Student project uses virtual reality technology found in Fortnite and ‘The Mandalorian’
It’s not very often that you hear of someone creating an entire world — an immersive, interactive place to explore — from scratch. But that’s exactly what a team of St. Olaf College students who participated in the Virtual Production and Live Performance Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) project did.
Advised by Assistant Professor of Theater Todd Edwards, Omar Al-Taie ’24, Inna Sahakyan ’23, and Emma Michalski ’22 spent 10 weeks working to master and utilize virtual reality technologies, each creating unique interactive virtual environments.
The team members created their worlds using Unreal Engine, a computer program used to create hit video games like Fortnite, and the backgrounds of shows like The Mandalorian and Westworld. Prior to beginning the project, the students had never used the program before, largely learning it alongside one another.
“When you talk about it, it sounds kind of complicated, or almost impossible at some points. But once you take the steps and learn it, it’s a fun process and something you enjoy working toward. I really enjoyed exploring it,” Sahakyan says.
Despite virtual reality being new to all of the students, the worlds of art and computer science are familiar. Al-Taie and Sahakyan are both computer science majors familiar with the nature of technology and problem solving.
“Being adjusted to how technology works, I know it just doesn’t work the first time,” says Al-Taie. “Because there are a million things to change, there are a million variables. There’s just always something different. You have to follow the steps and critically think about how to fix each problem. That’s the joy of it, at least for me.”
You have to follow the steps and critically think about how to fix each problem. That’s the joy of it, at least for me.Omar Al-Taie ’24
Unreal Engine has historically been used for larger, studio-backed projects — but through this CURI project, the goal is to figure out how to use the programs in a way that’s accessible and repeatable for smaller community arts groups, and ultimately integrate the work into live theater at St. Olaf.
As their culminating project, the group did largely that, combining their virtual worlds with live actors into a short film. In the film, an actor, Matthew Humason ’21, is transported into four different worlds using virtual reality. The first two worlds are joyful and welcoming, bringing back happy memories for the actor. Michalski created a forest scene and Sahakyan’s world is a park complete with a fountain and people all around. The final two bring more frightful memories, with Al-Taie designing a house and Edwards having created a haunted autopsy room.
When working with the cutting-edge technology that’s become popularized by multimillion dollar operations, it can be tricky to be able to work at the same caliber. And even for Edwards, the technology was new and came with a bit of a learning curve. “It is a super cool program, and I’ve honestly been scared of it. I’ve wanted to learn Unreal for years now, but it intimidated me. There’s this image, this persona, that it’s not accessible, that it’s not for the indie artist,” Edwards says.
And the team did run into challenges, including issues where equipment they were using was not always optimal for the programs they were running — after all, they note, compiling hundreds of thousands of virtual objects and aspects takes power and time. Edwards says St. Olaf’s Information Technology Office was incredibly invaluable and supportive to help the team work through these issues.
The nature of a CURI project is that the group was able to work together for a significant number of hours in a small group setting, with the support and expertise of a St. Olaf faculty member. Researching in this way is something that has major benefits, allowing those involved to get more in-depth knowledge of the work, try more things, and ultimately form stronger connections.
I feel like learning together creates a community — especially when it’s only two, three, or four other people, I feel like you really get close, and you can really have conversations about what you’re doing and what you’re learning.Emma Michalski ’22
“I feel like learning together creates a community — especially when it’s only two, three, or four other people, I feel like you really get close, and you can really have conversations about what you’re doing and what you’re learning,” Michalski says.
Learn more about the team’s research, methods, and final project on the Virtual Production and Live Performance site.