VR in Academia: Paul Booth

In introduction of our new VR in Academia series, co-founder Ed Haravon was joined by professor Paul Booth for a discussion about a VR lab opening at DePaul University.

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Ed Haravon (00:03):

Good morning, everybody. Welcome back to the Get Real YouTube channel. Today we’re joined by Paul Booth, professor of media and cinema studies, digital communication and media arts at DePaul university. Paul is joined us this morning and talk a little bit about the virtual and augmented reality communication lab at DePaul that he’s started and soon to be released. And we’d love to hear a little bit more beta version of it, and we’d love to hear more about the program and how he got involved with it and what it’s gonna do for the students and, and how people like Get Real and other industry users of virtual reality, augmented, augmented reality technology can interact. So Paul welcome this morning.

Paul Booth (00:44):

Awesome. Thanks so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Ed Haravon (00:48):

Professor of media and cinema studies, digital communication and media arts. That’s a mouthful Paul.

Paul Booth (00:54):

It’s a long title and what it, what it really encompasses is two separate areas of the college that I’m in at DePaul, which is the college of communication. So my, my area that, the area that I started in and, and that my, my PhD is in, is in media studies. So I, I focus on how, how new technologies change the way people interact with say media, their, their, their everyday media texts. You know, how does 3d cinema change the way we interact with movies? So, so that that’s where my kind of academic interest started, but then that led into this digital communication and media arts degree which is a, an all graduate degree that we have at DePaul that focuses on digital technology specifically and how that’s changing the way people communicate. And it’s both a, it’s a degree focused on, on both kind of the study of digital technology, but also the creation of digital technology. So it really melds, both worlds. And then my, my interest in the, the VR kind of sprung out of both of those. So yeah, it’s a mouthful, but, but it’s also, so, you know encompasses everything that, that I do at DePaul.

Ed Haravon (02:08):

So you mentioned that, that you’re kind of involved a lot where kind of technology and the media and the arts kind of intersect, you mentioned specific to VR and AR where does that kind of interest come from and what kind of, has you thinking that’s, that is such a pillar of the program or a unique part of the program as such that, that you’ve decided to start a, communications lab around

Paul Booth (02:31):

It? Yeah, that’s a great question. And if I could go back in time and, and tell, you know, the, younger Paul, Hey, this is gonna take a lot more work than you think, I might have done that. My interest in VR sprung and, this, I’ve actually found this talking to a lot of people really emerged from the consumer side. I, I, I like VR games. I like I especially like VR entertainment. I like watching things in VR. I find the immersion really compelling. And so just personally I was exploring it and, and using it in my, just in my, for fun life. But then I started thinking about ways that I might bring it into the class, cause I’m always about experimentation and bringing new technologies in and trying new things.

Paul Booth (03:24):

And I realized at DePaul, there was really no way for me to do that. I had a headset, but I’ve got 20 students in a class and there’s no way I’m not, I’m not gonna make them all share one headset. So for a while I had Google card board and we were all kind of using Google cardboard, but that didn’t work quite as well as I would’ve hoped everyone has different mobile phones. They don’t all quite fit, you know? And so there’s all these issues with it. And then DePaul has this great opportunity to apply for a grant to do innovation in research and teaching. And so I left at the chance and so my interest really came from, from how do I apply this thing that I’m interested in, in my everyday life to my kind of academic life and my teaching life.

Paul Booth (04:14):

And then the more I researched it, and the more I sort of put in the lab together on paper, I realized this is actually applicable to so many people in communication. We’ve got journalists. And you know, you go on any major news site now, and they’ve got VR stories where they put you in the middle of a news event or an event happening around the world. We’ve got an advertising program, which is a kind of award winning advertising program. And so much advertising is happening, happening in VR campaigns are happening in VR. We’ve got a public relations program, same thing, lots of campaigns happening in VR. And then in my own media studies program, I mean, the thing that clicked for me was the star wars game of Vader Imortal, which came out and I’m playing it. I’m like, holy cow, this is a whole new way of experiencing star wars.

