Making virtual worlds

In a class this spring, Jeffrey Vadala of the Penn Brain Science Center taught students to analyze virtual reality landscapes and create their own.

Students in Making Virtual Worlds class.
Lorraine Ruppert, right, donned a virtual reality headset to work on her final project for the Making Virtual Worlds class.

Selin Ortaeskinazi sat in class with her laptop open to a virtual shoe store she designed in a futuristic style, with reflective surfaces, metal mannequins, and a massive sneaker suspended in the air.

In the course Making Virtual Worlds: Space, Place, and Human Experience offered this spring, the rising fourth year learned about hominess, fascination, and cohesiveness as three key neuroaesthetics dimensions of an environment, and she was tinkering with a hypothetical Foot Locker designed based on fascination. She later created a virtual space based on hominess. While the class has ended, she still plans to have people experience both spaces with VR and survey them for a study.

Ortaeskinazi, a cognitive science and design double-major in the College of Arts and Sciences from Istanbul, says she was curious how the store design would change the store’s performance. Does the environment have a significant effect on shopping behavior and brand perception? Which one makes more sense for Foot Locker to attract more customers and sell more shoes? Do people link the shoe industry to fascination or hominess?

This was the last day and project presentation day for the Making Virtual Worlds course, taught by Jeffrey Vadala. Inspired by the hybrid lab environment at the Penn Brain Science Center Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence Lab, directed by Vadala, which integrates social science approaches with traditional hard science methods, the seminar required students to test and present their final projects to each other. They explained the features and goals, provided constructive feedback, and used devices such as the Apple Vision Pro or Oculus Quest VR headset. The course was taught and funded through the Center for Experimental Ethnography.

Students work on laptops in Making Virtual Worlds class.

Other students’ virtual worlds included a staff lounge for nurses that explored the psychological effects of architectural space, sites of resistance and historical memory in the contemporary context of Philadelphia’s Chinatown, an environment simulating the tragic scope of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch while educating about plastic pollution in the ocean, a space to explore the anxiety-reducing effects of animal companions, and a world that involves collecting colors from nature to explore creativity and expression.

They were drawing on research and perspectives discussed earlier in the course, which Vadala describes as a mix of anthropology, archaeology, psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy. They discussed case studies of virtual reality cultures, such as a cult and a church, and learned the technical skills of graphics technologies like the Unreal Engine or Unity.

“Right now is the best time to get into virtual reality, and it’s easier than ever to do it. There are tools for people of all levels,” Vadala says. He told the students that their project could benefit them in their academic experience—leading to a paper or thesis—and in their career.

Also a researcher at the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics in the Perelman School of Medicine, Vadala has a background in anthropology and archaeology. He says his interest in the intersection of anthropology and VR dates to 2005, when he was doing survey work at the Mayan site of T’isil and conducting different kinds of spatial analysis to understand the development of Mayan city landscapes. At the same time, he was practicing coding with an early version of the Unreal Engine, a 3D computer graphics engine then mainly used for video games.

Vadala says he envisioned using the Unreal Engine to “give us a more rapid, dynamic picture into what the ancient Mayans’ lives were like.” He found that the site models proposed by archaeologists from a few decades prior didn’t hold up. He later went on to use virtual reality to reconstruct a plantation site in northern Virginia—to better understand the lives of enslaved people there—and the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan before it was destroyed by the Spanish.

After coming to Penn and joining the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics, he began exploring how VR could be used in neuroscience research, looking at how architectural space affects human perception, experience, and cognition.

“One of the things I had always wanted to do with the analytical side of building things in VR was understand how architectural spaces shape people’s experience but also their cognition, low-level things that would funnel people’s attention and their perspectives,” says Vadala.

Using VR to address social issues

Darya Ameri, who graduated in May from the School of Nursing, says she had never worked with VR before taking Making Virtual Worlds but came across the class while looking for an elective for her design minor.

Ameri, who is from Edgewater, New Jersey, says she was thinking about class discussions on neuroaesthetics—a discipline looking at the neural basis of aesthetic experiences—and how architecture could be used not only for the well-being of patients but also for health care professionals. For her final project, she decided to create a redesigned staff lounge for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where she interned last summer and is working again after graduating. She imported 3D models of room décor she made in Adobe into the 3D scanning app Polycam, while others in the class used various combinations of virtual reality and augmented reality (AR) platforms such as Twinmotion, Unity, Luma, and Blender.

She incorporated circular design elements, neutral colors, and plants, noting that research shows these elements help with well-being. In explaining her project to the class, Ameri says she was inspired by Japanese-style relaxation lounges—using furniture low to the ground and a lot of wood—and that she chose not to include any TV screens. Her hope is that if something similar was used in a research study, nurses would report that it positively impacted their well-being.

Darya Ameri works on laptop.
Darya Ameri worked on her final project, a staff lounge for nurses, on the final day of the Making Virtual Worlds class.

Meanwhile in class, Lorraine Ruppert had donned a headset and was pinching at the air to zoom in and out of her project: an AR-embedded map of Philadelphia’s Chinatown, with the idea that people would get a map, visit the sites, and scan QR codes. But after getting feedback from classmates, she was considering instead making it a VR space.

“It’s about archiving places of resistance in Chinatown, given Chinatown’s history and current pressure to develop it,” explains Ruppert, a rising fourth-year student majoring in architecture and urban studies. She visited Chinatown and went to places she says are otherwise overlooked, with a goal of “bringing invisible histories to life” and sharing the stories of Chinatown residents.

Growing up in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, Ruppert says that she did not have a lot of outlets to engage with Chinese culture and language. But as someone with a mixed background, it was important to her to connect with her heritage, and she frequently goes to Chinatown now. Her project was also influenced by an architecture class she took spring semester, Spatial Reparations: Material and Territorial Practices of Justice, which she says involved a lot of historical research and archival work.

Ruppert says she took the Making Virtual Worlds course because she was interested in different ways of creating spaces, that she has worked a lot in the 3D modeling software Rhino, but all her projects became 2D drawings.

“We learned a lot about theories of space, neuroaesthetics, embodiment, and memory in space,” says Ruppert, plus “playing with Apple Vision Pro is just so much fun.”

Side-by-side images of shoe store designs representing hominess and fascination.
For her final project in Making Virtual Worlds, Selin Ortaeskinazi created two virtual shoe store designs: one based on hominess and one based on fascination.