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Students Complete New Worldbuilding Course With Virtual Reality Component

by Janelle Hill | May 22, 2017


Students in the Department of Mathematics/Computer Science have completed a new special topics course that delved into the world of virtual reality.

Students were tasked with creating a visual world and making it a 360 experience using Google Cardboard, a virtual reality platform that allows users to turn their smartphones into VR headsets. What’s even more impressive — CS-400: Worldbuilding and Design is the brainchild of DeSales student Holly Benedetto ’17, and Karen Ruggles, instructor of computer science, developed the course.

“In my classes, I like it to be custom as much as possible so the students feel ownership,” says Ruggles. “It’s another way to allow them to take hold of the content and visual property that they might use in a portfolio design or something like that.”

The course was a year in the making. After taking a class in story development, Benedetto wanted to create a world to go along with that story. She first approached Ruggles with the idea of an independent study during her junior year. “The idea for this class emerged as I realized that no matter where I looked — books, movies, television, video games — there was a constant trend,” says the computer science: digital art major. “A hallmark of a truly memorable experience is a living world in which the audience can suspend their disbelief.” 

Benedetto met with Ruggles several times and wrote a proposal, which Ruggles then took to her department. Things fell into place from there, thanks to the instructor’s unfailing support. “I feel incredibly fortunate to have a department that believes in its students' ideas and helps them make them into a reality,” says Benedetto.

While the course isn’t permanent, there is a chance that it could become part of the computer science curriculum. The first part of the semester focused on the different aspects of what goes into creating a world. Students created Ziobos, which contained six regions and three species. They worked in teams on the different regions, drawing inspiration from places like the Brazilian wetlands and the Andes to Arizona and Death Valley, Nevada. They also had to come up with a history of the region and a background on the species that lived there.

During the second half of the semester, students worked with Terragen 4, the same software that’s used in hit movies, such as Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and The Hunger Games. They also worked with Google Cardboard, which is compatible with most smartphones, and received a DeSales-branded VR viewer.

For Ruggles, the course is just another way for her students to stay competitive. “We're into innovating; we put our money where our mouth is,” she says. “It’s another thing for them to say, ‘okay we're not messing around.’ We're using stuff that's out there. I'm trying to give them as much edge as I can.”

Benedetto took a hands-on approach to the class – creating content alongside fellow students while also providing more of a leadership role. She met with both students and Ruggles to discuss the progress of the project, which she says added “a beneficial layer of communication that is very individual to the course. We wanted to give students a unique opportunity to work in a quasi-studio environment in which each student could experience how a professional team works.”

Other students have approached Ruggles about developing a special topics course, but not to this level. Though she admits being tough on her students, at the end of the day, it’s all about watching them grow. “One of the beautiful things about education is to see them start to go off on their own track,” she says. “To have them learn what they learn here and then stand up on their own two feet and have the confidence to come into my office and say, ‘we should develop a course that we don't have.’ I’m very proud of her.”

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