Virtual Learning: Merging Mind Science and Design for New Education

The University of Pennsylvania has embarked on a pioneering educational venture with the course “Making Virtual Worlds: Space, Place, and Human Experience,” a unique blend of anthropology, psychology, neuroscience, and design. This innovative course, led by Jeffrey Vadala, a prominent researcher at the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics, exemplifies the transformative potential of interdisciplinary education in the rapidly evolving field of virtual reality (VR).

Selin Ortaeskinazi, a student majoring in both cognitive science and design from Istanbul, epitomizes the course’s interdisciplinary spirit. Her project, a virtual Foot Locker store, showcases the application of neuroaesthetic principles such as fascination. By integrating futuristic design elements like reflective surfaces and a massive suspended sneaker, she aims to create a captivating and memorable shopping experience. Ortaeskinazi’s curiosity about the impact of store design on performance and customer behavior drives her to explore whether the environment significantly affects shopping behavior and brand perception. She extends her exploration further by designing another virtual space centered on the concept of hominess. Her dedication to integrating cognitive science with design persists beyond the course, as she plans to utilize VR for comparative studies, gathering survey data to test her hypotheses.

The genesis of “Making Virtual Worlds” can be traced back to Vadala’s eclectic background in anthropology and archaeology. His fascination with VR began in 2005 during his spatial analysis work at the Mayan site of T’isil. Using an early version of the Unreal Engine, Vadala envisioned innovative ways to understand ancient Mayan life. His journey included reconstructing historical sites like the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and a plantation in Virginia. Ultimately, Vadala’s expertise found a new dimension in neuroscience research at Penn, where he delved into how architectural spaces influence human perception and cognition. His vision for the course was to bridge these diverse fields, enabling students to explore how architectural spaces shape human experiences and cognition.

The diverse array of projects stemming from “Making Virtual Worlds” highlights the creativity and innovation of its students. Darya Ameri, a nursing graduate, designed a staff lounge aimed at enhancing the well-being of healthcare professionals. Drawing inspiration from Japanese-style relaxation lounges, she incorporated circular design elements, neutral colors, and plants to create a calming environment. Ameri’s decision to exclude TV screens reflects her hope that such a space, if used in a research study, would positively impact nurses’ well-being. Lorraine Ruppert, majoring in architecture and urban studies, created an augmented reality (AR) map of Philadelphia’s Chinatown to archive places of resistance. Inspired by her mixed cultural background and a desire to connect with her heritage, her project evolved into considering a fully immersive VR space. Ruppert’s work aims to bring invisible histories to life, sharing the stories of Chinatown residents.

The technological tools employed in the course were as varied as the projects themselves. From Apple Vision Pro and Oculus Quest VR headsets to software like Unreal Engine, Unity, Polycam, Twinmotion, Luma, and Blender, students had access to a comprehensive arsenal to bring their visions to life. Vadala emphasizes that now is the best time to venture into virtual reality, as the tools available cater to people of all skill levels. This accessibility encourages a broad range of innovative projects, showcasing the potential of VR technology.

The integration of various disciplines in “Making Virtual Worlds” underscores the growing synergy between cognitive science and design. The course’s emphasis on neuroaesthetic principles—hominess, fascination, and cohesiveness—demonstrates VR’s potential as a powerful tool for studying human perception and behavior. Projects like Ortaeskinazi’s virtual Foot Locker store and Ameri’s healthcare lounge highlight VR’s applications in both commercial and wellness contexts. The course mirrors a broader academic trend that values interdisciplinary approaches, equipping students with the skills needed to tackle complex real-world problems. Vadala’s transition from archaeology to neuroscience exemplifies how expertise in one field can enrich another, showcasing the benefits of an interdisciplinary educational approach.

As VR technology continues to evolve, its applications across various fields are poised to expand. Ortaeskinazi’s research could revolutionize retail environments, making them more personalized and effective. Similarly, Ameri’s healthcare lounge could inspire new approaches to designing spaces that promote well-being. The use of VR for historical and cultural preservation, as illustrated by Ruppert’s project, holds significant promise for education and public engagement. These immersive experiences can make history and culture more accessible and engaging. Moreover, the course’s focus on neuroaesthetics opens new avenues for research into how different environments influence cognition and behavior, with far-reaching implications for fields ranging from marketing to urban planning.

“Making Virtual Worlds” at the University of Pennsylvania exemplifies the innovative potential of interdisciplinary education. By blending cognitive science, design, and VR technology, the course equips students with valuable skills and paves the way for future advancements across various domains. The convergence of these disciplines not only enriches academic pursuits but also promises to impact professional practices, driving forward the frontiers of what is possible in the digital age.

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