Sacha Best: Turning Virtual Reality into a Real Community

Student-driven learning characterizes Penn Engineering, where courses are designed and events are conceived of and implemented by enterprising undergraduates. Sacha Best, senior in Computer Science and co-instructor of student-developed course CIS 568: Virtual Reality Practicum, recently formed Penn’s Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR/AR) Association along with fellow engineer Chloe Snyder, senior in DMD, and first-year Wharton MBA student Tian Pei. The VR/AR Association’s first event, Penn VR Day, was held April 14, 2017.

The sold-out conference consisted of talks from Google and HTC, an industry panel, and demos from attending companies as well as students in Penn’s own virtual reality curriculum.

Penn VR Day organizers Chloe Snyder, Tian Pei and Sacha Best

About two years ago, I tried a demo on the Oculus DK1 virtual reality headset. Never before had I seen a form of media so truly immersive, and I told myself that I would do everything possible to learn how to build something like it in the future.

Fast-forward to fall 2016 and the beginning of my senior year at Penn. I was faced with a trade-off endemic to many other engineering students: I could either work on a VR passion project outside of class, or continue working as a teaching assistant for various classes in which I’d already invested years of work. This was a hard decision; graduating in May meant that the opportunity to teach and interact with Penn’s engaged students would soon disappear, but likewise would the resources Penn offers to student entrepreneurs.

I brought this conundrum to Dr. Swapneel Sheth, a lecturer in the Department of Computer and Information Science. He is a close mentor for whom I’d served as a TA several times, and it turned out that he oversaw the operation of the CIS “19X” half-credit courses. These are student-taught classes in which participants learn practical implementations of CS concepts through various languages and frameworks.

Dr. Sheth recommended that I explore teaching a similar class on VR, a concept that intrinsically combines fundamentals from a wide range of CS-related disciplines (computer graphics, human-computer interaction, computer vision, etc.), but at the same time has open-source frameworks available to create content without rewriting the millions of lines of underlying code necessary to present such experiences.

For the remainder of the semester, I focused on both gauging student interest and developing a syllabus that was both challenging and doable. The deeper I dug into course planning, the more obvious it became that a half-credit course would not provide sufficient time to delve into the wide range of topics associated with VR in appropriate detail.

I reached out to Dr. Stephen Lane, professor of practice in CIS and my instructor when I took Game Design, which had a VR component. We spent the next two months collaborating on the syllabus and planning for a full-semester course that eventually made its way onto the roster for Spring 2017 as CIS 568: Virtual Reality Practicum. The goal was to take adept software engineers and give them the tools and background necessary to develop for both VR and AR, or augmented reality, where virtual objects are superimposed on the real world.

To manage the class size — interest completely outweighed our capacity — we required students to complete an application. We generated five times the number of applicants as seats available, and after careful deliberation, we arrived at our final count of 17 students. However, we decided to record select lectures to broaden our reach to those we could not accept into the classroom.

The course began on January 12, 2017, and since then, we have not stopped moving forward. Students have completed projects under timelines that would seem insurmountable to a seasoned computer graphics student. They never cease to amaze me, Dr. Lane, and our TAs.

It was readily apparent at the beginning of our course adventures that interest in VR at Penn extended beyond academics. Therefore, in parallel, I began to foster a community of VR enthusiasts beyond Penn Engineering, and met Tian Pei, an MBA student who had spearheaded the VR/AR effort at Wharton since her arrival at Penn last fall. The two of us began to explore how to showcase VR at Penn.

Based on the success of TEDxPenn and PennApps, we concluded that an event showcasing the engineering chops of the industry, but also intended for a non-technical audience, would be the best way to bring together interested students. We were soon joined by Chloe Snyder, a fellow senior in the Digital Media Design program, and together we set out to make Penn the hub for VR/AR on the east coast. The idea for VR Day was born.

Our work began to come to fruition when Penn VR Day sold out in just three days! What a rush.

The day began with a set of engaging talks and a panel featuring speakers from Google, HTC, Microsoft, Big Bright Monster, and Variant VR. Attendees were then invited to experience demos from both participating companies and students from CIS 568. In those demos, two amazing things happened. First, our students were able (and elated!) to showcase their work alongside industry moguls, and second, I saw the excitement from my first VR experience reflected on guests trying out the hardware for the first time. Those are two moments I will not easily forget.

This past year has been a whirlwind and filled with truly rewarding work. I cannot thank Professors Lane and Sheth enough for their amazing mentorship throughout the process, nor can I ever hope to repay Chloe and Tian for their tireless work in putting VR Day together. And, of course, if it weren’t for Penn, none of this would have been possible.

Keep an eye out for VR/AR events around campus in the future — things are just getting started.