Paul Booth (05:05):

Like my heart is palpating in a way that it hasn’t since I saw the original star wars when I was a kid. So this is, you know, bringing together all of these interests that are happening in our college into one space where we can all take advantage of this technology. So that was my kind of vision for it, for the lab. As you pointed out, it is a long process to put this all together. And so I started the, with the lab in 2019. And we had a kind of a year or half a year where it worked, you know, we were kind of working on getting the technology and doing some research stuff and then March, 2020 happened. And we realized, you know, people are suddenly not gonna wanna share headsets in you know, global pandemic.

Paul Booth (05:58):

And then DePaul went all virtual. So we ended up transitioning the lab from this space where we were exploring research possibilities to actually teaching in VR and my partner in the lab Dr. Bri McEwen actually taught in entire class in virtual reality. We sent headsets out to the students and she held class in VR for an entire quarter. And it was, it was a really interesting experiment. I think we learned things that worked and we learned things that didn’t work, but it really showed us the possibilities are enormous for VR and education.

Ed Haravon (06:38):

So as you get close to kind of reopen or have the grand opening of the virtual augmented reality communications lab or VARC lab for short what’s it all gonna entail? Like when, when I walk into the building or the room, like, what am I gonna see? What are the students gonna see?

Paul Booth (06:55):

Yeah, they’re gonna see, that’s a great question. They’re gonna see lots of headsets right now. We’ve got about 30 different headsets of different varieties laid out. There’s gonna be, and we’re still waiting on this, which is part of, part of, part of the issue is just the, the backlog of technology right now is very hard to get, to get things. We’re gonna have computers set up state of the art computers set up for video editing. We have 360 cameras for students that are interested in doing projects. We also have kind of a whole system set up where students and faculty can check out headsets. And eventually the goal is going to be to, to make this lab a space where people outside of DePaul who may want to experiment with VR, but don’t have, you know, five or 600 bucks to throw at a, a headset can reserve a time to come in and try stuff out. And we’ll have research workers will have student workers and will have some grad assistance supervising the lab who can kind of help give some instructions to folks who are interested in learning more about VR.

Ed Haravon (08:08):

Awesome goals with that. I love how the fact that it’s gonna be kind of the vision is to make it be open where people, you know, regardless of study area, regardless of, of where they are at the university can come in and either check out equipment or can work on their own project or kind of stir that kind of creative energy within the group. As you look forward what’s your vision of how the, the VARC lab and DePaul in maybe on a larger scale, can, you know, use this initiative to interact with the greater community of VR, AR technology, either content, creators, or providers, like in terms of, I dunno, partnering up or ways that they can support, like how do those, you know, to make that experience even richer for the students? What are some ways that you think that, that are opportunities for people to get involved?

Paul Booth (09:00):

Yeah, that’s a great question. We are so open to partnerships with people, in the immediate Chicago area or virtually, because of course we can partner with people virtually now you know, the, the possibilities are really endless. We aren’t so much a content creation lab in, in the sense that, in the college of communication, we aren’t programmers that there’s this college of computing and digital media where a lot of the programming happens. But I think where our strength lies is in this kind of research into the, the possibilities of virtual reality and augmented reality, which we haven’t really, really touched on in a huge amount because I think VR is, is at a better place than AR at the moment. But so in terms of partnerships, I mean, I can imagine people at a local businesses or organizations bringing folks in to experience things, to experience VR, but I could also imagine folks in the VR community coming in and lending their expertise to a class and you know, giving back by guest lecturing or promoting their work getting an internship program working.

