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A new dimension in computer science

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Inspire students to imagine, create and play digitally

When William Bears was young, he loved video arcades. He played some games, but he mainly studied them. He sketched graphics, looked at how they worked, and focused on their stories.

At home, I practiced creating graphics using my Atari computer. Soon he was programming his own game.

Bares’ career isn’t all that different from his charm as a 12-year-old. An Associate Professor of Computer Science at Whitman College, Bares uses computer programming and advanced equipment to create amazingly accessible and story-rich digital experiences.

Through the Immersive Stories Lab, we give students the opportunity to discover the same thrills they had in the arcade.

“I hope they inspire you to create something great,” he says. “We can do amazing things with Whitman. Hollywood and movie special effects and these interactive, immersive experiences might make you think you have to do something at Pixar or Disney.” You can do it here too.”

Digital World…and Ducks!

Bares arrived in Whitman in the fall of 2020 to work on the Immersive Stories Lab, installing computers, projectors and screens in the basement of a faculty rental home.

One of his early projects was a game that introduced prospective students on Zoom. He was inspired by the campus landmark Lakum his Dakkum.

He programmed a virtual pond to project onto the lab floor and coded a digital duck to track a human player walking across the surface of the pond. The more ducks that follow you, the louder the flock.

The lab, now in Olin Hall, is designed to enable students to create their own digital worlds through immersive displays such as duck ponds, motion capture, and virtual or augmented reality.

In the summer of 2021, Bares joined current Whitman senior Abdelrahman “Awadly” Elawadly, majoring in Computer Science and Mathematics, to explore ways to create accessible apps.

Designed with an eye-tracking device and a Kinect full-body motion sensor. With a grant from the nonprofit Teach Access, Bares transformed his research results into modules containing open source software, samples of his programs, and instructions for use by other teachers.

In 2021, he made this module available in his classroom. Students in Bares’ Intelligent User Interfaces course used the Immersive Stories Lab to design an accessibility-focused project.

For example, one team created an adaptive version of the classic video game Pong. The game is projected onto the floor and players use their bodies to move the paddles. However, there is no fixed way to move. The game adjusts to each player’s range of motion and speed.

the possibilities are endless

Bares is excited not only to introduce more students to the Immersive Stories Lab, but to extend its capabilities across campuses and communities. For example, during the pandemic, he and his students worked with the theater department to create a tool that allows performers to rehearse remotely. He hopes to find collaborators in more fields.

“What I do with technology is help people tell stories,” he says. “Being at a small college like Whitman makes it much easier to make connections with people who tell creative stories, whether they come from art, theater, biology, chemistry.”

He also works with community partners to develop outreach programs for young minds. He hopes to introduce children to his computer programming so that they understand that, like him, they can create through technology beyond just playing games and watching movies. “That’s the big message I teach,” he says. “I can make this too.”

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