative writing major Hannah McLean ’19 shares her experience with storytelling through virtual reality.
As I and my teammates on the Digital Humanities Initiative’s Experiencing Empathy project wrestle with high-level questions of representation and scholarship, I think again of how ironic it is that my own journey into VR began in the most materialistic place imaginable: an American mall.
It was in May 2016, on the way back from my first year at Hamilton to my home in Iowa, when my family and I stopped for food and happened upon an in-store demo of Microsoft’s brand new HTC Vive. I found myself standing on the deck of a sunken ship in a short VR experience called theBlu. I still remember the wave of wonder that washed over me as an enormous blue whale sailed past the deck of the ship, blinking slowly at me with one giant eye. The immersiveness of even such a simple experience surprised me, and I was brainstorming how I could use virtual reality to tell stories the whole way home.
My new obsession with VR storytelling eventually led to one of my friends suggesting that I join him in working for the Digital Humanities Initiative (DHi). I was initially skeptical, as I had no experience whatsoever with technology or computer science, but I did need a job.
After a year and a half as an intern, honing my skills with VR and with the process of digital humanities, I received a fellowship to spend the summer working on Experiencing Empathy, a project which is the brainchild of Digital Humanities Initiative Director Janet Oppedisano, Days-Massolo Center Director Phyllis Breland, and Professor Chaise LaDousa. Nonso Mogor ’22, Julie Suk ’18, and I were tasked with creating a Virtual Reality experience devised from the collection of interviews taken by the members of the Experiencing Empathy class over Spring Break 2018. These 15 or so interviews focus on the educational system in New Orleans, both in the context of Hurricane Katrina and today.
We created a fictionalized composite of all the student interviews we watched and then used a program called Unity to build a virtual reality experience which takes the user through a day in the life of our fictional student—from her lengthy bus ride to a classroom lesson and test about Hurricane Katrina to her bedroom where both she and the user get a chance to express themselves through art.
Nonso, Julie, and I watched all of the interviews and decided to focus on the experience of a high school student. We created a fictionalized composite of all the student interviews we watched and then used a program called Unity to build a virtual reality experience which takes the user through a day in the life of our fictional student—from her lengthy bus ride to a classroom lesson and test about Hurricane Katrina to her bedroom where both she and the user get a chance to express themselves through art.
The Digital Humanities Initiative creates opportunities for new interdisciplinary models and methods of collaboration between faculty and students.
This was an even more complex task than we initially realized. We had to develop technical skills with both Unity and the 3D-modeling software Blendr, which we had varying levels of familiarity with. We had to work through our team’s differences in vision and method. We had to carefully consider how to remain true to what the interviewees had said while also crafting a compelling narrative. But by August, we had (aside from a few lingering bugs) accomplished it.
Only two-and-a-half years since the first time I ever put on a VR headset, and I’ve been able to help create a VR experience which is informative and fun. But more importantly, our experience highlights the voices of the Experiencing Empathy interviewees, the ordinary people of New Orleans in 2018. If what we created is able to open the door for our users to think about New Orleans and charter schools in a new way, then we’re beginning to reach the storytelling potential of Virtual Reality.