Rethinking VR for the benefit of society: an interview with SFU changemaker and woman in tech, Mirjana Prpa

Last year Simon Fraser University received designation as an Ashoka U Changemaker Campus for its commitment to social innovation leadership. This honour doesn’t come lightly, as there are currently just over 40 institutions globally that have received the designation — SFU is the first university in British Columbia to be designated. The recognition brought some of SFU’s many changemakers together and serves as a celebratory designation of the university where changemaking stories can be shared.

Changemaker and PhD student at SFU’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology, Mirjana Prpa, comes from a diverse academic and professional background—primarily architecture, design and art—which she applies to her current roles as a researcher working in the domain of Virtual Reality. She was recently recognized as “future of the field of art, science and technology” at Leonardo’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, for her research and unique approaches to researching and designing experiences in virtual reality. Founded in 1968 in Paris by kinetic artist and astronautical pioneer Frank Malina, Leonardo journal serves as an international channel of communication among artists, with emphasis on the writings of artists who use science and developing technologies in their work. Prpa received the honour in August at SIGGRAPH 2018, a conference that brings together students, industry and like-minded individuals that are committed to innovation in technology, computer graphics and interactive techniques.

SFU Innovates staff recently sat down with Prpa to learn about her research, what her aspirations are for her future work, as well as what drives her to create change in her field.

What is the focus of your research and how does your work contribute to changes that benefit society?

The day-to-day scramble and ongoing distractions of life often make people feel disconnected from their embodied experiences, and frequently, technology plays a big role in that distraction. My research is guided by the question: “How can we use experiences provided by immersive virtual reality (VR)—a technology—to bring focus and attention back to ourselves, to reconnect with the awareness of very simple yet crucial processes that makes us feel alive — such as breathing?” Through immersive virtual environments, I am helping people regulate their breathing by allowing them a space and time to be more mindful and more aware of their breathing, with the intention that this awareness can be maintained as a long-lasting effect of the experience that we can revisit, rather than having to depend on the technology.

In parallel, as a designer of virtual environments, I research methods that allow us to understand user experiences and design process better: how are we designing immersive VR, why are we designing it in a certain way, and what impact do our designs have on users, regarding the intended use of the application? For this reason, I am specializing in a particular method called micro-phenomenology that allows us to understand one’s experience from a holistic point of view, beyond just usability testing and questionnaires that acquire low-level information but does not provide an insight in the diversity of the experiences that are valuable but often overlooked.

This is one of my contributions to society, apart from building applications that can have an immediate positive effects on user’s experience — making sure that we allow for diversity, not only to be expressed verbally, but also that we support the diversity of users’ needs through the design rather than sticking to a “one measure fits all” approach.

Why is your research relevant to today’s society?

My research deviates from research in the traditional sense of reading and writing only. To be able to conduct research on the frontiers of science, art and technology, one must take upon a role of a unicorn [laughs] — I conduct research, design virtual environments and then test and evaluate them in user studies. Even though the virtual environments I build are used primarily as research instruments in the studies I conduct, the aesthetic qualities built into the visuals and audio have been appreciated. My collaborators—Kıvanç Tatar and Philippe Pasquier—and I are often invited to present the projects in art exhibitions. Society at large gets to experience our work, and potentially benefit from it.

I have also been invited to participate in many panels and presentations that bring industry and academia together. I find this to be an important part of our work as researchers, to share our views with a general public that may not be reading our papers. The discourse on new technologies and the direction society is heading is an important discourse that in my opinion must bring different perspectives to the table. I am honoured that the perspectives that I—as a woman in technology—bring are heard, valued and taken into consideration in industry and academic events. We have finally moved from the status quo and have different sides engaging in and discussing a future that is more diverse and more equal, and towards which we are heading together.

How would you explain what augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR) is, to someone with no familiarity of the field? How does AR/VR apply to the everyday person?

AR/VR are quite different technologies that have one thing in common – reality. Both belong to the spectrum of technologies that change our perception—to some extent—of the world around us, being that physical or digital. While AR augments the physical world—adds a layer of digital information on what is already present in the physical space — VR completely replaces physical reality with a computer generated one (for example, imagine yourself sitting on your sofa, but being visually immersed in the forest). 

Who or what inspired you in your research? What are the challenges?

During my architecture days I became interested in the relation between the design—back then it was the design of buildings and interiors—and the experience of the inhabitants of those spaces. The book, “The Poetics of Space” by Gaston Bachelard was very influential on the development of my ideas. These combined, lead me to conceptually explore different kinds of environments that can provide a range of experiential accounts, as well as think about computer generated environments as a potential way to elicit some of those experiences but without having to build it in a physical sense.

I find inspiration in the writing of philosophers of technology, postphenomenologists like Don Ihde or Peter Paul-Verbeek, scientists like Eric Kandel’s and his book “Reductionism in Art and Brain Science,” or Francisco Varela’s work in “The Embodied Mind”, as well as the work of artists in various media such as James Turrell and Janet Cardiff. Joi Ito, director of MIT Media Lab, once said that Media Lab’s work is not interdisciplinary but anti-disciplinary which “isn't a sum of a bunch of disciplines but something entirely new.” I like to think of my work in that sense, as novel and on the frontiers of art, science and technology. That is why I find it important that we seek inspiration from a variety of sources and from different perspectives, in order to grow—personally and professionally—which also consequentially reflects in the way and kind of work we conduct.

What do you feel is the most fascinating thing about your research and field of research?

The most fascinating thing about my research is that technological advances in the fields of VR or AR opened a whole new world of possibilities to explore the relationship between us and the world we live in as mediated by technology. Whether you are technophobic or not, it is undeniable that our lives are mediated by technologies — take a light bulb as a very simple example of technology. I am fascinated by this and the potential of the immersive technologies to provide experiences that can help us in becoming more aware of our human qualities that we might have lost along the way. It is like using technology to undo the effects of long-term technology use. It is almost a paradox itself, but it sparks critical thinking.

Do you have any causes that inspire you that pertain to your research?

Diversity, equality and more women in tech. While my current research interest focuses on the topic of wellbeing and VR applications, all of my activities in this world are guided by the agenda of creating a world that will celebrate diversity, guarantee equality—in how we are treated, compensated, etc.—and encourage and create conditions for more women to shine and fulfill their potential in the field of technology. This is my mandate for the future I am yet to do as a researcher.

Have you received any awards or recognition for you research in AR/VR? If so, please list below.

The most recent recognition of my work happened during SIGGRAPH 2018 in Vancouver. I was recognized as "the future of the field on art science and technology" by Leonardo journal and art program at SIGGRAPH, along with another recipient, Nicole L’Huillier. I am very honoured for this recognition, especially because Leonardo has been the top tier journal for art, science and technology internationally since 1968. However, most of the recognition comes through the exhibitions of our work. Since 2016, “Pulse Breath Water,” a VR piece with generative audio—done in collaboration with Kıvanç Tatar and my PhD supervisor, Philippe Pasquier—has been very successful. We have exhibited in New York, Rio de Janeiro as a part of the cultural program for the 2016 Olympic Games, and in Montreal. The newest piece “Respire” has been exhibited in Montreal, Vancouver Art Gallery, and the next one will be in Richmond in September 2018.

Finally, important to mention are recognitions coming from the institutions and funding agencies without whose support this work wouldn’t be possible. I am honored to have received a scholarship from KEY, SFU’s Big Data Initiative this summer for work on the data sets previously collected. Also, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s Institutional Grant was a big support in the research project that I am working on under the supervision of Philippe Pasquier.

To learn more about Mirjana Prpa and her work, visit her website, and connect with her on LinkedIn.