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Chico State

VR Class Brews up a Hit with Big-Name Partner

The inside of a VR viewer headset as it's prepared to be placed on the head, from the photographer's perspective.
Photo by Jason Halley/University Photographer

(Jason Halley/University Photographer)

Pipes snake over the walls, into and out of vats. About a dozen empty bottles adorn the windowsill, labels all facing the same way.

A canoe oar leans upright in one corner of the room, ready to serve its unforeseen new purpose of stirring mash.

Once upon a time in 1980, the original Sierra Nevada brewery location, a warehouse on Gilman Road, looked just like this. Now, all these little details faithfully pop to life in virtual reality, reconstructed in headsets and on PC screens thanks to an innovative new collaboration class at Chico State.

Virtual and augmented reality coursework needed one “prove-it” semester to show its value as an interdisciplinary study, and a full academic year after its inception, there is ample visual evidence of its efficacy—in VR and in 360-degree video.

The first program of its kind in the California State University system, applied augmented reality/virtual reality education (AR/VR) first became available through the Media, Entertainment and Technology Collaboration (METX) as a storytelling course in fall 2017. Novel in the CSU for its interdisciplinary partnership between the Departments of Computer Animation and Game Development (CAGD); Journalism and Public Relations (J&PR); and Media Arts, Design, and Technology (MADT), METX stepped up the hands-on creation with its spring offering, “Application of Emerging Technologies for Media and Entertainment.”

The class collaborated with a Chico legend: the world-renowned craft brewery Sierra Nevada. The Pale Ale pioneer availed its facilities to the 20-student class to share the bottling process and present the brewery tour in virtual reality. Once the students started, the collaboration took on the added dimension of serving as an homage to local beer-making and entrepreneurial history.

“Obviously, Sierra Nevada is a huge company and a Chico icon,” said Joseph Mackey, a CAGD major who helped construct the virtual reality product. “We see it as a contribution that would be something enjoyable for history buffs around Chico and, of course, for Sierra Nevada, too.”

One major hurdle for constructing the VR version of the original Sierra Nevada brewery was that the building no longer exists as it did then. The entire 3D version of the facility depended on original blueprints obtained from the city, which were then redrawn and rendered in computer programs. Then, those VR renders were compared with 38-year-old file photographs from the brewery. Including facts and a timeline taken from Beyond the Pale, a book by brewery founder and Chico State honorary doctorate recipient Ken Grossman, the team finished the VR tour of the original facility through four rooms: the office, brew house, and two fermentation cellars. Students added some historic charm by including as many visual details as possible: rows of kegs lining a hallway, custom microbrewery equipment, mugs, bottles and a pair of rain boots, rolls of duct tape, the occasional 5-gallon bucket, and even a rotary phone.

“Using VR really showed me the possibilities of what can be done,” Mackey said. “We thought we could recreate some history in 3D, to visualize what it was like when Ken Grossman first started his work there. It was great to see it come to life and have the people at Sierra Nevada see it and actually get that familiar feeling again. That was really neat.”

Two other ambitious projects—a 360-degree video tour of today’s massive bottling facility, and a package of 2D touring and general use videos for the brewery—rounded out the course curriculum, each providing the chance to apply knowledge from individual majors in tandem with different students’ skill sets.

For the 360 tour, the class invested in a Vuze 360 camera with eight different lenses circling it to capture the full environment of the Bottleshop’s canning, bottling, and kegging areas. In this one room, Sierra Nevada churns out 45,000 cases of beer daily. From a single vantage point in the Bottleshop, students capture the scene of thousands of bottles whizzing around the room on belts, from the moment they’re topped off to final capping, labeling, and quality control. MADT spearheaded that project, with student Jake Hocker part of the small team focused on bringing the video to Vives, Rifts, Daydreams, and other 360 and VR viewers.

“The futuristic-type nature of all the new tech is exciting,” Hocker said, “but the biggest thing about this class is that everyone plays their part. Sometimes when you work only in your own major, you forget that other people don’t have the same skills you do—but you also don’t realize how talented in other areas other people can be, and how much that can enhance what you’re doing, too. In the end, we made three really cool products that we couldn’t have done without each other.”

J&PR students pitched the initial concept to brewery personnel based on Sierra Nevada’s own mission and values—making sure to highlight sustainability and family while demonstrating those values with coloring similar to the brand’s famously green-centric palette. The frequent use of employees in the video is intentional and highlights the humanity in an otherwise largely automated process. The final pitch: A 2.8-minute video, the precise amount of time one beer spends going through the bottling process.

Sierra Nevada tour supervisor John Pearson, the project liaison, said the brewery’s initial interest in working with the University was mostly to develop video materials for tours and internal sales, while providing professional collaborative experience for students. The results surpassed expectations.

“One of the things that’s hard for us who work here, living in the Sierra Nevada world every day, is that there really aren’t times where we get to sit back and have those ‘ah-ha’ moments, or get surprised by how cool something is anymore,” Pearson said. “But that original brew house in VR was super fun, and all of us here who watched it immediately went to the same place—‘How cool would it be to show Ken this?’ It was truly an unexpected treasure.”

Including that “Sierra Nevada Origins” tour, each of the three METX 498 projects depended upon multidisciplinary collaboration. That experience is still at the heart of the course, said public relations instructor Debra Johnson.

Journalism students, most of whom had never touched VR, saw the process of developing the product itself while sharing impactful storytelling practices and techniques. And media arts students introduced video editing and production expertise while gaining an understanding of proper branding and research. Likewise, computer animators and game developers got a sense for how a user should be able to interact with a virtual product.

The ambitious initial three-part project has paved the way for the future of METX, and faculty are already developing new ideas and partnerships to further delve into new technologies and application.

The element of excitement around the program is clear.

“This class is unlike any opportunity that’s been available to me,” said journalism major Lizzie Helmer.  “The Chico State journalism department has shifted so much to focus on multimedia and web content—interactive storytelling really gets people’s attention and keeps it. It’s exciting to be a part of the shift.”

Download and install to view the Sierra Nevada Origins Tour on PC or in VR (Oculus Rift required for VR).