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A virtual reality set sits in the virtual environments lab at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, Wednesday, January 18, 2017. (Photo/Austin Steele, info@asteelephoto.us)

Virtual reality and the arts aren’t typically two subjects that are known for going hand in hand. However, on March 2, the Dancz Center for New Music at the University of Georgia’s Hugh Hodgson School of Music served as an open forum for discussion about all things extended reality.

Ideas for Creative Exploration (ICE) hosted the event, which included a panel discussion between three professors at the university as well as a showcase of the some of the latest virtual reality technologies.

The panel featured Dr. Grace Ahn, an assistant advertising professor who conducts research in the university’s Virtual Environments Lab.

Ahn brought a unique perspective on the implications of virtual reality as much of her research focus is on how corporations might use virtual reality for advertising as well as how the medium may have an effect on human empathy, possibly allowing users to experience how it might feel to be in the shoes of someone like a Syrian refugee.

Also present was professor of geodesign Brian Orland. Orland, a landscape architect, discussed how he uses virtual reality in his research to create and study virtual forest environments.

Dr. Kyle Johnsen, an associate professor of engineering, rounded out the panel, representing the technological side of virtual reality research.

Together, the three panelists discussed their personal experiences with the emerging medium of virtual reality.

When asked how she first got into studying virtual reality, Dr. Ahn recalled with laughter being asked during a discussion early in her career, “as a woman, why are you studying virtual reality?”

“My ovaries didn’t make that decision,” Ahn said.

She said that she saw a lot of potential in virtual reality at a time when many were skeptical about its usefulness due to its high cost and low quality.

Ahn discussed the potential issues posed by virtual reality, such as users having memories of an experience that never actually happened in real life.

“Interactive experiences can change the way you experience things in the real world,” Ahn said.

Orland discussed how he uses virtual reality to connect overarching views of landscape planning with the ground view in order to gain a more complete understanding of various projects.

The discussion also touched on whether virtual reality would be beneficial for education, an idea the panelists doubted due to the effects of sensory overload.

Johnsen shared his view that virtual reality will be more valuable to instructors, rather than students, to discover more effective teaching methods.

The panelists promoted increased discussions and unity among the various departments at UGA.

They discussed the benefits of teamwork between different departments and taking an interdisciplinary approach to researching virtual reality, a sentiment that was emboldened by the fact that the technological discussion took place in the school of music.

After the discussion, the audience was invited to try out different virtual reality set ups.

Participants tried out the HTC Vive by putting on a headset and using two controllers to play catch with a virtual dog.

Onlookers watched what the users experienced on a nearby computer screen. The users, totally entranced by the virtual world, had no clue what they looked like or where they were standing relative to the onlookers, causing many near collisions and quite a few laughs.

Users were also able to put on the Oculus Rift headset and take an immersive, virtual look at various sites around Washington, D.C. The participants took in 360-degree views of sharp images of the district as if they were actually there.

The panelists reflected on many issues and moral questions presented by virtual reality that haven’t been answered yet. However, if the delight of participants at Thursday’s panel is any indication, the excitement and interest in virtual reality only continues to grow.