Pure Imagination

In the Imaginarium lab, the world is at students’ fingertips. There, they learn how to use VR technology to collaborate and build empathy.

In a world of pure imagination. That’s where students want to be. Or rather, they want to put their imagination into our world. And it’s possible with the redesigned Imaginarium lab. The lab has recently combined with the WAVE High-Performance Computing Center and moved into the Heafey building as part of the new Sobrato Campus for Innovation and Discovery to house student projects that explore the world from new angles.

“We’re trying to build a peer-to-peer, collaborative network where students learn and teach other virtual reality, augmented reality, game development, graphic design, animation, storytelling, all of these different skill sets,” says David Jeong, assistant professor of communication and faculty co-director of the Imaginarium. “It’s been my dream goal to start a VR lab where we could teach students, hold guest speaker seminar series, basically popularize the tech to a wider audience, and reduce the intimidation factor around it.”

He’s getting closer, it seems, as there’s plenty of student interest in using the lab and a growing number of faculty who want to incorporate VR into their classes. Several projects have already found great success—three have been accepted by the International Communication Association’s 2022 conference in Paris.

Augempathver (2)
Illustration by Michael Byers

These projects include a VR exploration of the hypocrisy of corporations that contribute to pollution and global warming but marketing themselves as eco-friendly; a VR simulation in which users build empathy by experiencing first-hand how the world might look and feel to someone with social anxiety; and an augmented reality experience in which users see 3D models of homes belonging to the region’s indigenous Ohlone people on the current-day Santa Clara campus.

Imaginarium lab technician Emily Dang ’20, M.S. ’21, suspects students are only going to become more interested in learning to work in virtual and augmented realities as more VR products and experiences begin flooding the marketplace. And not just those in STEM fields. “When people learn about big topics like sustainability or racial discrimination through VR as opposed to other traditional methods, they tend to come away with more empathy,” Dang says because they experienced something rather than just read about it. “The humanities, I think, should be really interested in what that means for the future of education, what that means for a more empathetic and just society if we teach our children this way.”

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