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Brian Smith and Andrew Keener in the Imaginarium

Brian Smith and Andrew Keener in the Imaginarium

Shakespeare Studies With a Virtual Spin

Profs. Keener and Smith bring Oculus into the English classroom

Profs. Keener and Smith bring Oculus into the English classroom

By Ally O'Connor '20

In his first year at Santa Clara University, Professor Andrew Keener (English) is changing the way literary history and English are studied. Working with Virtual Reality (VR) lab manager and lecturer Brian Smith (Art and Art History) and junior Natalie Van Maerssen (Computer Science and Philosophy) in SCU’s Imaginarium VR laboratory, Keener aims to create a virtual and interactive model of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London to enhance student experience and expand lessons.

Keener, who specializes in Shakespearean studies, shares that this project originated with his desire to “use new and innovative tools in the classroom,” which allowed him to “hit the ground running by collaborating across departments.” Although he typically uses illustrations from the 1590s of the Swan Theatre in London as well as the Globe Theatre’s online interactive tour when lecturing on Elizabethan Architecture, Keener still wanted to push the limits further to make the field more accessible.

That’s where Smith came in. “You have to think about these things from a high concept first, and then get in there and block things out,” he says. Programming these models is “similar to game design,” he continues. “We are essentially creating a video game that doesn’t just present the scene to you, but puts you inside of it. In making that, once the concept is set, we focus on the details, like creating models and designing the intricacies of the building.”

Van Maerssen, who helped Keener and Smith build out the VR experience, says she “loves being able to create [her] own world and invite others into it.” The team did just that when the VR theater was revealed to the community at the “Analog/Digital Postmodern Technology Meets Silicon Valley” event on May 22. Keener’s students, who have already learned about Renaissance theater architecture, had the chance to explore the virtual reality space and experience the Globe Theatre in a way they hadn’t yet.

With the launch of the VR theater, Keener intends to incorporate it into his courses next year, not only when teaching, but also in student quizzes and examinations. In this case, students would wear Oculus headsets in class and be asked to label parts of the theatre or click on virtual icons that lead to interactive questions.

It has been a fantastic first year. I feel so welcome among my colleagues and am excited about the students, who are curious and really sharp. Teaching is immensely rewarding, and I can’t wait for my upcoming courses that will include the culmination of my VR work.

Andrew Keener

Department of English

faculty story, imaginarium