A peek inside SU's virtual reality club 5th Medium

Students interested in emerging technologies are creating original content for Syracuse and beyond.

Scattered around table are artifacts from the future-turned-present – Google cardboards, virtual reality headsets, and a round 360-degree camera. The drones to the left look like flying robotic spiders and a shiny black contraption in the next corner involves more sensors and gear than any non-engineering club might even consider possible. One student puts on a headset that completely obscures his natural vision, but takes him into another world instead.

Photo: Bethany Bourgault
Members of 5th Medium meet in the Newhouse School's Innovation Lab to talk about the virtual reality club's upcoming projects.

In a way, it feels just like any club at SU – except for one major difference. It also feels like a scene from a sci-fi TV series.

It’s SU’s new virtual reality club – 5th Medium.

Nick Hodge and his roommate, Paul Sarconi, founded the club last spring. What began with just the two of them a year ago now has 18 official members with plans to grow more.

Hodge remembers the day Sarconi gave him his first virtual reality experience.

“Paul brought home the Google Cardboard after class,” he said. “He made me sit in a swivel chair and put on nice headphones to get the full experience. I remember trying the collage feature of the Google Cardboard app. I would look around seeing all these different designs intertwine and change with the music I was listening to.”

Hodge considered the other possibilities that virtual reality could offer and was sold.

“I kept thinking about the further potential for technology," said the senior management major. "I felt excited to explore new worlds from the seat of my couch.”

He also thought of how VR might be the “photo album” of the future.

“I was reflecting on the reality of being able to travel back in time to visit my favorite memories,” he said. “So just as people love looking at pictures and movies, I saw the next level of that being through virtual reality.”

Sarconi and Hodge discussed what needed to be done to start a club and doled out roles.

Thus, 5th Medium was born.

Now, they’re getting calls and emails from professors and publications at SU and beyond. Many want 5th Medium to help them understand how virtual reality works and how they can use it in their respective fields. A Whitman professor asked for help taking his students into a workplace to teach them how to assess various work-environment risk factors, and architecture students are using virtual reality to conceptualize what their projects might look like in real life.

The club was even contracted to produce a video for Syracuse Crunch, and has produced its own videos for fun from the summit of Greek Peek and in celebration of Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot”. Their most popular video, a 360 taping of last year’s Chainsmokers concert, has well over 80,000 views.

At the mention of what's next, the club’s members launched into talking about sources and access for their story ideas, just like any other campus publication would have to do.

Newhouse Professor Ken Harper is excited about all that the students might accomplish.

“We have a lot of really smart people who will be a force to be reckoned with,” Harper said.

Harper also has his own ideas for the future of VR at SU. He’s working on a project that would explore the possibility of using VR in place of photos in trials for war crimes. If the judge is able to experience what certain settings might have looked like, Harper said, he or she might be better able to make a just decision.

Harper said studies suggest that the brain reacts differently to VR than it does to photos. Rather than registering an image, neurons fire as if the user was actually there.

Harper also hopes that SU’s VR initiatives will expand throughout the entire school, allowing “more access,” he said.

“Someday, I hope it’s not all behind locked doors, Harper said, I’d like to see rooms full of it, so more students can give it a try.”

If current trends and predictions hold, Harper’s hopes might not be that far-fetched.

According to the International Data Corporation, more than 30% of the Forbes Global 2000 companies will try using virtual reality or augmented reality in their marketing strategies this year alone. By 2021, predictions hold that more than a billion people will have ‘regular access’ to VR/AR content.

Marketing junior Asa Worthley, produced the video of Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot,” as a 5th Medium member.

“I think that VR is the future of media in general,” he said.

Worthley first became interested in virtual reality when he picked up a 360 camera and saw what he could make with it. Though the Sagan video took him over 20 hours to edit, he’s really happy with the final product and is on the hunt for his next big project.

Hodge is also excited about the future of virtual reality. He says that the only thing keeping it from becoming a regular part of everyday life is the limitations of the equipment. That won’t last for long, though.

“As phones come out in the future, they’re going to be including more and more virtual reality properties in the phones themselves. And once every phone can do the same thing – I think people are going to be using it together in ways that we can’t even think of right now.”

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