Paul Booth (10:22):

I mean, I know that that get real, you have interns working and, and there could be a pipeline of student workers in the lab who then go on to intern for VR companies. But I also see like, you know, if a company is interested in delving into VR, if they’re not a VR company, but say they’re an ad agency, a, a local small ad agency, they wanna say, how can we use VR? The lab can be a space where they can come in and ask those questions, explore the possibilities of what’s available. You know, I really want the lab to be a space for the community. I want it to be a space where people can come in and try things out and experiment in a kind of safe way. And I’m also very focused in the lab on ethics and what the ethics of virtual reality are. You know as the world turns more virtual, as we have more interactions with each other in virtual situations you know, what are some of the ethical complications of that? How does it change the way we look at each other as human beings and the way that we interact with each other? So these are big questions and I don’t have answers at the moment and I’m hoping the lab becomes a way that lots of people can come together and we can all start answering these questions together.

Ed Haravon (11:48):

So your vision for the lab and, and you articulate there through the users and the students that you hope to attract is much more, sounds like practical use cases, applications of VR technology, whether it be in media news, you know, advertising, marketing, etc. Who knows where else students will passion will lie a great center of idea exchange and a great kind of, you know, develop or advances in one particular area of VR or AR is going to presage if you will, where it’s going to, how it’s gonna affect other areas. And so I love the idea of that being kind of this nexus of that information and chance for people to see how other people are using the tool and see if they could use it for their own discipline. And wrapped in all of that is kind of like we’re still at the early stages of what many people think is kind of, you know, what’s going to come to be a big revolution of, of both virtual reality and augmented reality technology in our lives as devices become more common.

Ed Haravon (12:46):

And you know, AR maybe moves from, into, you know, the mainstream and the phone as we’re seeing with all the mobile AR applications and as well as, you know, just starting to see those first commonly, commercially acceptable AR glasses, they’re not here yet. Totally. But you know, as that many people believe that will be unlock a big piece of what that technology is used for. Just in terms of like today, like as your students and you view the industry, what’s topical? What’s on people’s mind that that would, would be, if you were open today this morning, what might those conversations that are happening in the classroom? You know, what would those look like in the VARC lab?

Paul Booth (13:28):

Yeah. you know the, we were just having this conversation a couple nights ago in my new media and culture class, the big topic right now. And I think this is the topic for a lot of people is Facebook’s transition to Meta and Facebook is going all in, on Oculus in the VR platforms there. And so this comes back to that those considerations I was talking about earlier. Oculus is a fantastic system. It’s it’s top of the line right now. It like that’s the user system that is that people know, but everything is locked into Facebook. And a lot of my students at least have issues with the way Facebook runs its business, and the way that the kind of privacy issues come up. So how do you stay, I guess, a conversation that we had and that maybe the lab can help people with is how, how do you stay relevant with new technology when that technology is in a kind of walled system that you may not necessarily want to be a part of?

Paul Booth (14:39):

And I think this is a problem across a range of things. Everyone’s talking about whether Apple is gonna have a device at some point soon. And I think the same questions will come up. You know, Apple is its own little wall system. So I think these are, these are, the more we delve into these kind of larger questions of virtual reality. We can’t separate it from the questions that we already have about social media, about privacy, and about our kind of autonomy online. And I know these are very big questions and certainly you know, diverge from is, I love putting a headset on and playing star wars, you know, but I think when you get students interested in studying virtual reality, you have to talk about not just the fun stuff, but, but the stuff that, that affects us on a cultural and social level as well. And that’s what DePaul is all about, right. DePaul as an institution is all about bringing to light these ethical issues so that we can live in a more just world, which I think is a great thing.

Ed Haravon (15:55):

Expanding on that. Certainly we won’t be able to talk and settle all the Facebook issues and the, the trans meta on this call. We could probably do this for days and not have that wrapped up, but certainly as you go forward, even. So just to get your opinion and you know, to put you on the record here on YouTube for, for posterity go out two years go out five years. How do you see that? What is your kind of case for how the technology evolves and how we’ll be using it within that timeframe? And certainly we’ll have to solve some of these issues around privacy and platform as such, but assuming we do as a society or as a group or the powers that be within the industry, you know, what could a reasonable user expect to see from the technology looking out forward?

