News Ticker

Unreal Realities: One Professor’s Cutting-Edge Work in Virtual Reality

What happens when technology and humanity connect?

Professor Shanshan Wang presents her research at SHU's CASCon; virtual reality; and Wang with her team at at the Sónar + D innovation conference in Barcelona.

By Tim Deenihan

Reality is still real. It’s not going anywhere.

That said, our understanding of reality–of what it means to be present, to experience a time orplace or event–is becoming a hot matter of discussion. And one of the leading voices on the topic is Professor Shanshan Wang of Sacred Heart University’s Department of Communication and Media Studies.

“I was initially drawn to how activists use the internet to recruit people and arrange meetings and protests,” she explains. “The Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, The Women’s March—these are some of the most influential social movements of our day.”

But every age has its protests and rebellions. What makes these so different from the activism of the past?

Well, for one thing, the internet. Social media allows for a sort of hive-mind, directing and dispersing a crowd of individuals as if that crowd were one body. And so, when the collective began to behave in a manner as human as the individuals who made it, she started thinking: What is ‘identity’ in this age of collective intelligence?

That intersection of technology and humanity is right at the heart of her research at SHU. Now in her third year teaching at the University, Wang’s work focuses on the evolution of virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality (or VR, AR and XR, for those in the know). Her work in the field won her recognition this year as one of only 15 innovation creators worldwide, as identified by Sónar+D, an “antidisciplinary” international congress of boundary-busting creatives based in Barcelona.

For the uninitiated, the simplest way to introduce virtual reality might be to call it the next generation of computer gaming. For anyone who actually knows anything about it, that sentence is an understatement comparable to saying the Titanic ran into some difficulties. Still, to offer the most perfunctory of explanations, in VR participants wear a headset that looks rather like they’ve strapped a pair of binoculars to their faces. It blinds them to their actual surroundings and only allows them to see what is projected within the headset. Most headsets are also wired for sound, so what the wearer sees is also supported by what they hear. Motion sensors pick up the participant’s actions and, again, respond accordingly with adjustments to what they are seeing and hearing, creating a startlingly real and immersive 360-degree experience—one so complete, it almost has to be experienced to be understood.

And sure, VR/AR is a terrific platform for entertainment of all sorts. But its potential goes way beyond the next iteration of Xbox and Netflix options. The immersive experience is so complete, it already has found numerous applications in medicine, ranging from therapy and pain relief to patient education and procedure planning. And that’s just for starters.

For Wang, with her history as a filmmaker in experimental and new medium arts, VR, AR and XR are “new forms of creative expression.” In October, she was a panel speaker at the NYVR Expo at the Javits Center in New York, where she weighed in not only on storytelling in VR, but also on how XR—the developing arenas in which virtual or augmented reality interfaces with the physical world–and developing artificial intelligence could construct story and affect memory down the road.

If you’re beginning to feel like Blade Runner may not be science fiction for much longer, you’re not far wrong.

But Wang’s work focuses less on the esoteric ethical questions of What do we call real and how can we tell the difference? (or, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as Philip K. Dick asked in the title of his novella), but rather the practical, ethical questions of whether we can call an experience real just on the basis of experience alone.

For example, VR can do more than immerse participants in a war movie—it can virtually immerse them in an actual war zone. With the creation and evolution of the internet, there is not only physical presence—that which is happening within the reach of an individual’s five senses—but also virtual presence and telepresence. Humans now are connected instantly in thought, word and deed to other humans around the globe, often with no delay of any kind, very much as if they were sitting together across a table. The rise of virtual and augmented realities, and of the inevitable incorporation of VR and AR into existing means of communication, is only going to further blur that line of what it means to be present.

So, what would it mean for a journalist to virtually share the plight of innocent civilians trapped in a civil war? Might it help a nonprofit generate the necessary funds to help them? Could people wearing headsets in the safety of their living rooms possibly grasp the feeling, understand the experience and live theterror of a refugee?

“The core of my research studies the impact of these technologies on our understanding of what it means to be human,” Wang explains. Because as far back as the first cave drawings, the cutting edge of communication is the cutting edge of humanity itself.

“We have to consider what will be its effect as that story embeds itself in memory.”

That may be a question only time will answer.