Discipline​ ‐ An Immersive, Distraction‐free Virtual Reading Environment at Amherst College

Over the past decade, academics (students and faculty alike) have been doing more and more of their reading on screens— monitors, tablets, and even smartphones. With the increased convenience of electronic documents, however, have come a number of costs. The ergonomics of reading from a vertical monitor are less than ideal, as is the visual experience of reading a backlit screen. And, of course, with computers come distractions: your smart phone buzzes an incoming text, your email pops up an incoming message, Facebook beckons to you with a only few keyboard strokes away. All in all, the shift to electronic documents poses serious challenges to the kind of serious, long‐form reading that is the lifeblood of the academy.

Discipline environment - quiet study with fire
Discipline environment – quiet study with fire

The Discipline project was conceived by Amherst College Associate Professor of Religion Andrew Dole as a way of mitigating these problems by moving the reading of electronic documents to the ‘final compute platform’, virtual reality. Discipline is a set of immersive, distraction‐free environments in which texts are displayed in the form of virtual pages, books, or other artifacts. Discipline focuses the user on the task at hand by providing aesthetically pleasing environments and eliminating distractions. Imagine sitting alone in a grand library reading room. Gold leaf volumes line wooden bookshelves while sunlight streams through stained glass windows onto the leather‐topped mahogany table before you, on which lies an ancient illuminated manuscript. Or imagine sitting on a porch in Maine in late summer with the sunlight glinting off a lake, the only sounds the rhythmic breaking of the waves and a gentle breeze rustling the pines. Or imagine a leather wing chair in a wood‐paneled study, with dancing shadows cast by a fire crackling in the hearth, a grandfather clock softly ticking behind you. These are your working environments when you enter the Discipline project.

Discipline environment - library reading room
Discipline environment – library reading room

Working with the IT department at Amherst, Professor Dole and his research assistant, Conner Reilly ’16, are currently developing this project using the U​nity 3D​game engine, the open‐source modeling software B​lender3D,​and the O​culus Rift virtual reality headset. Currently the project contains six different environments. Entering the application presents the user with a simple environment displaying a pre‐loaded text and a user interface activated by a head‐mounted pointer. Via the interface the user can move among different reading environments, switch between different pre‐loaded PDF documents, and page back and forth within texts. Currently in development is the ability to load PDF documents from disk; longer‐term plans for the project (aside from pursuing ever‐greater degrees of photorealism) involve making it possible for the user to mark up texts (underlining, highlighting, appending comments) and to perform basic word‐processing functions. Also in development is the hardware that will be used to run the project; the currently available version of the Oculus Rift (the DK2) has insufficient screen resolution to make extended reading practical, and Dole hopes that the production version will remedy this problem. Dole hopes to make an initial usable build of the project available shortly after the production Rift is released in the Spring of 2016.

Discipline - text as seen by reader
Discipline – text as seen by reader