Paul Booth (16:46):

Oh, that’s a big question Ed, and you know, future casting is a difficult business, as you know. To me, I think the technology is just, it’s gonna get better and better. If you look at where we were five years ago to where we are now, VR has come huge, huge strides. I’d say there’s really two areas that are gonna focuses of VR. One is entertainment. I think that the entertainment options for VR in terms of Hollywood, streaming services, sort of the media that we enjoy every day are severely lacking right now. And I think partly that’s because a lot of people just don’t have VR headsets. I think as the technology becomes cheaper and more available, more people will get it, and we’ll start seeing more entertainment options in VR, and that’s, what’s gonna break through, right.

Paul Booth (17:49):

I think if, if someone is a Game of Thrones fan and the Game of Thrones prequel comes out in VR first, you’re gonna see a spike of VR entertainment. But I think the other aspect of VR that’s really gonna be a breakthrough is the way that it’s gonna enable working life to change in the way that zoom helped us over the, over the pandemic to kind of continue to have meetings, to continue to work in the office that has, it’s completely changed the way the office works now. You know people just, aren’t gonna go back into the office five days a week. I think this is here to stay, but I think VR is gonna change that even more. You know, if you can slip a headset on for an hour and have a meeting with people, then that’s gonna be a game changer. As long as there’s gonna be a way to bring in other media into that. And this is maybe a kind of confusing answer, but the trouble with VR meetings right now is that you’re locked into what you’re seeing you can’t type. You can’t take notes easily. If there was a way to bring that to a meeting, I think that’s gonna, that’s gonna change everything. We need to become more active participants in virtual reality.

Ed Haravon (19:19):

That’s interesting that you say that we do a lot of work at Get Real in virtual collaboration and helping people kind of harness the power of the tools right now. And certainly we’ve seen more success in adopters of the tools that want to not simply just recreate the PowerPoint presentation, if you will, that they would normally be giving out a zoom or in a class or for a sales pitch. And, and the true value comes with, can you use the benefits of VR? Can you use the fact that we’re in remote place, but we can be interactive. We can be productive. We can use 3d models and animations and tools, and we can examine things in very different ways than we’re used to doing it. Certainly the way the pandemic has put everybody on a flat screen that’s bounded by borders. And here you’re really talking about meetings without borders and, you know, without walls and without space limitations and such.

Ed Haravon (20:14):

So how would you reimagine using that space and what you can do with your class, for instance, or your marketing meeting, or your creative team review or whatever, or you know, your entertainment you’re viewing that all comes, I mean, you’re right in saying that everyone gets into VR AR because of the gaming aspect of it, because it kind of starts you on this mindset of like, what is possible, but the more people have that, you know, the early adopters, the smart, early adopters will be the ones that can harness the possibilities and leverage it for business or for education, or for getting a message a brand across to its, you know, its various audiences. And so you know, we help people do that. We see that as being the key and it’s great that part of what the VARC lab will uncover is these optimal ways of communicating and ways of using this as a, you know, soon the VR headset might be, or the AR or the combined device, depending what apple puts out.

Ed Haravon (21:14):

You know, it’s a tool like your laptop, it’s a tool like your phone and you’ll be on your phone for 20 minutes. You’ll go off your phone, you’ll go onto your desktop you’ll work for an hour. You’ll come off, you’ll take a meeting in your headset for 45 minutes. You’ll take that off you go back, you’ll put on your AR glasses, you’ll get information, you’ll have that meeting, you’ll take it off. It just becomes integrated into kind of our tool set and what it’s used optimal for. So some really great possibilities there.

Paul Booth (21:41):

I agree. I agree. And I think from a technological standpoint, what you just described I think we’re gonna see AR glasses that can transition into VR glasses and vice versa. And I think that’s just AR is, is untapped at the moment for its potential and that, I think that market is gonna explode.

Ed Haravon (22:07):

So in specific to the VARC lab talk to me about when it’s gonna be online, when are students gonna be coming through the doors and, you know, some of this great programming and opportunities be available for students at DePaul and then others who wanna be involved.

