The Moon Over Ithaca

You can’t hop on Elon Musk’s rocket, but the Communication Department has an alternative.

“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” said astronaut Neil Armstrong as he scurried across the moon’s surface in 1969. If Armstrong were alive today, I believe he would be beside himself to see the headway virtual reality is making in terms of allowing people to feel present in a virtual environment.

Teaching moon phases have been a subject that has challenged high school classrooms for years. While hands-on activities can be engaging, they also bring challenges–equipment can get misplaced or broken. Desktop simulations are accurate but perhaps less engaging. But what if we brought the moon right into your classroom? The Virtual Embodiment Lab is looking past cool visuals and video games and is searching for ways VR can help us better understand and learn abstract concepts.

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The idea is that by combining the immersive feeling of VR and by making it interactive students can have a more memorable experience when learning about the phases of the moon.

To keep Neil Armstrong and those alike interested, Professor Andrea Stevenson Won’s lab is currently working on a project that brings the hands-on activity into outer space. This project is in collaboration with Jonathan Schuldt, also in the Department of Communication, and Natasha Holmes in the Physics Department, and is funded by Oculus Education.

The graduate student leads for this project are Byungdoo Kim, Jack Madden, Swati Pandita, and Yilu Sun. Undergraduate team members include Philip Barrett, Caley Droof, Alice Nam,  Dwyer Tschantz and Kylie Youk. The environment was programmed with the assistance of Annie Hughey, Akhil Gopu, Anirudh Maddula, Frank Rodriguez, Albert Tsao, and Jason Wu.

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The Virtual Embodiment Lab is located on the 4th floor of Mann Library Building, in the Department of Communication.

Each graduate student has their own key role within the project. For instance, Kim and Pandita are running the experiments with assistance from undergraduate research assistants. This includes recruiting participants, assigning them to different conditions, helping them go through the experimental stimulus, measuring their responses and analyzing the data.

20180208_173531Byungdoo’s overall goal for the project is to “earn more experience in research in the immersive virtual environment and its impact on attitudinal and behavioral change.”

Byungdoo Kim is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Communication interested in pro-environmental judgment and decision-making.

JackMaddenHeadshot.jpgJack Madden is a 4th year Ph.D. candidate in the Astronomy Department at Cornell and has been working with Professor Holmes and Professor Won on this Moon phase project since the Fall. The main goal of their work is to further explore how learning takes place in virtual reality.

His research on exoplanets made him uniquely qualified to create the models of the moon and earth used in the virtual environment.

Pandita_HeadshotSwati Pandita is a first-year Communication Ph.D. student advised by Dr. Andrea S. Won in the Virtual Embodiment lab. Her interests lie in human-computer interaction and embodied cognition.

Her role is to oversee user experience (listening to user feedback about what can be improved with regards to the interface and interactions) and run the experiment. 

She aims to evaluate VR as an effective learning environment over traditional classroom styles (desktop interfaces or hands-on demos), as well as to provide a novel experience that is engaging and informative for students.

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Yilu Sun graduated from Cornell with a Master’s degree in Information Science in December of 2017. Sun’s research interest includes nonverbal synchrony, avatar customization as well as UX design and research in virtual reality.

Yilu says, “At the early stage of the project, I worked with Jason Wu to create low to medium fidelity prototypes and presented to the team for feedback. Then I collaborated with Jack Madden and a team of CS students on programming the presentation of the quiz questions in the head-mounted display. Recently I am leading the UX study to find the most user-friendly quiz question design.”


This virtual expedition won’t be around for long, this semester the shuttle is coming back down to Earth!