The Latest Renaissance in Design Education – VR and AR at The Academy of Art University

Academy of Art University has been on the cutting edge of creative instruction since its inception in 1929. From then until now, a defining feature of the Academy’s ethos has been to employ active creatives as classroom and laboratory instructors. These working artists and creators bring up-to-date and even forward-thinking trends and developments directly from industry to the classroom. This affords Academy students unprecedented and unparalleled access to knowledge that is shaping various creative fields right now and for tomorrow.

It is no surprise, then, that Academy of Art University has been on the Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) front lines from its earliest days. Beginning in 2016 with a VR Summit hosted by the Schools of Communications & Media Technologies and Motion Pictures & Television, the Academy has since sought to incorporate these emerging technologies into various curriculum and facilities to reflect how creative industries are using them in the real world.

What is
AR and VR?

Both AR and VR are advanced technologies that seek to expand the
experience of the human senses in a given environment. With AR and/or
VR technology, users can find themselves interacting with faraway or
imaginary scenes or objects as if they actually existed in the user’s
present location. Instead of projecting images before a user, AR and
VR project the user into the realm of the images or scenes.

Reality (AR)
 adds digital elements to a live view
that the user sees through a camera. A simple example is using
Snapchat lenses on your smartphone or playing Pokémon Go and chasing
images on the screen that are not really present.  

Conversely, Virtual
Reality (VR)
 is a complete immersion experience
that transports the user to another environment through the use of a
VR viewing device. Wearing the device over the eyes effectively
blanks out the user’s surrounding environment so that the new
digital environment can be experienced to the fullest. For example, a
user wearing a VR device can participate in a virtual village elders
meeting by sitting between participants in a dirt-floored hut in
Central Africa.

While early proponents of these technologies saw them as enhancements
for the gaming world, others saw potential for other uses. Antonio
Borja, Director of the School
of Industrial Design
at Academy of Art University,
visualized how artists and other creative professionals could
actually employ VR sketching as a pivotal tool for design in many

In an early VR workshop for students, Borja shared, “I know at
first this thing seems like a gimmick but it’s not. Because it
allows you [to] think and experience your design in 3-D, true 3-D.
It’s not like sketching on paper where you see a two-dimensional
representation of your 3-D object. Here, you actually get to walk
around it.”

AR &
VR Education and Innovation at Academy of Art University

In an Industrial Design class early in the Academy’s venture into
exploring AR and VR, Borja guided students in using a VR sketching
software product called Gravity Sketch, pairing it with a commercial
Oculus headset and handheld instruments. Students learned the basics
of creating textures, surfaces, shapes, and more, including tools for
ensuring exacting accuracy and symmetry in designs.

Design students quickly grasped the very real benefits of this
incredible new tool as they created and manipulated various product
designs in real time. In more traditional methods, product concepts
are modeled with clay or other media to allow designers to see, feel,
and analyze their designs from different perspectives. Using the VR
tools, even the student designers could discover design problems and
other ideas much faster than by creating a physical model.

Antonio Borja now conducts a more comprehensive class in VR sketching
as part of the Digital Imaging 2 course (IND 363). He explains, “It’s
a very valuable tool that will allow you to experience your designs
in a way you haven’t been able to do until you design a prototype.
It’s better to find these issues early on in the workflow and make
it so that we have time to make these adjustments so that our final
project is that much better.”

Rockwell Museum VR Project

One stellar example of how Academy students are learning how to use
AR and VR technology to produce valued projects is the Normal
Rockwell Museum VR Project
. This enormous undertaking
took Normal Rockwell art pieces that were originally produced for and
featured in The Saturday Evening Post in 1943 underscoring the
four enduring ideals from President Franklin Roosevelt’s Annual
Message to Congress in 1941.

Numerous pieces depicting Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms – Freedom of
Worship, Freedom of Speech, Freedom from Fear, and Freedom from Want
– were combined into a VR experience for a traveling museum
exhibition. Users would wear an Oculus VR headset to interact with
the exhibit, which opened in May 2018 at the New York Historical
Society before touring the United States and France, and then
returning to the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts in
Fall 2020.

A diverse team of 24 developers from the Academy School
of Game Development
of Animation & Visual Effects
of Illustration
Production & Sound Design for Visual Media
and Web
Design & New Media
worked a full four semesters to
complete the project. It included various testing phases that
involved students as well as senior citizens from the Institute of
Aging. The project was to be designed so that users from age 7 to 70
could enjoy the experience.

Phil Kauffold, technical lead for the Academy’s School of Game
Development (GAM) and project lead for the Rockwell exhibit,
said, “We have to design for the young kid who knows the language
of video games and understand this stuff. But also, we have to design
for somebody [who] is older [and] doesn’t have that intuitive
understanding of what we think of as the normal visual language.”

As a result, “Enduring
Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt and the Four Freedoms

has been a resounding success, even being presented at the US Capital
building to members of Congress during 2019.

VR Featured on “California by Design” TV Show

Recently, advanced uses of VR technology in industrial design at the
Academy was showcased on the TV series “California by Design.” In
each of the six shows, a judging panel, which includes Tom Matano,
Executive Director for the Academy School of Industrial Design,
chooses finalist creations that will compete to be named the top
innovation of the year.

, which aired on July 11, 2020, featured AURA, a
student project led by IND student Santiago Bastidas. The featurette
(watch 7:20 – 10:07) highlights how the Academy is incorporating VR
technologies into the design process to reflect current industry uses
in the real world. AURA is an automobile design project created for
PSA Peugeot Citroën Group as part of a corporate sponsorship with
the Academy.

that he and his team used VR technology to
design a new automobile that “extends users’ experience beyond a
physical journey.” He went on to say, “With AURA, we wanted to
create not only this spatial journey but to target a much deeper
journey. We broaden the interactions for a much more humanistic final

In episode three of California by Design, the host, Dan Hardin, is
guided through how Bastidas and his team used a VR headset and
software to actually design their creation in 3-D. He is also able to
experience the 3-D model of the futuristic auto itself and even
create his own, rather rough, design on camera, obviously delighting
in the experience.

Hardin exclaims at once point, “This is really fun, isn’t it?
Just try to get this off my head now!” The Academy students in the
Industrial Design program use Gravity Sketch for Virtual Reality
Sketching and Autodesk VRED Pro for Virtual Visualization.

Antonio Borja, Director for School of Industrial Design explains
“Incorporating virtual reality technology in the design process
enables designers to execute evaluations in a shorter timeframe and
find potential flaws or issues with their designs earlier in the
process. This helps streamline entire projects and allows more time
for making any necessary adjustments before completion, resulting in
higher quality designs overall.”

of Art University – Revolutionizing Arts Education

Art and creativity are often viewed as abstract concepts that are
expressed on a canvas or through music. While these means of
expression are valid and valued, creativity extends into many
industries that produce helpful devices and objects that improve our
quality of life. Safer, more fulfilling means of transportation,
better medical devices, and other important discoveries all
incorporate creative technologies in their development.

Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality are finding traction in more
industries as time goes on, leading to better products with
streamlined processes for development and testing. Academy of Art
University is a top arts education institution that offers students
the chance to experience these cutting-edge technologies as they are
currently being used in today’s vital industries.

Interested prospective students can obtain more information by following the links in this article or by calling the Academy Admissions Department at 415-274-2222.

Read more about other Academy of Art University workshops