For his age, Mark Steelman has some pretty impressive credentials in the VR space. He's a rising senior and a computer science major at Duke University, and is the founder and president of the virtual/augmented reality student organization on his campus; Devils Cross Reality. He also works as a researcher and tour guide at the Duke Immersive Virtual Environment (DiVE) lab, where he works on research projects related to the field of virtual reality and gives tours of the DiVE’s virtual reality systems.
Mark Steelman – Virtual Reality TA, iXperience 2018
But, perhaps most importantly, Mark spent last summer doing an intensive VR course in Cape Town, South Africa, after which he moved into a four week internship at an innovative, local, Extended Reality startup – Tenebris. Here he got to apply his new learnings in a real-world setting, all as part of one immersive summer experience (I can't quite remember the name, but if I think it I'll be sure to let you know).
1. What are you working on now? Tell us about an exciting project that you’ve recently completed or are currently involved with.
I am currently working on a research project about trying to provide evidence that virtual reality can enhance memory performance for study techniques like flash card memorization. This project is part of the graduate course I am taking, Virtual Reality Systems Research, which is the only class that Duke offers on the subject of virtual reality. We expect that 3D objects and the meanings associated with them will be much easier to remember than words on paper due to the increased level of sensory information. This project is a building block to future virtual reality education applications, and is essential to supporting the hypothesis that virtual reality can make education both more effective and more enjoyable. With the rapid advancement of consumer level VR/AR hardware that has the potential to be as ubiquitous as smart phones, high quality education could be exponentially more accessible if the software that provides such content is designed well.
2. What do you enjoy most about the Virtual Reality industry?
What I enjoy the most about the virtual reality industry is the fact that virtual reality is really the next evolution of the computer and graphical interface system that has completely taken over the world. Virtual reality can be used to enhance almost any business from any industry, simply due to the fact you can virtualize almost anything in reality and then enhance that with 3D digital content. Right now the list of ideas about how virtual reality can be used is far larger than the list of applications out there, and there is an incredible entrepreneurial opportunity to turn those ideas into real-world applications. Lastly and most importantly, the process of building your own virtual reality is extremely enjoyable and the only limit is your imagination.
3. What are your career goals? How are you planning to achieve them?
My overall career goal is to improve the quality, accessibility, and enjoyability of education worldwide. Throughout my entire life I have noticed many issues with the education I have been given, even though I have been fortunate enough to attend some of the best educational institutions in the world. While these issues can be broken down heavily, the biggest issues I have observed are the lack of individual tailorship, the inability to adapt and evolve, and the failure to ensure that learning is retained and reinforced. As this is a massive challenge, my primary plan is to find and connect all the people in the world that share my goals to work on these problems together. Virtual reality technology has the potential to provide a medium for such collaboration, so my near term plan is to become an expert in VR.
4. Why did you decide to get involved with teaching?
The reason I got involved with teaching stems from my career goal to improve education globally. In order to improve education, I think it is essential that I experience the process of being an educator and understand the challenges associated with teaching. Additionally, I believe that teaching is the best way to master a certain subject, and I expect that teaching virtual reality will dramatically improve my understanding of the field.
5. What are you looking forward to about iXperience this summer?
There are so many things I am looking forward to this summer, but I am by far the most excited to be back in Cape Town. It feels like I am in another world when I am there, and I cannot wait to be immersed again in the rich culture, hiking and exploring the many hidden gems of the city, and seeing wildlife and other wonders of nature that I can never see in the United States. I am also extremely excited to be reunited with the iXperience community where I can thrive as my best self and bounce ideas off of the many intelligent minds around me. All of this will be fuelled by the insanely good and cheap food that can be found all over the city.
6. How do you see the Virtual Reality industry changing in the next 10 years? What skills will industry professionals need to have?
I think that the industry is going to dramatically evolve in the next 10 years, but I think nobody in the world really knows how that will happen. Right now the VR industry is not even at the same point that the smartphone industry was when the first iPhone came out. The hardware exists, but there are still too many accessories and wires needed for it to be a product that people will carry around with them. The app ecosystem is still very much in its infancy. In the next year or two, I think the VR industry will reach the point where there are headsets available that wealthy will bring with them to work or to school, with a price point for high quality standalone (no wires/tethering) VR of $200. It is very hard to make any sort of concrete predictions past 1-2 years ahead, because a lot will depend on how the next couple of years go. I think it will be important for industry professionals to have a basic understanding of computer science, but that the most important skills will be design skills and an understanding of human psychology and user experience.
7. What’s one piece of advice that you have for the iX class of 2018?
I think the most important thing to get out of iXperience is learning how to learn and to improve yourself at every level of life. Especially in America, it is really easy to live life in a bubble and to be unaware of the ways other people live life. You will be exposed to so many new ways of living in South Africa, and if you throw yourself into the unknown - whether it’s learning something completely new in your course, eating food that people at home would call you crazy for eating, or diving with sharks - you will get better at adapting to new situations which is a core aspect of learning how to learn.
8. What would students be surprised to learn about you? (Hidden talents, an unusual past, a fun hobby etc.)
I have recently become a huge fan of yoga and meditation, which I never thought would be something I would want to do on a regular basis. I find yoga and meditation to not only be relaxing and stress-relieving, but also a great way to build self-discipline and have a better awareness of my mind and body and the relationship between them.
9. What are your ‘desert island’ books or movies?
I am not a big book reader in general, but Ready Player One was the only book I could not put down and pushed the boundary of what I thought was possible regarding the intersection of culture and technology. It certainly had an influence on my eventual interest in VR as it is about a near future where human society has been completely revolutionized by VR, and there is a movie version coming out this March directed by Steven Spielberg. My desert island movies would have to be the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, as that is by far my favorite fantasy world and I could watch those movies over and over.
10. What song do you know all the lyrics to?
I’m A Believer, by The Monkeys.
Note from the Editor: I just remembered the name of the program Mark attended. It's called iXperience, and to the best of my knowledge it's the only program of its kind that exists on the planet right now. The VR class of 2018 is almost full, so be sure to get your application in right away to be considered before the final admissions deadline for this year.