Affordances of Immersive Virtual Spaces as a Medium for Representing an Inquiry Process

Thesis committee: Matt Lewis - advisor, Scott Swearingen, Shadrick Addy

This project is IN PROGRESS, I will be periodically updating this page with new iterations, videos, and images.
Primary research question: 
How can a personal process of inquiries be effectively organized and experienced
as an immersive virtual environment? 

Main goals I aim to accomplish in this project: 
Code specific virtual environment affordances with symbolic meanings linked to my practice and research journey, allowing for conceptual organization (e.g. lighting intensities representing curiosities and exploration depths)
Create an interactive system for spatial annotations that embeds insights about my design process and research interests within the virtual space 
Build a personalized virtual world that allows for user exploration and interaction with virtual objects 
Implement a seamless transition from VR to AR space
Timeline: May 2023 - Present

My thesis project is practice-based research, in which I am using the medium of mixed reality (MR) to create a space that encapsulates my three-year journey of research interests, allowing both myself and others to interact with these concepts through experiential media. This project, designed for the Meta Quest 3 VR headset, aims to illuminate previously undiscovered connections and pathways within my research. It serves as an exploration of utilizing virtual environment design to convey relationships between different concepts, while also cultivating a sense of personal connection to a digital space.
The personal interests I incorporated in the design of this environment are grouped into major categories and include the Intersection of Virtual and Physical Qualities, Clothing in Virtual Environments, Spatial Annotations, Interaction Design, and the Convergence of Shared with Private Spaces, each layered with their own subtopics. These topics were derived from the major themes within my creative research in the Design MFA program, as my work is primarily situated at the intersection of virtual and physical realms. To translate my research into a VR space, I coded symbolic meanings in specific virtual affordances, such as interactive object properties, materials, and lighting choices. This method allowed me to visually map the evolution of my interests over time through a navigable spatial layout. To communicate my process and specific references, I’ve incorporated interactive spatial annotations within the entire VR space, allowing users to gradually uncover insights into this virtual world. 

Concept development:
During the first two years of the Design MFA program, I focused on formulating my “Thesis Thread” - the overarching connections within my broader research interests and explorations. For me, this 'thread' has consistently revolved around the medium of immersive technologies and the concepts of personal engagement and meaning-making within 3D virtual spaces, from both a designer’s and a user's experience perspective. This thread served as the foundational concept for my entire thesis project, as I decided to explore how virtual environments could provide a constructive medium for representing this personal journey of inquiries as an immersive experience, making it inviting and understandable for others who wish to explore and interact with the concepts I’ve pursued and represented. 
I started developing my concept by creating mind maps of my research interests and visualizing their relationships. These conceptual connections guided the coding of virtual environment affordances, and these elements and their meanings are the building blocks for constructing an interpretative virtual space. I was also motivated by the idea that engaging with my research journey in this virtual environment could potentially lead to the discovery of new ideations and overlaps within these interests. The interconnectedness of all the spaces within this virtual world mirrors the overlap and progression of my primary interest categories which drive the project’s design and methodology.
My interest in the convergence of virtual and physical realms mainly arises from envisioning the seamless integration of these two environments. One of my earliest explorations in this realm has been in Augmented Reality, a domain where virtual elements exist in the physical environment. In order to visualize this, I decided to integrate an augmented space accessed from within the VR environment itself, by pressing a virtual button that transports the user into the scene that utilizes the Oculus Passthrough feature - providing a seamless transition from VR to AR space within the same executable.
Augmenting a portion of this virtual environment therefore extends the environment's presence into the physical world. The AR space is smaller than the VR environment, as it is only a section of the experience, but it shares several common objects that the user encounters in the VR space. This intentional parallel emulates the process of users figuratively taking something with them from the virtual environment they just visited, into this transitionary AR space. Finally, it’s worth noting that this experience unfolds within the ACCAD sim lab 1 space, and this overlay shines a spotlight on the physical space that has been instrumental in the development of my research and practice over the past three years.