Paul Booth (22:25):

Yeah. so we had we’ve kind of had a soft open this quarter at DePaul. We’ve had a couple of events where we’ve invited students to try things out. I’m the advisor for the DePaul VR society. So they’ve had some events that have used our, our equipment, and then I’ve brought the equipment to some classes this quarter, but it’s all been just word of mouth that hasn’t had an official opening. I think our actual space is gonna be open by the end of November. And then hopefully in January, we’ll have a, a hard open where we have like a big party with pizza. And then so we’ll kind of get up and running in the winter and lead by the spring. We’ll have the lab at a functional point where we can invite people from outside to Paul in as well. So I’d say, look for that April, but don’t quote me on that.

Ed Haravon (23:23):

That’s great. and certainly the fact that you, you can get in there and use the equipment now and bring that it’s fair, portable, and students can use it now. That’s great as a way to kind of seed interest. After people wind up watching our clip today on the YouTube channel, if people want to get in touch with you or DePaul, if people at the college I’m sure we’ll put it down in the comments as well, but give us a chance of how people can reach out to you to learn more.

Paul Booth (23:49):

Yeah. well, the best way to get in touch with me personally is email. And my email is very easy. It’s Pbooth@depaul.edu. So my first initial and my last name but we do have some social media for the VARC lab. It has been newly created, so there’s absolutely nothing on it at the moment. But VARC lab DePaul is our Gmail account VARC lab DePaul, or I’m sorry, VARCDePaul@gmail.com is our Gmail account. And then we’ve got a Twitter VARCLabDePaul Instagram VARCLabDePaul, and evidently we have a TikTok, which I haven’t even really played with yet, which is also VARCLabDePaul. So I had a research assistant this quarter set up all of our social media. So I have to play with that and get things started, but best way to get in touch with me right now is email. So look forward to chatting about the lab.

Ed Haravon (24:46):

So we’ll make sure that we’ll put all that information down in the comment section for those who are listening and watching at home. Paul couldn’t let you go. You mentioned you had you got into it from a consumer love and you were probably an early adopter as well. Give me a couple VR games. I know you mentioned star wars, but VR games you’re recommended or favorites and any recent VR experiences on the entertainment side that you can recommend for the crowd.

Paul Booth (25:12):

Yeah. well I love kind of mystery escape room type games. And I there’s a game, I think it’s called The Room that I thought was really, really well done. Star Wars Vader Immortal is what really got me excited. I’m a big Dr. Who fan, so there’s a Dr. Who VR game that came out last year that I just devoured and loved. But in terms of experiences, you know, there’s I’ve been reading this book called touching the dark, which is a kind of memoir about a man who’s going blind and his experiences with that. And they put together a VR experience called notes on blindness which take his audio diaries and, and give you a sense of what it’s like to go blind. And I think that it, one of, of the things that we haven’t talked about, but that VR is amazingly capable of doing is allowing us to feel empathy for other people and other people’s situations. I don’t know what it’s like to go blind but putting on the headset, being completely immersed in this dark world, but little flashes of light here and there it was kind of life changing in a way to, to experience that. So recommend that, I recommend that as well.

Ed Haravon (26:39):

That’s great. Well we’re getting to the end of the time here today, Paul certainly will be welcoming you back here, hopefully in the future to talk a little bit more about the progress you’re making and how the VARC lab takes off and different ways that the community is interacting with you and such. And so thank you very much for your time. Really appreciate it.

Paul Booth (27:01):

Yeah. Youre welcome, and I’m really looking forward to collaborating with Get Real on projects in the future. I think we’ve got a lot of synergy happening here, to use a buzzword.

Ed Haravon (27:11):

Yeah we’re looking forward to it as well. It’s been a great getting to know you and great learning more about the resources that are gonna be available to DePaul within the industry and looking forward to see all the great things that are coming from you and the students in the coming months. So we will talk to you later. Thanks, Paul.

Paul Booth (27:27):

Awesome. Thanks Ed.