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Digital media students deliver cutting-edge storytelling in new virtual reality course

Kam Diba (right), president of Reverge, shows a high-tech VR headset to sophomore Wonbin Kang. (Photo by Joel Coleman)

Students at Liberty University’s School of Communication & Creative Arts are pioneering the digital art of storytelling using virtual reality (commonly referred to as VR) in a pilot course offered by the Department of Digital Media & Communication Arts. Leading the class is visiting guest lecturer Kam Diba, founder and president of Reverge, a digital marketing company that is one of the world’s trailblazers in virtual reality production and distribution.

“This is about changing the entire way that you think about capturing content,” Diba said. “This is new. It’s never been done before.”

While developers have been toying with VR for decades, only recently have VR products become accessible to consumers. Facebook, Google, and Sony are all competing in the market and smartphone apps are bringing VR to more and more users. Ahead of the 2016 spike in the consumer market, Time Magazine declared that the technology will soon “change the world,” with applications in gaming, entertainment, marketing, education, and more.

Senior digital media student Jeremie Grandemange tries on a VR headset. (Photo by Leah Seavers)

Reverge is innovating the VR experience as it creates immersive, 360-degree 3D worlds for brands around the globe. With instruction from an industry leader, Liberty’s course is one-of-a-kind — students are learning how to tell stories in ways that have never been done before because the technology is only now becoming available. Diba said he was willing to share his expertise at Liberty because of the students’ potential to influence the future of the industry.

“It is important to empower the next generation of VR filmmakers,” he said. “It is really great to empower creatives that are going to do awesome secular work, but I want to expand that into amazing faith-based creative work as well.”

The coursework has included producing a brief thriller and a documentary on a subject that the student groups are passionate about. The projects have stretched the students and exposed them to new ways of thinking about producing content.

Kang explores a VR world.

“When you look at traditional film and photography, everything is enclosed in a frame,” Diba explained. “But when you work in the virtual reality space, primarily for cinematic VR (captured through video-based cameras), you can’t frame shots. What you see is really what you get.”

He said VR producers have to think of the entire world around them and realize that they can’t direct the story in a traditional sense.

“I can’t force somebody to look at a certain thing; they could decide and choose to look the opposite direction. But if there is enough action there, if I use enough audio or visual cues, that is hopefully where they will look. It is about changing the entire way that you think about capturing content.”

Senior digital media student Jeremie Grandemange said that watching a VR documentary early in the course opened his eyes to the potential of this medium.

“I was getting chills because it was way more cinematic the way I was envisioning it, the way I was watching it,” he said. “It definitely makes the experience more personal because you are making the experience by what you are looking at. I (as the user) am the director of that experience.”

As a digital media major, Grandemange and his project group are familiar with cameras. But working with 360-degree cameras is a new challenge.

“In VR, you have more freedom to look around,” said sophomore Wonbin Kang, a group member. “The benefit of VR is you feel like you are looking in the real world, not just in 3D. So, you have to be careful what you are shooting. In 360 videos, it is more about one long cut; that looks more engaging (than a series of cuts).”

“The entire environment tells the story,” Grandemange added.

Their group’s projects have included a documentary on the Liberty Flames Sports Network (where the students work), as well as a horror video. The students also produced a 360-degree tour of campus for fun.

Diba is teaching the course over three weeklong visits to campus, similar to an intensive format with long sessions on each evening he is in town.

“It was like being at a seminar,” Grandemange said after the first week of classes in January. “It’s a lot of knowledge packed into four-hour sessions. There’s a lesson plan, for sure, but there are times when he gives us the option (on what to cover) based on what we are interested in.”

Diba said he has been “extremely impressed” with the student projects and how far they have come in such a short amount of time. He added that their enthusiasm has been especially enjoyable.

Kang said that Diba has shown he is genuinely interested in getting to know the students.

“We get to learn from a master,” he said. “Kam Diba is a first-generation VR guy. He is the best master in the world and CEO of the best VR company in the world. I don’t think there are many colleges like this that open so many opportunities for us (students) in so many departments. This class is something that you might imagine but not what I thought would ever happen.”

“Liberty has made it easy for us to be desirable to employers,” Grandemange added. “We get access to a lot of high-end equipment that many students don’t get access to. And I can add ‘virtual reality’ right on my résumé under specialty skills.”

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