Inspiring Students to Imagine, Create and Play Digitally

When William Bares was young, he loved video arcades. He played a few games, but he mostly studied them—sketching their graphics, examining how they worked, noticing their stories.

At home, he used his Atari computer to practice making graphics. Soon, he was programming his own games.

Flash forward, and Bares’ career isn’t so different from his fascination at age 12. As an associate professor of computer science at Whitman College, Bares uses computer programming and advanced equipment to create surprising, accessible, story-rich digital experiences.

Through his Immersive Stories Lab, he gives students an opportunity to discover the same thrill he felt in the arcade.

“I hope they become inspired to create the amazing,” he says. “We can do amazing things here at Whitman. You may think of Hollywood and movie special effects and these interactive, immersive experiences being the stuff you have to be at Pixar or Disney to do. We can do this here too.”

Digital Worlds ... and Ducks!

Bares arrived at Whitman in the fall of 2020 and got to work on the Immersive Stories Lab, setting up computers, projectors and screens in the basement of his faculty rental house.

One of his early projects was a game to show prospective students over Zoom. He was inspired by a campus landmark: Lakum Duckum.

He programmed a virtual pond, projecting it on the lab’s floor, and coded digital ducks to follow a human player walking across the pond’s surface. The more ducks that follow you, the louder the flock quacks.

The lab—now located in Olin Hall—is designed for students to create their own digital worlds, whether through immersive displays like the duck pond, motion capture, or virtual or augmented reality.

In the summer of 2021, Bares worked with now Whitman senior Abdelrahman “Awadly” Elawadly, a computer science and mathematics major, to explore ways to create accessible

designs with an eye-tracking device and a Kinect full-body motion sensor. With a grant from the nonprofit Teach Access, Bares turned the results of their research into a module with open-source software, example programs and instructions for other teachers to use.

In 2021, he put the module to work in his own classroom. Students in Bares’ Intelligent User Interfaces course used the Immersive Stories Lab to design accessibility-focused projects.

For example, one team built an adaptive version of the classic video game Pong. The game is projected on the floor, and players move the paddles using their bodies. But there’s not a set way to move—the game calibrates to the range of motion and speed of each player.

The Possibilities Are Endless

Bares is excited not only to introduce more students to the Immersive Stories Lab, but also to extend its capabilities across campus and the community. For example, during the pandemic, he and his students worked with the theater department to create a tool to allow performers to rehearse remotely. He’s eager to find collaborators in more disciplines.

“The stuff I do with technology is helping people tell stories,” he says. “Being at a smaller college like Whitman makes it much easier to make these connections with people who have creative stories to tell—from whatever discipline that they they’re coming from, whether it’s arts, theater, biology, chemistry.”

He’s also working with community partners to develop outreach programs for younger minds. By introducing kids to computer programming, he hopes to help them realize, as he did, that they don’t just have to play games or watch movies—they can create through tech. “That’s the big message that I teach,” he says. “You can make this too.”