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The Virtual Reality of Life

By Margo Kissell


Austin Mace ’15 couldn’t find an affordable 360-degree video camera. So he built one.

Taking on this project for his senior thesis, the interactive media studies major crafted the six-sided camera frame using a 3-D printer in Miami’s B.E.S.T. (Business, Engineering, Science, and Technology) Library downstairs from his Armstrong Interactive Media Studies (AIMS) program in Laws Hall.

He spent the fall semester tweaking the plastic prototype, going through at least 10 iterations. Finally, he came up with a version that would hold the cellphone cameras plus gadgetry using inexpensive, credit card-size computers.

But, would it work?

Austin Mace
Austin Mace ’15 (above) has retired the camera he made at Miami (below), but he’s still building custom solutions.



The Hot New Spectator Pastime

Another leading-edge project in Miami’s Armstrong Interactive Media Studies (AIMS) program involves esports. That’s short for electronic sports in the form of organized video game competitions with multiple players.

It’s a rapidly growing field that generates Super Bowl-level excitement primarily among the younger population, known to pack arenas to watch professional video gamers compete. The New York Times reported in December that esports revenue is expected to top $1 billion worldwide by 2018, according to market research firm SuperData.

Stelanie Tsirlis ’16 spent fall semester team-teaching a new esports class at Miami that she pitched as her senior capstone project.

“The class gives those students who are thinking about diving into the industry headfirst an opportunity to learn the landscape as well as the history so they don’t go in blind,” said Tsirlis, who graduated in December with a double major in marketing and interactive media services. She has accepted a job as an esports coordinator for game developer Blizzard Entertainment, where she interned last summer.

While at Miami, she served as president of the campus esports club and last year co-founded AllMid, a limited liability company, to shine a spotlight on Midwest gaming and host collegiate tournaments.

She also team-taught a special topics course in interactive media with Phill Alexander, the Heanon Wilkins Faculty Fellow in AIMS .

In addition, the two oversaw the launch of Miami’s varsity esports program last fall, drawing 22 students for four teams. Believed to be the first of its kind at a top tier U.S. university, it gives students an opportunity to focus their talents and passion competing on a team of their choice.

“It is a great way to interface with the industry in places where students might work later,” Alexander said.

Three days before the end of the semester, he tested the camera in the December chill. He set up the custom- built device in the yard of his rented house on West High Street, bundled together the 50 yards of cable from each camera, and ran the cable through a window to his computer. Then, he waited.

“I just remember having a really satisfactory aha moment once I was able to see the images coming out of the camera all stitched together producing 360 video,” recalled Mace, who grabbed his two roommates to tell them he finally got “this crazy thing that had taken over our living room working, so it’s been worth it.” And how.


Mace constructed a high-quality 360-degree video camera rig at a time when most 360 cameras weren’t commercially available and didn’t offer the quality of his for capturing immersive video for head mounted displays.

The summer after graduating from Miami, he produced for REDI Cincinnati (which had financed his senior thesis endeavor) a virtual tour of the gentrified Over-the-Rhine neighborhood and other selected sites throughout the city. His tour helped promote Cincinnati to business officials visiting during the Major League Baseball All-Star Game.

“We’ve come a long way since then, but it was definitely a good first step,” said Mace, who moved to Austin, Texas, to co-found SubVRsive, a company that creates virtual reality (VR) and immersive experiences for clients. He is chief creative officer.

“He launched his company in a field that didn’t exist when he was a freshman,” said Eric Hodgson MA ’05 PhD ’08, director of Miami’s Smale Interactive Visualization Center and visiting assistant professor in AIMS.

As virtual reality goes mainstream — with more media and other businesses using it and families buying the VR headsets — AIMS Director Glenn Platt said it is both exciting and challenging to keep up.

Miami faculty are determined to stay on top of where digital technology is causing the greatest change (they call this “disrupting the world”) and help students figure out how to get there, said Platt, C. Michael Armstrong Chair of Interactive Media and professor of marketing at Miami.

The AIMS program strives to be a petri dish, Platt said, that encourages students to grow by experimenting creatively and taking risks. Mace credits that setting and the freedom he and other students enjoy for preparing them well.

“I think we came out of it with being fearless of failure because of that environment.”


