Immersive experiences are the heart of new master's program

Instead of putting an experience in front of an audience, a new master’s degree program at the UO will put them into it, as if they are living it.

Imagine the possibilities: You can make them an astronaut moving about the International Space Station. Or an artist with a three-dimensional, dynamic canvas. Or give them a way to experience biases, racism or war.

That’s the potential of augmented, virtual and extended reality. The UO School of Journalism and Communication is at the forefront of such immersive technologies with faculty members who have long researched their evolution and effects and also boasts immersive media labs in both Eugene and Portland.

With that combination of expertise and resources, it’s now launching a first-of-its-kind master’s degree in immersive media communication to prepare students to enter the vast and fast-evolving field. The school is inviting students of communication to use the new technologies to solve social, environmental and business problems by helping audiences better understand the issues around them.

“The potential in these spaces for creating experience, connection and community is just phenomenal,” said Donna Davis, who will lead the new master’s program and serves as director of the Strategic Communication Master’s Program and Oregon Reality Lab. “And I have seen the power of it and how it can function in strategic communication.”

Davis first began researching virtual worlds in 2010 as a doctoral student and started teaching classes in immersive technologies five years ago. One example of the technologies’ power came when she watched a man with severe cerebral palsy yell with delight using a hand controller placed on his foot that let his avatar wave in virtual reality, something he couldn’t do in the physical world.

“It's changing the way we think about connection, about community, about each other,” Davis said. “And so how do we get those messages out to our audiences? What are we trying to get them to do? All of those classic things we think about in strategic communication, trying to apply those to these new technologies and think about new, innovative, exciting and effective ways to get our message out to create community.”

Enrollees of the one-year, fully online program, which is currently accepting applicants for classes starting in fall 2023, will be given tools of the trade — a VR headset and computer — they will use for coursework. Graduates will fill a growing need for their skills in an emerging field and create the foundation of what may ultimately become the metaverse.

“We are right on that edge of starting to see jobs opening up that are like ‘chief metaverse officer’ where organizations are asking how do we use it and why do we use it? And who do we want to get there and why,” Davis asked.

Other jobs include community managers: “An entire industry now that's really been built around social communities,” she said.

Davis and Danny Pimentel, an assistant professor of immersive psychology who specializes in augmented and virtual reality, have presented in front of Fortune 50 companies that want to know more about how they can excel in the new space.

One of Pimentel’s projects puts people in the form of a sea turtle as they dodge hazards such as ships and fishing gear. Participating in the simulation, funded by Meta and the Sea Turtle License Plate Program, translates into an emotional connection with the events more than with any other format or platform, Pimentel said.

“And we can tap that power to use it for good in various contexts,” he said. 

“What I'm really fascinated by and what we still don't know are the long-term effects,” Pimentel said. “What sticks to users when they take off that headset, and why does it stick?”

David Markowitz, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication who researches psychology and communication and will teach in the program, said he and his colleagues are trying to push not only research forward but practice forward as well by using the technologies in new and novel ways: changing a person’s race, gender and more, and then putting them into different scenarios.

“We're building an entirely new paradigm for how to communicate effectively through these platforms,” he said. “With this program, with our researchers here at the university, and with our students, we're creating that standard.”

Maxwell Foxman, whose expertise lies at the intersection of video game tools and game infrastructure — where VR has its roots — and other media professions, said alumni of this program will play key roles in the field.

“I think the fact that we're going to have a leading program where people will be able to understand the humanity and the communicative power of this device and then be able to liaise between the people that do the coding and the people that are going to use these products and brands, other media companies, game makers, all of these other people,” said Foxman, who also studies issues around equity in virtual spaces, “I think that's just an incredibly unique position and one that I'm just super excited to be part of.”

Wesley Della Volla is an immersive media storyteller and one of the early adopters of immersive media as a communications tool. The guest speaker for the school’s 2023 Ruhl Lecture and founder of experiential storytelling company Meridian Treehouse, Della Volla has watched the technology slowly make its way into different corners of society and has seen up close the power it can have.

As part of his lectures, he has his audience wear VR headsets as he takes them on far-flung virtual tours and experiences.

“This format really allows you to experience things you may never experience in ways you never could before, and that's hugely powerful,” Della Volla said. “And I think what's going to be really important to any program like this (is) someone who's there to remind us: What are the ethics of immersive storytelling, what's our responsibility to accuracy and transparency in how we create immersive content, in the end what is right, what is wrong and why.”

The first cohort in the immersive media communications master’s program starts this fall. The application deadline is April 30.

By Jim Murez, University Communications