Projects from students in Education City are using virtual reality and 360-degree video to transport viewers to the heart of one of the oldest cities in the world, a court hearing on blasphemy in Pakistan, the middle of Qatar’s desert, and the center of Qatar’s Philharmonic Orchestra.

The four projects were created with grants from Northwestern University in Qatar’s (NU-Q) Media Innovation Lab, which is designed to support student initiatives that bring together theory and technology to develop original stories. This year, students from across Education City were eligible to apply for the grants.

“The MIL was established to encourage cross-campus collaboration between students through the use of media technology available at NU-Q,” said Everette E. Dennis, dean and CEO. “The projects done this year explore topics in a new dimension through immersive technology.”

In addition to NU-Q students, the teams included students from Georgetown University in Qatar (GU-Q), Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar (VCU-Q), and Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar.

One of the projects – Old Sana’a City: Copper Brokerage – takes viewers on a motorbike tour of the war-torn Yemeni city, Sana’a. As the viewer navigates the bustling old town, they get to feel, see, and hear what it is like to be in Yemen during this difficult time.

“We used 360-degree video to give the audience agency to see whatever they want and take control of their experience as they learn about Sana’a from the natives who live in it,” said GU-Q student Mohammed Al-Jaberi.

Meanwhile, NU-Q student Rui Xin Oh explained that her team used spatial audio in their project – Qatar Rising: From Ocean Deep to Mountain High – to manipulate sounds that allow viewers to explore the changing climate in Qatar “based on sounds from the actual climate and those that we implanted to demonstrate the change that will happen in the future [as plate tectonics shift],” she said.

Directional sound was another theme explored by the third group – Can You Feel Sound? – which transports viewers to the seat of a musician with the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra. The project assesses how viewers respond to sound that they expect to hear, versus how “unexpected sounds, and changes in the direction of the sound, could make you feel more or could make you more engaged and responsive with the content,” explained VCU-Q student Mariam Refehi.

The last project – Blasphemous – reenacts a scene from a court hearing on blasphemy in Pakistan. “We chose this experience to be in 360 and VR so that the audience could really get a feel for what it’s like to be in the courtroom as the case progresses,” explained NU-Q student Faaiza Feroz. 

“Having a space that enables students to push boundaries, fail, pivot, and reinvent, without worrying about a grade or rigid structure, is part of what makes the MIL’s program valuable and unique,” said Gregory Bergida, director of planning, assessment, and strategy at NU-Q, who is also managing the MIL.

The MIL was launched in September 2018. Since its launch, students have had opportunities to learn from content experts at Contrast VR, Al Jazeera, Resolution Films, as well as the award-winning founders of immersive experience and gaming company iNK Stories.