Mace turned down “a gazillion job offers from some of the best VR companies in the country” to launch the startup, Platt said. He used seed funding from Austin entrepreneur and angel investor Kenny Tomlin (father of Mace’s classmate Hannah ’15) to co-found SubVRsive with friend Ryan Thomas. Kenny Tomlin is chairman.

Once the business was up and running, Mace reached out to Ken Todd ’91, vice president of video strategy and emerging platform marketing at Showtime Networks. The two had stayed in touch after Mace heard Todd speak to students during a campus visit.

Todd was impressed, saying Mace demonstrated technical expertise and showed his broad knowledge.

“Austin started pitching me business before he graduated,” said Todd, president of the Miami University Alumni Association board of directors last year.

Todd was looking for a Showtime project to incorporate 360 video and found it: the Dec. 5, 2015, Jacobs vs. Quillin WBA Middleweight World Championship boxing match.

Filmed by Mace and Thomas using three cameras including two perched on ring posts, it allowed Showtime to become the first to offer a complete boxing match shot in 360. The experience gave viewers at home a sense of being inside the arena.

The project was noteworthy for another reason: It earned Showtime and SubVRsive a Sports Emmy nomination in the category of Outstanding Digital Innovation.

Mace, Thomas, and Todd attended the award ceremony in New York City last May. And although won the category, Mace said being recognized at that level was a surreal experience.

“I think it’s something where the impact of that will probably hit us later down the road professionally because, so far, we’ve just been so heads-down continuing to focus on building the business,” he said.


His company is growing rapidly. It ended 2016 with eight full-time employees. That number was expected to double in the first two months of 2017.

SubVRsive’s client list also is growing. It has worked with MTV and an ad agency promoting Procter & Gamble’s Downy Unstopables in-wash scent boosters. For the Showtime documentary series The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth, which followed the 2016 presidential campaign, Mace and crew filmed immersive video at both Clinton and Trump rallies to give viewers the feeling of being there.

Everyone is trying to figure out what is possible with virtual reality.

“It’s still in the very early days and everybody is testing and learning right now,” said Todd, noting that good quality VR is essential to prevent viewers from feeling ill.

Added Mace: “A spectrum is starting to emerge beyond traditional media channels of what’s possible, and it’s very much at this point the great unknown.”

At Miami, AIMS is preparing students for that ever-changing three-dimensional landscape. Thanks to generous donations through the years from Mike and Anne Gossett Armstrong, both 1961 graduates, and John Smale ’49, the program has evolved into a well-respected research and innovation center devoted to visualization and virtual reality.

Its latest recognition came at the 2016 International Meeting on Simulation in Healthcare in San Diego when Hodgson and two collaborators at Wright State University were awarded first place for their exhibit “Decontamination Training Delivered Using Virtual Reality.”

The simulation immerses nursing students in a virtual examining room. Putting on an Oculus Rift Head Mounted Display, nursing students learn how to decontaminate a patient who has been exposed to radiation without endangering themselves.

Hodgson and his AIMS students also created a VR simulation for the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center newborn intensive care unit (NICU) to train employees for evacuating those vulnerable patients without actually doing so.

The NICU project gave Lauren McKenzie, a senior IMS major and creative writing minor, an opportunity to demonstrate her skills as a 3-D artist. She learned about low-poly modeling, UV unwrapping, texturing, and even some animation.

“I created the majority of the art assets that are in the simulation, everything from nurses, babies, and equipment to architecture,” McKenzie said. “I tried to make everything as realistic as possible so that when the nurses went through the simulation, everything looked and felt the same as the actual hospital.”

After she graduates in May, McKenzie hopes to become an environmental artist, focusing on creating environments in games.

“It’s really the NICU project that opened that door to me,” she said. “I’ve done and learned quite a bit since then, but it really was my launching point.”

And, like Austin Mace, she is excited about finding where digital technology is shaking up the world so she can be there.

Margo Kissell is a news and feature writer in Miami’s university news and communications office.

To see Austin’s 360 video, go to


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Contact Donna Boen '83 MTSC '96, editor of Miamian, at or 513-529-7592.


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Miamian, Miami University's alumni magazine, highlights alumni, student, faculty, and staff involvement with the University, updating readers on campus news and events, arts, sports, and alumni news. Miami's primary communication link with alumni and close friends of the University, the magazine sets out to inform and entertain while generating a sense of knowledge and involvement with Miami University. Miamian is published three times a year.

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