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Building a Virtual Reality

Digital media students create a cutting edge digital project
as part of an international arts exhibit.

by Jennifer Post Stoudt

Where can you go to choose who you want to be – a place where you can become someone or even something completely different from who you really are?

Welcome to Scope Island, an online, interactive virtual reality created by students in Jonathan Thurston’s “Web 2: Animating Cyberspace” class.

Created using both art and technology with software programs such as Terragen, Photoshop, Flash, Illustrator and Poser, Scope Island allows visitors to chat in real-time with others from all over the globe in a graphical online environment. Visitors select from approximately 60 or 70 avatars, or characters. The avatars, designed by students in the class, range from aliens and animals to men and women of all varieties. Visitors can also create their own characters if they wish, or even upload their own photos. “We tried to design characters that would appeal to everyone,” said art/digital media major Kristin Kern ’04.

Once a personality is selected, visitors can navigate their way through scenic beaches, forests and waterfalls, take a pit stop in a beach hut, or even visit the island’s hotel, complete with bar, pool and conference room. Visitors can have multiple conversations at one time and hear the voices out loud. There’s even reggae music piped in to some of the beach scenes. “That’s never been done before,” Thurston said.

But visitors must be sure to act cordially while on the island. There’s even a “Dunce Room” where the moderators of the site can send those who misbehave and say inappropriate things.

“On Scope Island, a chat room is an actual room,” said Halim Chtourou ’04, an information systems/digital media major who provided technical support on the project. For instance, Chtourou said, “You can go into the hotel conference room, lock the door, and have a private meeting. It adds a whole other dimension to the Internet.” The great thing about it, said Kern, is that “instead of just having a screen name, you can actually create your own character…you become that character.”

The name, Scope Island, comes from an arts organization called Scope. Scope holds a series of art fairs in New York, Los Angeles, Miami and London with the goal of encouraging international dialogue through the arts. The fairs bring together up-and-coming dealers, curators and artists who exhibit cutting-edge art.

Last year, Jonathan Thurston, visiting artist and lecturer in digital media, was approached by the organizers of Scope to be the curator of a cutting-edge, digital project.

Thurston felt confident that his advanced web class could take on the challenge. “I knew the students were ready to pull something like this off,” Thurston said. “It was an entirely different experience for them. They were thrust into a real-world situation with an unforgiving deadline.” Taking the challenge, the group of 13 students formed a collective, divided job responsibilities, and called themselves Ichibon, meaning “number one” in Japanese.

Following an intensive fall semester and continued work throughout Interim and early spring, the students had the opportunity to exhibit their work in front of thousands at the four-day Scope art show held at New York’s Hotel Gansevoort in March. “Being in New York was the best part,” said Jessica Chrisp ’04, a digital media/fashion design/photography major who was one of the project’s designers. “When people walked into the room they would see a projection of a computer screen on the wall. Most people would look at it but not understand it, so we had to engage in a conversation with them and explain it. We talked with people from France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland…I even met a lady from an Internet radio station who wants to put us on her show.”

Chtourou was surprised by the turnout at the art show. “We totally underestimated the magnitude of the Scope event. So many more people came than we expected. It really gave us a lot of exposure to the art community.”
Scope Island is listed as “Site of the Month” on Mad Wolf Software’s website, www.madwolfsw.com, and can also be accessed by visiting www.scopeisland.com.

For the future, there’s no end to what Scope Island can become. “Maybe we develop a hidden portal to a whole other reality,” said Thurston. Mad Wolf Software, which provided a $1,000 grant and free technical support to the project, is even interested in Scope Island’s potential as a teaching tool.

“This is the future of the Internet,” Kern said. “…it’s like living in a computer screen…like your own virtual world.”

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