MTSU assistant professor provides demonstration on virtual reality, human understanding

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Story by Jeffrey Jenkins / Contributing Writer

Imagine fully immersing yourself in an environment in which you have no control and can only watch and listen, as a domestic-murder suicide unfolds right before your eyes.

Through virtual reality, immersion to this extent has become possible, evoking authentic emotions from users via simulations of real-life scenarios. This powerful medium was a staple of a presentation, given by MTSU assistant professor Stephanie Dean, on how immersion and virtual embodiment can help mediate an interactive experience.

In a remote corner of the second floor of the Middle Tennessee State University’s Makerspace, an area of the Walker Library that houses new technology, a small group of about 10 people gathered Thursday for a presentation and demonstration of the effects of virtual reality and how it is facilitating embodiment.

“Embodiment in VR, essentially, is what we bring physically, we (also) bring digitally,” Dean said. “Virtual reality is a fictional form of another point of view.”

As Dean proceeded through the presentation, she began a demonstration of Kiya, an intense VR recreation of the domestic murder-suicide in which Peter Centil Williams shot his ex-girlfriend Zakiya Lawson. Williams then pulled the trigger on himself while cops moved in. For this, she called upon a volunteer to put on the VR headgear and immerse herself in the experience; an experience which left the volunteer squeamish and noticeably shaken up. 

“It was powerful to watch (the volunteer’s) emotion,” said Emily Braxton, a 34-year-old social worker and attendee of the presentation. “I felt emotional, and I wasn’t even experiencing what she was.”

Dean then went on to reiterate the effects virtual reality have on the understanding of various subjects, including autism, gender and race. This understanding is found through an “experienced immersion” of our minds and bodies, according to Dean. 

In closing, Dean left the audience with a question: “When do these experiences become real?”

To contact News Editor Andrew Wigdor, email newseditor@mtsusidelines.com.

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