This transition from virtual to augmented spaces within the same executable is one of the less-explored areas I am delving into with this project.
The early storyboard below illustrates the transition from VR to AR space, as well as the process of unveiling the spatial annotations, which I will describe next:
Augmented part of the virtual environment that uses the passthrough feature (images taken inside Meta Quest 3):

Main goals of annotating this environment: 
Provide access to insight when wanted about the embedded concepts, the making process, and relevant interaction affordances 
Provide a ‘tangible’ thread that connects the spaces/interests and serves as a wayfinding tool 
Provide a sense of engagement and discovery as each annotation is unveiled 

Another area where more research is needed is the integration of text in mixed reality experiences. In this project, I am exploring ways of offering insights into my journey behind the virtual world’s design directly within it, through unique spatial annotations that users can unveil gradually. 
To build an interpretative experience for visitors, I created a nonlinear narrative about my research that can be experienced by moving through the environment. I refer to the pieces of this narrative as spatial annotations. These annotations help me convey my research narrative through this space by communicating what can be done in a specific space, what it represents, and how the specific area is significant to my inquiry journey.  
All the spatial annotations are connected to each other with a continuous 3D string/thread I created in Cinema 4D, which also has a wayfinding purpose, as it connects all the spaces within the virtual world. The string forms circular, emissive stepping spots in each space that contains annotations, that the visitors step onto to activate the hidden annotations. When activated, the relevant text appears placed around the space the user is in (on walls, floors, floating in an empty space…). The emissive spot then turns into a hollow circular outline after it has been stepped on to communicate to the visitor that they have ‘read’ this section. The interactive annotation spot turns fully emissive again if the user steps on it again to communicate it is currently activated, and then returns to the hollow state once the user leaves the trigger area again. A recent iteration I made to this has been expanding the trigger area once the user first activates it so that they can also move around the 3D space and experience the annotations from multiple perspectives, which better aligns with my motives for displaying text in immersive spaces. The spatial annotations engage visitors to unlock the narrative piece by piece while conveying how this environment is using related concepts while visualizing their connections through the tying string/thread object.​​​​​​
In-progress environment screenshots taken in the Unity editor:
This section particularly encapsulates my interest in the spatial representation of text in immersive media. This space and the structure within visually resemble a project I worked on in my first year MFA in which this interest was first sparked, after I created a 3D mind map installation in a virtual environment, containing keywords inside of the mesh-like structure that users can navigate around. The wording and the layout of the annotations are still a work in progress:
During the early ideation phase of this project, I was experimenting with a variety of spatial layouts for VR and my first prototypes were the paper cutouts I was rearranging on my floor. I went through a few different versions before iterating the one I am implementing. To embed a trace of my making process and ideation within the actual VR environment, I decided to recreate these experiments in one of the spaces on the virtual floor. The miniature layout map that represents the current version that the virtual space is based on is interactive, so users can pick up the small paper pieces and rearrange them. Some of the older layout versions are also represented but they are non-interactive and not as bright in appearance, placed in a less focused spot under a desk in this same space. This implementation also serves as one of the examples of my methods of incorporating references to physical spaces that were influential to my work. I used the little 3D-printed gnome figurine (more on it soon) for a user-scale reference in this rough prototype, and I also included the same gnome in the virtual replica of this map: 
Even though it is an artificial environment, I want to instill a look that emulates an 'inhabited space'. I hope to achieve a visual intersection of a domestic and a public interior space, so I want to introduce some intentional imperfections in my design. I want to craft a personalized virtual world that not only effectively visualizes my research journey, but also infuses a personal touch into the environment design, almost like a domestic setting staged for someone else's presence.
One of the ways of doing this is by recreating objects and various references from my personal space in the physical world, such as decor and furniture. This parallel is particularly interesting to me as it connects the virtual and physical domains in really compelling ways. It has been interesting to sit and type this paragraph at a desk with the same framed picture as the one below and with the same couch in the back. This translation of experiences and meaning between the physical and virtual domains is something I am visualizing in this project, but also something I am still further thinking about as I think this virtual-physical relationship has a lot of potential:
One of the interests I explored during my graduate studies has been the intersection of fashion and virtual environments - specifically focused on how familiar and personal items like clothes presented in a virtual environment can infuse a sense of presence and comfort even in artificial surroundings. A portion of my environment is specifically dedicated to this interest, and it is nested within a larger section that represents my inquiries about the Intersection of Virtual and Physical Qualities, as I am using 3D scanning in this process - bringing physical objects (clothes in this case) into the virtual world. For translating these items to the virtual world, I am using the workflow and equipment (peel 3d) I am already familiar with and have access to, although this process can be done with many other alternatives:
Currently, I am creating and implementing objects to populate the environment (both VR and the AR scene) in a way that aligns with my goals and making another iteration of the spatial annotation system. 
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