Novels in VR – Experiencing Uncle Tom’s Cabin
This past semester, English Professor Sara Blair taught a course at the University titled, “The Novel and Virtual Realities.” – The purpose of this course was to expose students to different methods of analyzing novels and ways of understanding them from different perspectives by utilizing platforms like VR and AR.
Designed as a hybrid course, her class was split between a traditional classroom environment, and an XR lab, providing a comparison between traditional learning methods, and more hands-on experiential lessons through the use of immersive, interactive VR and AR simulations.
As part of her class curriculum, students were exposed to a variety of experiential XR content. Using the Visualization Studio’s Oculus Rifts, her class was able to view Dr. Courtney Cogburn’s “1000 Cut Journey” installation – a VR experience that puts viewers in the shoes of a black american man growing up in the time of segregation, allowing viewers to see first hand how racism affects every facet of their life. They also had the opportunity to view Asad J. Malik’s “Terminal 3” using augmented reality devices like the Microsoft Hololens. Students engaging with Terminal 3 see how Muslim identities in the U.S. are approached through the lens of an airport interrogation.
Wanting to create a similar experience for her students at the University of Michigan, Sara approached the Duderstadt Center about the possibility of turning another novel into a VR experience: Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
She wanted her students to understand the novel from the perspective of it’s lead character, Eliza, during the pivotal moment where as a slave, she is trying to escape her captors and reach freedom. But she also wanted to give her students the perspective of the slave owner and other slaves tasked with her pursuit, as well as the perspective of an innocent bystander watching this scene unfold.
Using Unreal Engine, the Duderstadt Center was able to make this a reality. An expansive winter environment was created based on imagery detailed in the novel, and CGI characters for Eliza and her captors were produced and then paired with motion capture data to drive their movements. When students put on the Oculus Rift headset, they can choose to experience the moment of escape either through Eliza’s perspective, her captors, or as a bystander. And to better evaluate what components contributed to student’s feelings during the simulation, versions of these scenarios were provided with and without sound. With sound enabled as Eliza, you hear footsteps in the snow gaining on you, the crack of the ice beneath your feet as you leap across a tumultuous river, and the barking of a vicious dog on your heels – all adding to the tension of the moment. While viewers are able to freely look around the environment, they are passive observers: They have no control over the choices Eliza makes or where she can go.
The scene ends with Eliza reaching freedom on the opposite side of the Ohio river and leaving her pursuers behind. What followed the student’s experience with the VR version of the novel was a deep class discussion on how the scene felt in VR verses how it felt reading the same passage in the book. Some students wondered what it might feel like to instead be able to control the situation and control where Eliza goes, or as a bystander, to move freely through the environment as the scene plays out, deciding which party (Eliza or her pursuers) was of most interest to follow in that moment.
While Sara’s class has concluded for the semester, you can still try this experience for yourself – Uncle Tom’s Cabin is available to demo on all Visualization Studio workstations equipped with an Oculus Rift.