SIU steps up to challenge in Virtual Reality ethics

By McKenzie Johnston, Staff Reporter

Two SIU professors, Dr. Shannon McCrocklin of the Linguistics department and Pinckney Benedict of the English department, are reimagining how we interface Virtual Reality technology with education.

“When you embody your narrative, it takes on a whole different aspect. This is what people who haven’t been in VR don’t understand,” Benedict said. “They tend to think it’s just like having a big TV. It’s much less like that than it is like actually being in a place.”

VR is a new tool, and as such it comes with a new set of responsibilities, Benedict said. He described Richie’s Plank Experience, a popular 2017 indie game often used to first introduce people to VR.

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Richie’s Plank Experience is a VR game where the player is standing on a plank of wood in real life. Nothing extreme, just a small plank that the player could easily step off of. 

The player then enters a VR environment by putting on a headset, where their view is that they are standing on something like a steel beam over a city. Although the player is aware that it is not real, they cannot be convinced to step off of the plank.

“Your emotions get involved, your amygdala gets involved,” Benedict said. “Your brain is receiving the message that you are actually experiencing the thing that you’re participating in.” 

SIU needs both a lab for specialized research and creative use and a public lab for VR literacy, Benedict said. 

Benedicts said he wonders if SIU can lead the charge in VR ethics. 

SIU has a business and moral imperative to take charge, Benedict said. 

“Talk about solving questions of identity,” he said. “You can come as anyone you want to be. You can wear any name that you want to wear.”

McCrocklin uses her VR lab for studies already. She said she is reviewing data on how well language learners acquire new languages in a VR environment.

Mondley, a language-learning program, is at the heart of McCrocklin’s study. 

“It’s meant to be immersive,” she said. “You’re put into these scenarios where you’re meant to interact with a person.”

Mondley presents users with various scenarios, like hotels and doctor’s appointments, then uses speech recognition to understand the user’s input. They are also putting out new modules and developing a way for users to interact with one another. 

We have a “taste of where the future’s heading,” McCrocklin said. 

For McCrocklin, the chance to connect teachers with students, speakers with speakers of all languages and backgrounds across the globe is vital, she said.

McCrocklin’s focus is on research into how VR can be used for specific purposes like language learning. Benedict said he wants to start teaching the creation of VR experiences.

In the spring semester, he is offering a course on telling stories via this new medium. 

“There’s a real hunger for VR narrative right now,” McCrocklin said. “There’s more demand than there is good content at the moment. That’s not true of literature.”

Benedict points to the Creative Writing workshops. 

“We are the only school not following the Iowa model for workshops,” he said. “We’re five years ahead of the curve. We can either get ahead of it and claim it, or get run over and U of I is going to get credit for how innovative they are.”

Staff reporter McKenzie Johnston can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @TheMcKenzieJ.

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