GCIEL activity, community, and HASTAC 2017

Since October I have been working hard to establish an immersive environments lab at Grinnell College and have been making some significant headway toward getting this project off the ground. With the launch last week of the Grinnell College Immersive Experiences Lab (GCIEL) website and the delivery of some VR-capable desktops and associated hardware, it feels as if the project is finally starting to take off. Looking back at these last few months, I feel that I have been able to accomplish a remarkable amount of work in a very brief time:

  • Received funding from the Grinnell College Innovation Fund (one-year planning) to support the creation of a lab for designing, developing, evaluating, and distributing immersive three-dimensional (3D), virtual reality (VR), and mixed reality (MR) environments and to offer a summer faculty workshop;
  • Launched a website (http://gciel.sites.grinnell.edu) to serve as a public face for the lab;
  • Designed the summer faculty workshop (http://gciel.sites.grinnell.edu/summer-2017-faculty-workshop), identified outside experts to present at the workshop, and received confirmation from these experts;
  • Articulated an initial seed project to direct lab activity and to help establish lab workflows (http://gciel.sites.grinnell.edu/gciel-projects);
  • Advertised for positions on the student development team (http://gciel.sites.grinnell.edu/student-dev-team) through both print and web;
  • Identified and secured internal funding sources to support site-based research related to the seed project. This funding will allow one faculty adviser (Dr. Sarah Purcell), a staff member (Dr. David Neville), and three students (3D artist, software developer, and subject-matter expert) to research plantation complexes in Louisiana during January 2018; and
  • Ordered equipment and began building workstation for student development team members.

The advertising campaign has been a lot of fun to create, and I was able to purchase a pop culture image on Shutterstock that expresses some of the energy that I initially hope to generate with the creation of the GCIEL. To date (2/12/2017 10:00 PM) the job description for 3D Artist has been viewed 37 times, and the description for Software Developer has been viewed 24 times. I have also received 6 written inquiries from students regarding the activity of the lab, the job descriptions, and how they can get more involved. Although the application deadline for both positions is 05 March 2017, student and faculty feedback I have received up to this time seems to suggest that students are interested in ambitious interdisciplinary projects that incorporate technology in meaningful ways and that are used to enrich the undergraduate experience.


I am particularly excited about the student workstation, which serves both as a VR viewing station and project production station. The Dell Precision Tower 5810 (Intel Xeon Processor E5-1650 and NVIDIA Quadro M5000 8GB GPU) has two Dell 24 monitors with a QHD 23.8-Inch screen. The attached Wacom Cintiq 22HD USB graphics tablet will allow the the 3D Artist to create art resources with a stylus instead of with a computer mouse. Software to be installed on the workstation includes Blender, GIMP, Audacity, Inkscape, Autodesk Entertainment Creation Suite Ultimate (3ds Max), Adobe Creative Cloud (Photoshop and Illustrator), FRAPS, Camtasia, and Unity Pro. Students in the development team will have access to Unity Bundled Certified Developer Courseware and Certification and Autodesk 3ds Max Certified User Training and Exam.


The most important thing I would like to accomplish with the GCIEL is to create an interdisciplinary community of inquiry that explores new ways to approach the liberal arts and make them more widely accessible through immersive 3D, VR, and MR experiences. I hope to distribute all projects developed in the lab as open educational resources for the global public good. Although I have a lot of short- and mid-range goals, the primary long-term goals I have for the lab are:

  • Grow the lab into a center that is nationally recognized for its use of immersive 3D, VR, and MR experiences to transform teaching and research in the liberal arts.
  • Establish the lab as a “pipeline” that attracts students to Grinnell College, connects their study of a liberal arts topic here with industry-recognized training, applies this training towards a ambitious problem-based project that connects across multiples disciplines, and then helps students locate employment and internships.

It’s important, I think, to connect lab activity to “immersive experiences” instead of just limiting it to VR. Technology will undoubtedly change in the future, but the sense of presence that immersion in virtual environments provides will only continue to grow and expand as new technologies emerge. I also decided to associate the GCIEL with “immersive experiences” instead of “immersive environments” since the former is more dynamic and stresses the necessity of activity. Students don’t learn anything by just being immersed in a virtual environment; they need to do something. Likewise, the activity surrounding the creation of these environments is also dynamic and provides students with the opportunity to become more immersed in the project subject matter.

Finally, I would like to use lab activity to generate new research on how immersive 3D, VR, and MR experiences can be be effectively used to teach and research liberal arts topics. I am happy that my collaboration with Dr. Sarah Purcell on the GCIEL seed project is moving in this direction, and we just submitted a proposal last week to present a poster at the upcoming HASTAC 2017 conference:

Visualizing Difficult Historical Realities: The Uncle Sam Plantation Project

This poster will spark conversations about the emerging Uncle Sam Plantation Project, that is part of the Grinnell College Immersive Experiences Lab (GCIEL). The GCIEL is an interdisciplinary community of inquiry exploring new ways to approach the liberal arts and make them more widely accessible through immersive 3D, VR, and MR experiences. A GCIEL project development team consisting of Dr. Sarah Purcell (History), Dr. David Neville (Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment), and three students (3D artist, software developer, and subject-matter expert) are working on creating a 3D model of the Uncle Sam Plantation, a 19th-century sugar plantation that was located near the town of Convent in St. James Parish, Louisiana. Constructed between 1829 and 1843, the Uncle Sam plantation was once one of the most intact and architecturally-unified plantation complexes in the Southeastern United States and a prime example of Greek Revival-style architecture. Before the plantation complex was razed in 1940 to make room for a river levee, floor plans and elevations of the buildings were produced by the Historic American Buildings Survey.

The poster will present both technological and historical/philosophical issues that are important to this kind of digital project. The team is grappling with ethical and technological issues simultaneously as we seek to represent the physical plantation that was part of a system of racialized hegemony in the United States. The project lies, therefore, at the intersection of race, visualization, and the spatial humanities. Questions to be explored in the poster include: What are the ethics of creating an immersive digital experience that relates to enslaved labor and white supremacy? How can immersive environments act as tools of historical recreation and preservation? What was the significance of the Uncle Sam plantation in the history of slavery and of Louisiana? Is there a connection between digitally created immersive environments and the abolitionist technique of moral suasion (for example, can technology enhance the anti-slavery impulse or fight racism)? Finally, how can an interdisciplinary team best answer these questions while also implementing an excellent technical project? We hope the poster can spark deep and interesting conversations.

I would, of course, also like to expand the energy of this collaboration and use the poster presentation as a stepping stone for an article on the topic. More on this later!

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