Virtual reality is going to be turning up under a lot of Christmas trees this year. You’ve probably seen the ads for the Quest, an increasingly popular standalone VR headset created by Oculus, a subsidiary of Facebook. Commercials for the device promise, “You can have more than one body. You can have more than one world to explore.” It remains to be seen if the technology will live up to the hype, but for better or worse, virtual reality and technological storytelling are becoming more mainstream.
Creating an alternate reality
As it turns out, virtual reality (of a somewhat different kind) has been mainstream in the Department of English at SIU Carbondale for around 30 years. The Creative Writing Program has long been turning out writers at both the graduate and undergraduate levels who have proved that you don’t need an electronic headset to experience other bodies, other worlds and other ways of being. The students and faculty of the fiction and poetry programs have used the relatively low-tech means of pen and paper, typewriters (yes, those cranky, noisy old things!), and word processors to create compelling alternate realities since the ’80s.
They’ve had good luck with it too: the American Book Award, nominations for the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, Pushcart Prizes, NAACP Image Awards, you name it — SIU Carbondale creative writers seem to be everywhere. Now there are new worlds for them to discover.
A virtual reality lab
In late 2018, through an Innovation Grant established by the SIU Foundation, the Creative Writing Program founded its own podcasting lab. Just a few months later, two MFA students, Mandi Jourdan (in the prose category) and Will Holcombe (in humor) won awards in the Miller Audio Prize contest, run by “Missouri Review,” one of the nation’s most respected literary magazines, with pieces they created in that lab.
Then, in 2019, the Office of the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts established a virtual reality lab and classroom in Shryock Hall. The creative writing program is already making full use of the space and equipment, and will offer their first course in VR Narrative during the spring 2020 semester. They plan to equip students in the class with Oculus Quest standalone virtual reality headsets, so that much of the business of the class can be conducted within VR, and much of its narrative work can be created there, as well (just like the recent reboot of The Lion King!).
The goal of these technological innovations is to provide creative writers on campus with the best of the long traditions of both fiction and poetry, and with their futures, as well, so that our students never run out of worlds to explore.
Meera Komarraju is the interim provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.