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Building a VR Training System For a Public Safety Educator During COVID-19

Apr 07, 2020 By Crissy Campbell

Like so many others around the world, Master of Digital Media students were faced with the COVID-19 crisis at the beginning of spring in Canada. The Centre for Digital Media officially transitioned to remote work mid-March, and MDM students have been continuing their coursework off campus.

As this semester is their Projects 2 semester—where students work in teams with clients on real-world projects—MDM students had to quickly pivot their work from working physically together in project rooms and meeting clients face to face, to using online communication channels.

Dealing with this new reality has been challenging, yet MDM students may be more prepared than others to make a transition to exclusively online collaboration. They're adapting and gaining valuable skills for the rapidly shifting future state of their industries. Despite the emergency situation around the world, MDM students are eager to build and complete their projects—and delight their clients—under the watchful guidance of their faculty advisors.

All MDM student teams are asked to document their progress on assigned blogs. One project team in particular has chronicled how they're working through this demanding time. Team LifesaVR (which includes MDM students Farbod Tabaei, Julia Read, Kyle Qi Liu, Sooq Won, Yuan Zhang and visiting UBC student Eris Lam) is working with the Justice Institute of BC and are designing, planning and developing a VR prototype that simulates training environments in the area of public safety. The primary goal is to embed virtual reality within JIBC's curricula and position the institution as an innovator in public safety education.

Below, they explain how they've been working on their project during COVID-19.


A new normal: social distancing and virtual hanging out

Team LifesaVR Video Meeting

Due to the social distancing measures in place at CDM (and indeed around the world), team LifesaVR started to work fully remote the week of March 16. After all, we’re Digital Media majors, so it shouldn’t be that hard, right?

Turns out it’s way harder than anticipated.

We don’t quite yet …comprehend as quickly as we do in person. There’s no immediate understanding, or easy sharing of thoughts. Comms are staggered, and then there are sound issues. The lag. The lack of pixels.

Occasionally someone’s lost track of time. Webcams are pointing at people’s ears, chins, or showing nothing at all. But—we prevailed. Besides vintage products like Slack and Google Hangouts, we circled through a bunch of new (to us) team collaboration tools such as Whereby, BlueJeans, and Flock, each of which showed promise, advantages, and some neat extras.

Catching up on a demanding project schedule, and getting everybody on the same virtual page is challenging.

But we want to work. It is important for us to remain productive, to bring to the conclusion these projects which we have poured many hours, thoughts and talent into. Despite the growing global emergency around us, and the new and more challenging remote rules, we’re encouraged by our faculty to focus, and remain safe and positive, every day:

"Realize that having an anxious moment is absolutely normal for human beings. It is also perfectly normal to put that anxiety aside and do some work. Work is a great alternative to worry" - Richard Smith, MDM Director

Remote level 2: hanging out with our clients

Even in pandemic times, and all the chaos this has brought to the working environment, our clients make time to meet with us once a week to give clear and valuable input. There’s no doubt that virtual training simulations will be even more sought out after and prevalent in times to come, due to what is happening in the world right now.

We want to do the best job possible to help secure interest and pave the way for further VR training simulation development.

We’re not quite sitting around a campfire, but we’re telling stories all the same

A key part of our design brief was to inspire. So as we approached the end of the semester, while our devs began to wind down towards code cleanup, we shifted our focus towards video production. Along with our VR simulation and data dashboard, this final deliverable will be part of our client’s toolkit to enable stakeholders to see that the future of training is within grasp at JIBC, and to invite them to envision and shape that future.

JIBC VR Simulation

We may be writers and story-tellers, but in truth, stories shape us too

So our task was to tell our project’s story in the form of a video. Since all eyes are on the coronavirus, it is apt that an opinion piece on the topic written by a behavioural scientist Nick Chater should explain the power of stories:

"In times of national crisis, governments need to act, advise and inform. But they also need to tell stories that allow us, as citizens, to understand government policy and, crucially, to coordinate our individual efforts towards a common goal.

The story isn’t just 'spin'; it is a central component of the policy. And whether it receives our support will be critical to determining whether, and how well, the policy is implemented, and whether it succeeds or fails."

Our school project carries, of course, far less gravity than the immediate challenges facing governments and health services. But with the mounting virus toll all over the news, it has really hit home that our client is training the paramedics who may well be part of the frontline defense in the next health crisis.

This is what we want viewers to remember too, as our video takes them on a 90-second journey during which they would “walk” alongside JIBC students from the present towards a future way of training that would make them even more prepared and resilient to risks and unpredictability.

VR Training Simulation

To this end, we experimented with various narrative techniques and structures such as the Rule of Three, the monomyth and convergence, with our 3D artists sketching different storyboards along the way.

Once the narrative backbone was defined, our next step was to establish a coherent vocabulary and feel across concept art, live footage and sound. Our 3D artists set about making models and the rest of the team combed through UX footage and sound libraries.

We need stories because we need to connect

In times of soul searching, we recognize the earnestness at the heart of every cliché, so here it is: at the end of the day, it’s about people. It really is. The very act of telling a story implies a listener or a viewer partaking in our experience.

And one silver lining to this crisis is being forced‒at least for those of us privileged enough to be able to stay home‒to slow down. Slow down so we can get to know ourselves, and the people around us (who are ironically, now physically distanced) better.

So while there were moments of frustrations as we tried to work around the inevitable delays caused by poor WiFi and the newness of going 100% remote, such delays naturally settled into opportunities for our team to simply chat and learn about how we each spend time outside of school.


Read more updates from the team as they complete their project on their team blog.