For many people, the phrase “virtual reality” is likely to conjure up scenes from movies like The Matrix and Ready Player One. The concept of immersing yourself in a digital world where you can interact with computer-generated characters sometimes seems like the stuff of science fiction or the distant future.
In fact, virtual reality (VR) and its close cousin “augmented reality” (AR) are rapidly emerging technologies—and they’re more prevalent than you might realize. From entertainment and gaming to science and medicine, AR and VR are increasingly integrated into our everyday lives.
What exactly are augmented reality and virtual reality, and how do they differ? Augmented reality enhances experience by overlaying digital images, graphics, or sensations onto the real world. If you’ve used Snapchat lenses or played the game Pokemon Go, chances are you’re familiar with it. In general, all you need to experience augmented reality is a mobile device, like a smartphone, tablet, or laptop.
Virtual reality, on the other hand, is when you are immersed in a completely computer-generated world. This requires a more elaborate setup, including a headset, such as Facebook’s Oculus or Sony’s PlayStation VR, and a handheld remote or two, which allow you to see, hear, and interact with a totally digital environment.
In fall 2017, as interest in these technologies was increasing, BU undergrads Chandler Zhang (ENG’18) and Alicia Hong (COM’18) decided to launch an AR/VR club. Hong says she was more involved on the VR side and Zhang on the AR side. They’d run into each other at AR/VR events around Boston, and when Zhang suggested cofounding a club at BU, Hong jumped at the opportunity.
“We decided that our mission would be to foster an enthusiastic community,” Zhang says, “and also make sure that Boston University is a recognized name in the greater Boston area AR/VR community.”
The club is open to all majors and welcomes from novices to seasoned AR/VR practitioners. Sophomore Jared Yellen (CAS), this year’s president, says the club “tries to foster everyone who has an interest in augmented reality and virtual reality, and help them either further their attempts to create things in AR/VR or just learn more about what’s going on in the industry and the world.”
A common misconception is that AR/VR is mostly for computer programmers. But AR and VR projects involve skills from a variety of disciplines, such as graphics, sound design, and much more. Junior Caolan Disini (CAS), for example, studies computer science, but is minoring in art, and he says he incorporates 3-D modeling in art classes with his VR projects.
The club frequently brings in outside speakers for programming and design workshops. This semester they’ve held workshops on Unity and Simmetri, programming applications to create AR/VR experiences. “One of the biggest difficulties with AR/VR at BU is there are no classes that teach how to create things in AR/VR,” Yellen says, “so we try to fill the gap.”
At a recent meeting, MIT Open Documentary Lab research fellow Charity Everett gave a talk about using VR and 360-degree storytelling to evoke more emotional responses. Members suggest topics for guest speakers and workshops: “Whatever people have interest in is what we want to do,” Yellen says. A VR game tournament is in the works for sometime in the coming weeks.
And on April 29, the club will host its second AR/VR Festival. Last year’s festival brought in five companies and drew 200 students to the BUild Lab to learn how companies and students are using AR and VR to advance entertainment, education, and industry. This time around, Yellen hopes to have 20 companies attending at this year’s venue, the GSU Metcalf Ballroom.
Yellen has big plans for the club: he hopes to expand meetings to at least two a week—one focused on learning how to create things and the other on what you can do with the technology.
“We’d like to make it so that it’s just a technology that anyone can be interested in and anyone can be involved in,” he says.
The BU AR/VR Club meets every Tuesday at 6 pm in the Hariri Seminar Room at 111 Cummington Mall. Check out the group on Facebook and Instagram. The second annual AR/VR Festival will be held Monday, April 29, from noon to 5 pm, in the George Sherman Union Metcalf Ballroom, 775 Commonwealth Ave; register on Eventbrite for a free ticket.