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JoyceStick: BC Professor and Students Take on Virtual Reality

Professor Joseph Nugent and an interdepartmental team of students are propelling James Joyce’s novel Ulysses into the future through virtual reality technology.

JoyceStick, the first project of its kind, translates Joyce’s novel into a display of three dimensional graphics, music, and narration—all to be accessed by a gamer as if they themselves were experiencing the famed events of 1904 Dublin.

Nugent’s team presented a minimally viable product on October 15 at their conference “Gamification: Immersed In Tomorrow.” A more developed copy was presented on November 12 to a number of American Joycean scholars. A link to the team’s video, showcasing the inspiration and innovation of JoyceStick, can be found here.

“First thing to say,” remarked Professor Nugent, who also teaches a yearly class on Ulysses, “is that it’s impossible to describe this. Virtual reality is a different experience, nothing else compares to it…. We can now sense things [tangibly], where previously we had to sense in imagination.”

Photo courtesy of JoyceStick / Facebook

Photo courtesy of JoyceStick / Facebook

“This is a really difficult book,” noted Nugent, “but Joyce always wanted [Ulysses] for the masses.” He added that this unique presentation of Ulysses, turning a complex narrative into a technological experience, might provide the average person with access to “perhaps the most important novel of the twentieth century.”

In the production process, Nugent stressed the competing forces of gaming versus filming—playing versus experiencing—in the ever-developing project. “Many of the kids particularly want this as a game, and I tend to agree,” said Nugent. “However, the competing force to the [gamification] force is that what virtual reality is really about is feeling. It has been described that virtual reality is the ultimate empathy machine.”

“One way to think about this is that we’re going to produce the story of Ulysses in 100 iconic objects,” explained Nugent. “And each of these objects aims to tell its story and its role in the book.” These objects and the three dimensional surroundings are largely designed by Boston College computer science students.

Music, additionally, was important for the team’s dramatization of the novel. The game features original compositions by students from the Berklee School of Music, all designed intentionally for the purpose of complementing and enhancing Joyce’s novel.

The team’s workload, unsurprisingly, has been immense. “I wouldn’t even attempt to count the hours,” Nugent mused. “Seven and a half thousand emails (between students) in one week! That’s all you have to know.”

Nugent went on to praise the dedication and intelligence of the students he works with—both from a literary standpoint in their ability to extract the significance of Joyce’s work, and from a technological standpoint in their ability to forge these extractions into an interactive experience.

Nugent hopes to present a finished product on Bloomsday of this coming year, which is the annual day of commemoration for James Joyce and the day on which Ulysses takes place. He also hopes to present JoyceStick in the novel’s hometown of Dublin, Ireland.

JoyceStick, according to Nugent, is paving the way for an entirely new genre of literature. “We’re at the very beginning of virtual reality,” he explained. “In a few years’ time you will be in spaces that you believe are actually real.”

Nugent believes his finished product will bring Joyce’s work alive in never-before-seen fashion, and in a way that the author would appreciate. “Joyce was a modernist. What he was famous for was that he changed the way novels were written… I know he would approve of seeing his novel produced in the most original and the most peculiar way possible.”

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