2018 2019

August 20, 2019

Imagine you’re diagnosed with cancer. Your doctor walks you through treatment options and the two of you come up with a plan. But you’re anxious and unsure of what comes next. Chemo is scary, and you don’t fully understand why your body is reacting the way it is. Nothing makes sense.

Now imagine you’re ten years old. Or six. Or younger. One day you’re in an elementary school classroom. The next you’re hooked up to a bag of poison that is slowly making you sick so you can get better. It can be unimaginably confusing and devastating. All you want is your life back.

Now imagine you’re a healthy Yale student with access to some of the most advanced virtual reality (VR) equipment on the planet. You have the expertise, the time and, most importantly, the empathy to help.

Meet the Yale Student Immersive Media (YSIM) club—a group of undergrads from different schools and backgrounds that are interested in creating immersive environments for different VR applications. This semester the club is creating a variety of VR experiences for young cancer patients at Yale-New Haven Smilow Cancer Center. The idea is that these experiences can help them temporarily escape the hospital and give them control over their surroundings as they undergo chemotherapy treatments.

Interact with Zoo Animals

Noah Shapiro (‘21, computer science) has always been fascinated by zoos, so much so that he makes sure to seek out and visit local zoos when he travels to a new city. The Smilow Cancer Center project has given him the opportunity to bring that experience to young cancer patients who are confined in the hospital.

Putting on the VR headset instantly transports you to a large courtyard with half a dozen animal paddocks. You move to each pen and interact with objects laid out on a picnic table. Picking up a record and putting it on a record player causes a chorus line of bears and eagles to jump to life, jumping and jiving to various soundtracks.

Another table allows you to throw a juicy steak to a bear or a carrot to a rabbit where they grow or shrink in size. Perhaps most impressive is a pen of mythical creatures where you can mount and ride a Pegasus through the air around the paddock, using your controller to guide the creature.

Step Into a Coloring Book

Another experience, one created by Monique Baltzer (’20, art), is essentially an immersive coloring book. Users are able to walk around a black and white environment with a bin full of red, yellow, blue and orange orbs that you can throw against walls, the floor and other objects. There’s no time limit. No enemies to defeat. You just walk around coloring your surroundings.

“As an art student, I can appreciate that coloring is often a stress reducer,” Baltzer said. “I just want kids to be able to get in spaces that they can interact with, customize and get lost.”

YSIM Enhances the Undergrad Experience

Other than helping kids with cancer, the Blended Reality project and the Yale Center for Collaborative Arts and Media (CCAM) allows YSIM students to enhance their formal education and gain real-world experience outside of the classroom.

And that desire is understandable. The undergrad experience can be frustrating for some. Lectures, readings, classroom discussions. A lot of theory, but not much hands-on experience. Getting applied experience typically falls on the individual student through Yale’s vast extracurricular activities and club culture.

“[YSIM has] been an incredible experience for me,” said Shapiro. I’ve met all sorts of people from different parts of the Yale community that I normally wouldn’t have had an opportunity to meet. I’m still close to many of the people I’ve met [while building my VR experience].”