Carl Maggio: Creating Virtual Worlds
Carl Maggio is a recent 2018 graduate, and worked extensively with the Virtual Reality Lab at Santa Clara, combining his engineering background with his artistic side to create virtual reality simulations. Specifically, he has worked with the philosophy department to simulate a famous philosophical experiment called the trolley problem which he will explain more in the interview. We also cover Carl’s dream job, some of the upsides and dangers of virtual reality and much more. Enjoy!
Visit scu.edu/imaginarium to learn more about SCU’s virtual reality lab.
Gavin Cosgrave: In January 2017, Santa Clara received funding to install a VR lab. How did you find out about that, and how did you get involved?
Carl Maggio: I first found out about the VR lab from my 3-D modeling and animation professor Max Sims. He emailed the class saying they were looking for assistance, and so I immediately responded. I just heard VR and thought, “Sure!” I got hired, and I’ve been working there since it first opened.
GC: What was it about VR that made you know you wanted to get involved?
CM: I’m a computer engineering major, and I took an animation class because I was looking for something more related to game development. When I found out that Santa Clara was starting a VR lab, I thought it would be more up my alley. I didn’t expect it to blow up this big, but it’s been an exciting ride.
GC: How do you hope to combine art and engineering?
CM: VR is the perfect outlet, because I not only understand the programming and scripting, but I understand the artistic aspect: texturing and materials. It’s been a perfect combination of logic and creativity coming together.
GC: What projects have you worked on? How do you create virtual worlds?
CM: I’m currently working with the philosophy department with professors Scott LaBarge and Eric Ramirez. Philosophy often uses thought experiments where they ask you to imagine of yourself in a situation, give you time to think about their response, then answer. LaBarge and Ramirez had the idea to actually put people in a simulated situation to see if their answers change.
The most common example is called the Trolley Problem which we’ve put into practice in VR. The idea is that you’re at a railroad track with a train. The train’s brakes aren’t working, and there are five people on the track who will get hit and die. You’re standing at the switch, and if you pull a lever, the train will switch onto another track and kill only one person. Most people say they’ll switch the train, it’s simple utilitarianism. However, in practice, we’ve found that it’s more 50-50 with people pulling the switch. If you don’t pull it, you’re not involved in what’s going on, but if you do, it’s like you’re taking on responsibility.
GC: What did you do in your internship last summer?
CM: It was a startup company called who promoted themselves as a “catering business for virtual reality.” They work with developers who have built a product but don’t have a way of showing it to the public. They put it out to the public, and they have a truck outfitted with VR sets to test around the city. I was a guide for them, so I helped people into the experiences, as well as working with development companies.
GC: Sometimes when people hear about virtual reality, they think it would be problematic if we ended up in a world where people spend a bunch of time in headsets. What do you think?
CM: With this technology, there definitely needs to be a fine line of how much time is too much being immersed in these worlds, because it’s escapism. People are going to be playing games though, and there is a balance there. VR is a great way to experience virtual worlds that you can’t experience in any other situation.
GC: What did you do for your senior design project?
CM: We wanted to provide first responders with a “pseudo X-ray” into dangerous environments without having to enter those environments themselves. We have this scanner using a sensor that you put into a room. It scans the room, renders it on the computer, then sends to the augmented reality device.
We’re actually in the process of applying to Santa Clara to get the rights to patent it and possibly start a business down the line. Patenting is a lot of money so I think the three members of my group and I are going to try to work for a few years and save up money to get a patent and see where this could take us.
GC: What should a student who is interested in VR do?
CM: Just go and check it out. Max Sims is very welcoming, and we have a great team of lab assistants there. Also, we do have a class called VR 101 Bootcamp which takes place every fall and goes fall, winter and spring. It teaches you the basics of how to create VR experiences and there’s a big competition in spring where people in industry judge. Same with the 3-D modeling and animation course.