A virtual-​​reality history lesson

July 11, 2012

Two Northeastern University digital media students have made crucial contributions to an interactive virtual reality experience called “The Egyptian Oracle,” in which avatars, live actors and audience members reenact an authentic Egyptian ceremony.

Two North­eastern Uni­ver­sity College of Professional Studies dig­ital media stu­dents have made cru­cial con­tri­bu­tions to an inter­ac­tive virtual-​​reality expe­ri­ence called “The Egyptian Oracle,” in which avatars, live actors and audi­ence mem­bers reenact an authentic Egyptian ceremony.

The show will be per­formed in the Raytheon Amphithe­ater on Friday at 7 p.m.

Ajayan Nam­biar, CPS’11, and Sid­dhesh Pandit, CPS’12, both of whom earned master’s degrees in dig­ital media, com­pleted theses on their con­tri­bu­tions to the project. Nam­biar designed the show’s surround-​​sound system, which uti­lizes the Doppler effect to enhance the environment’s sense of depth and realism. Pandit, for his part, redesigned the open-​​source game engine using the C Sharp pro­gram­ming lan­guage in order for actors to con­trol avatars from remote locations.

Jef­frey Jacobson, director of Pub­licVR, a non­profit ded­i­cated to vir­tual reality research for edu­ca­tion, con­ceived of the project and served as the stu­dents’ fac­ulty adviser. The com­pany received a $50,000 grant from the National Endow­ment for the Human­i­ties to com­plete the pro­to­type, employing a team of stu­dents and top pro­fes­sionals in sev­eral fields, and seeks another $400,000 to make the show bigger, better and more effective.

Jacobson praised the show’s edu­ca­tional value, noting that it has already been per­formed at the Axiom Gallery, an artists col­lec­tive in Jamaica Plain, and for stu­dents at both the Jonas Clarke and William Dia­mond middle schools in Lex­ington, Mass.

“Egyp­tians loved their reli­gious drama and the­ater, and that’s some­thing that’s not often taught in schools or seen in museums or in movies,” he explained. “It’s very impor­tant because it’s the pre­cursor to Greek and Western theater.”

Jacobson noted that the show pro­duces a mixed reality, in which the real and vir­tual worlds col­lide to create new envi­ron­ments where both phys­ical and dig­ital objects co-​​exist. “It breaks the fourth wall, unlike ‘World of War­craft’ or ‘Second Life,’ in which the player is out­side of the vir­tual world,” he said.

Nam­biar pre­sented his thesis on sound design in June in Atlanta, Ga., at the 18th Inter­na­tional Con­fer­ence on Audi­tory Dis­plays. The paper, he said, played a big role in his landing a job as a sound engi­neer for audio man­u­fac­turer Harmon Kardon.

“People were inter­ested in my work,” he said. “They were impressed with the paper.”

Nam­biar, who earned an under­grad­uate degree in com­puter sci­ence, noted that the project gave him the chance to com­bine the tech­nical aspect of coding with the cre­ative aspect of dig­ital media. As he put it, “Until you’re actu­ally working in this field, you don’t realize how seam­lessly pro­gram­ming and media are connected.”

Pandit, who grad­u­ated in June, looks for­ward to breaking into the video-​​game industry with Activi­sion or Elec­tronic Arts. Working on “Oracle,” he said, gave him a glimpse of the field.

“I got expo­sure to a big industry,” he said. “I learned how much research goes into devel­oping games.”