By Lisa Wang
TAPS 21N: “The Idea of Virtual Reality” is an all-freshman introductory seminar that allows students to engage with the impact of one of the newest innovations of our time: virtual reality.
From watching VR videos with Google Cardboard to going on field trips to meeting with big names in the industry, students experience VR in multiple contexts.
The course is taught by Matthew Wilson Smith, associate professor of German studies and theater and performance studies. For him, the excitement of the curriculum comes with the novelty of its topic.
“[Virtual reality is] being created in real time, and largely right around here in Silicon Valley,” he said. “As a theater scholar and a performance scholar and a literature scholar, it’s a venture for me to explore a medium that has yet to be created — that’s in the process of being created. And it’s a medium that some of the students around the seminar table might be helping to create.”
Students are assigned a combination of readings and VR videos to watch with Google Cardboard, which they then discuss during class. One of the main goals of the course is to examine the past, present and future of VR.
“We’re spending time looking at the history of VR, going back to the 19th century and through the 20th, although it even has roots all the way back to Plato and his allegory of the cave,” Smith said. “We’re [also] trying to speculate forward about where this all might be going — it’s currently a big unknown.”
Another critical concern of the class is determining what makes for an immersive VR experience. As Smith describes it, “[We] want to ask: What do we mean when we say ‘immersion’? Does it mean that we just pay attention, or does it mean that we actually are in a state where we forget the medium?”
One way the class has engaged hands-on with the concept of immersion is going on trips to the Virtual Human Interaction Lab on campus, where it is able to use HTC Vive, one of the most cutting-edge VR systems available today.
“The breathtaking quality of the simulation of presence was something that I frankly hadn’t anticipated,” Smith said. “I knew it was a feature of the medium, but until I’d actually done it, I hadn’t fully appreciated just how powerful it is.”
The course also explores the concept of agency and spectatorship in VR. Ryan Hsieh ’20 was struck by the effect VR portrayals might have on audience responses to humanitarian disaster.
“One thing we talk a lot about is desensitization,” Hsieh said. “For example, one video we watched was of this girl in Syria, another was of a girl in Haiti after the earthquake, and another was of poverty in India. A question we ponder is: Does watching and rewatching all of these scenarios and narratives make us less empathetic?”
With all of the high-tech equipment it involves, one might expect TAPS 21N to appeal mostly to STEM majors. But Smith is adamant that, regardless of their interests, students will be able to resonate with some aspect of the course.
“There aren’t as many humanities folks in the class as I would like, and I’d like to have a mix,” Smith said. “I think so much interesting work in the history of technology comes out of people who are really fired up about art, history, literature and the whole world of the arts and the humanities.”
Hsieh, who identifies as a “STEM person,” agreed that the course would be an eye-opening and rewarding experience for peers of various academic backgrounds.
“I found out that that’s super interesting, and it was engaging to pull from these different topics in discussion,” Hsieh said.
Contact Lisa Wang at lisaw20 ‘at’ stanford.edu.