People of Duke Arts: Mark Steelman

Meet the President of the Devils Cross Reality Club

Mark Steelman is a senior from Brooklyn, NY, majoring in computer science. In the fall semester of his junior year, Mark started Devils Cross Reality, a virtual and augmented reality club at Duke. During the summer of 2018, Mark taught virtual reality app development in Cape Town, South Africa. After graduating, Mark plans to continue his work with virtual reality.

Q&A with Mark Steelman

Mark in the DiVE (Duke Immersive Virtual Environment) lab. Photo by Ilona Stanback

Ilona Stanback: When did you first become interested in virtual reality?

Mark Steelman: My freshman year, they had trials of the HTC Vive at Duke, which was the first consumer virtual reality headset with tracked controllers. I ended up buying my own Vive, and once I had my own headset, my interest in the industry skyrocketed. I started playing around with Unity, which is a tool that you can use to build apps for VR. Then I ended up getting involved with the VR research lab at Duke. Once I got familiar with the development tools, I started working on various projects throughout the remainder of my school career.

IS: How would you describe VR to those who are unfamiliar with it?

MS: Virtual reality is a very broad term. It can mean any sort of digital realization of any aspect of the real world. In modern terms, virtual reality is the ability to physically interact with a 3D digital world. It implies that you feel present and immersed in that world.

I read a research paper about using virtual reality with burn victims to help reduce the pain that they feel during their treatment process. VR allows you to feel like you are in another space; it’s a transcending experience, and you feel removed. By putting burn victims in a cold, wintry virtual reality environment, they found that it was extremely effective at reducing their pain. There are many ways that you can utilize the psychological effect of virtual reality.

Mark in the DiVE. Photo by Ilona Stanback

IS: Do you think that in general people understand the practical side behind VR and how it can be applied in other fields?

MS: I think that, so far, mainstream media has given VR the reputation of a gaming platform. I think it’s really important for people to understand that there’s a lot more to it than just gaming and entertainment. There are many applications of VR that are not only useful, but are, in fact, not achievable by other means. I think some of the biggest applications for VR are in the fields of architecture and real estate.

For architects, it’s really helpful to be able to step into your designs before you submit them to a construction company that starts building them. If the ceiling is too high, if this staircase is too long, you may not be able to get a sense of that error until you start building the actual building. If you can step into that 3D space beforehand, you can save a lot of money and time.

“I think it’s really important for people to understand that there’s a lot more to it than just gaming and entertainment. There are many applications of VR that are not only useful, but are, in fact, not achievable by other means.”

Photo by Ilona Stanback.

IS: What is your favorite project that you have worked on?

MS: The projects I’ve enjoyed working on the most are related to music. The second virtual reality app I ever made was called Pianoless. The idea is that you can use virtual reality to play and learn the piano without a piano. If you’re learning how to play the piano, you need to learn how to read sheet music—this doesn’t directly translate to which fingers and keys to press on the piano to play the note. With Pianoless you can reach out to press on the keys and the piano plays. I made a recording technique so that when you record what you play, it generates 3D instructions almost like Guitar Hero. When you play it back, you can see the notes coming from the distance, making it easy to learn the song and its fingering.

Pre-Consumer Grade VR Headsets. Photo by Ilona Stanback

IS: Do you have any future VR projects that you would like to work on?

MS: I would really like to see virtual reality used more in education as a supplement for things like field trips and for labs that are meant to be hands on. You can do a lot with virtual reality to do what would otherwise be difficult. For instance, I took Pianoless and combined it with a virtual reality jazz history museum project that I did. You enter this museum and learn about jazz history as you go through the different eras of jazz. When you walk up to objects in the museum, songs related to those objects will start playing. I think if we could have VR integrated into the school system so that you can have those types of experiences regularly, school can become a much more enjoyable environment.

View the Virtual Jazz History Museum

IS: Do you plan to continue with VR on a professional level after you graduate?

MS: I am pretty confident that I will be working in the virtual reality and augmented reality field for a while because it has yet to become mainstream. It’s an incredible opportunity to be in the industry at this early stage, and to potentially have an impact on how people are going to use VR and AR devices in a regular setting. I am excited to start working in this field because so far I’ve only been able to do it in my free time at school.

Mark in DiVE. Photo by Ilona Stanback

IS: What are your thoughts on the accessibility of VR to the general public?

MS: Right now VR is not that accessible. You can buy a VR capable computer and a headset for between $1000 and $2000, but they announced that they’re coming out with the same quality equipment for $400 next spring. It will also require less setup and will be more portable. That’s another reason I’m excited to get involved in the industry. What is going to make VR a lot more mainstream is the accessibility of the hardware. Also, no one is going to regularly use VR unless there is an app that is extremely useful. I think it’s going to be a combination of the hardware becoming more condensed and affordable, along with better content coming out. Hopefully in the next year or two, we will see a big increase in the uses of VR.

IS: What is one of the most important things for people to understand about VR?

MS: It may seem like it’s hard and foreign to get into VR, and that if you don’t have a technical background, you’re not going to know what you’re doing. I believe that anybody, regardless of your background, can get into VR and can find something useful with VR or AR, because it really does cater to every case you can think of. You can be an artist, you can be an engineer, you can be a businessperson; there are so many ways that you can use VR. I hope that more students at Duke and at other universities realize that and start to get interested in it.

Ilona Stanback (Class of 2019) is majoring in Psychology and working toward a certificate in Documentary Studies. She plans to work with victims of human trafficking and hopes to incorporate her passion for documentary photography by sharing the stories of the individuals affected by this issue. Ilona is currently a member of the Duke Creative Arts Student Team (CAST).