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An English class gets inside Ulysses, with goggles
Everybody’s seated, and that was a problem.
Leopold Bloom, Martin Cunningham, Jack Power, and Simon Dedalus sit in the carriage that will carry them to Paddy Dignam’s funeral in Episode 6—”Hades”—of James Joyce’s 1922 novel, Ulysses. For Joseph Nugent, associate professor of the practice in the English department, and for the students in his “Analyzing James Joyce: A Digital Adventure” fall class, the question was: Where in the carriage should the visitor from the 21st century go?
Nugent and his class are the creators of Joycestick, a digital project to reengineer and animate selected Ulysses scenes, settings, and events in interactive virtual reality. Since May, the 20 students, one teaching assistant, one project director, and four part- and full-time faculty have been designing, coding, mixing sound, composing music, and poring over the book in an effort to create an environment that will allow users to feel as though they’ve entered the novel.
“Is it going to seem absurd,” Nugent asked his students on a Monday night in November in a classroom in Carney Hall, “to have the user standing up beside four people who are seated?”
One student suggested putting the user in a chair. You can’t assume users are carrying chairs with them, a second responded. Maybe the user should just be seated throughout the program, someone else said.
Nugent tabled the issue. “It’s a concern we’ll have to think through.”
There were other concerns to consider: how to render the 3D environment of the carriage, create the sound as “wheels rattled rolling over the cobbled causeway,” map the route down Dublin’s Tritonville Road, and create and deliver details, such as the “blackbearded figure, bent on a stick,” that would animate the scene outside the carriage window.
“We began ex nil, from nothing, quite literally,” Nugent said, sitting in his office on the top floor of Connolly House a few days later. “Last April, there was nothing except a copy of Ulysses.”
Nugent, who teaches modern Irish literature, has been at Boston College since 2004 and has frequently sought new ways to get students interested in a writer infamous for verbosity, wordplay, dizzying narration, fragmented sentences, and stream-of-consciousness. In 2010–11 he and his students built Walking Ulysses, a website that allows users to follow Bloom and Stephen Dedalus through the novel, hearing what the two might have heard on a given Dublin street (“a heavy tramcar honking its gong,” for instance), fixing on details of the city curated by the class. The following year, another class built JoyceWays, a smartphone app that offers a tour of Joyce’s Dublin, drawn from Ulysses and from Dubliners, the author’s 1914 short story collection.
“[I’m] looking for ways to make Ulysses more and more exciting to my students,” Nugent said. “Joyce always wanted this very difficult book to be something the ordinary person could read, despite all the complexities within it. And anything that can assist with that, I’m down with.”
Ryan Reede ’16, Nugent’s teaching assistant in the fall, recalls that they’d considered having the class create a 3D tool for Finnegans Wake but ultimately agreed that the text was too challenging. “Ulysses was kind of just right for virtual reality,” says Reede, who majored in computer science and graduated in December. Sitting in Nugent’s office, a carpeted space flooded with daylight from an oversized skylight, Reede recounted telling his then-skeptical professor, “If you can get students who can dig deep enough into the text to pull out a virtual reality narrative, then it’s totally doable.” That was in April of 2016.
Within days, they’d agreed on a concept that would be supported by academic offices at Boston College representing teaching innovation, technology, undergraduate research, and the liberal arts. The funding helped cover the costs of equipment and educational resources. Last spring, Reede and Nugent recruited 21 students, most from Boston College, but some also from Berklee College of Music and Northeastern University. “I’ve never before had a class with six computer science majors,” Nugent says.
The class met once a week for two and a half hours; then the students worked independently, sharing progress and swapping ideas and questions online. (Nugent says between 400 and 700 messages were exchanged each week.) Slated for fall 2016, the class began meeting the preceding May so the students could determine which projects—sound design, story-boarding, coding, mapping—each would tackle.
Ross Tetzloff ’17, an English major, led the mapping team. “Reading Ulysses for locations is a lot different than reading other books for locations because there’s just so much of it and it’s so dense,” he said. “Ideally we’d go through all the streets, find all the landmarks, and make 3D models, and extrude them to sit on top of a map. We might do that with some of the more important travel scenes.” Laura McLaughlin ’17, also an English major, was reading for objects in Ulysses, particularly those featured in advertisements, which gave her a sense of the materialism that pervades the book. “It was sort of the beginning of the commodity culture,” she said of the early 20th century, “the beginning of advertising as a powerful force.”
Ryan Bradley ’18, an English and political science major, was responsible for creating and mixing sound, a role he says forced him “to understand Ulysses in a sensory way,” which, he says, enhanced his “experience” of the book.
The work required strong fluency in the novel on the part of all, and the students looked to Nugent to help unpack the text. With Nugent guiding the project (“sometimes it seems like I’m more of a producer and director,” he said) the class had, by mid-October, created a workable demo.
Slip into the headset, situate the earphones, and you find yourself within the Martello Tower that figures in Ulysses‘s opening section. The round, three-story fort (its walls eight feet thick) on the southeast edge of Dublin was decommissioned at the beginning of the 20th century and rented out by the War Department as a residence. In Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus lives there with Buck Mulligan (“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead” are the book’s first words) and an Englishman named Haines. Joyce lived there too, in September 1904, for five or six days.
The residence has been recreated in digital space to the dimensions of the actual structure. A painting of Joyce’s father is on the wall. A candle flickers. A glass of absinthe sits on the dining room table. Reach for it and you’ll be transported to the Paris bar where Stephen Dedalus first learns his mother is dying.
Work remains to be done to perfect the scene. Nugent arranged to showcase the demo at a weekend conference held at Boston College in mid-October, sponsored by the Institute for the Liberal Arts. The gathering was for gamification specialists, versed in digital game design for educational and marketing uses. There’d been a problem with Joycestick’s sound; the seagulls were too loud. There was a bug with the lighting effect on one of the candles. And, notably, nobody who’d tested the scene had thought to reach for the “blue French telegram” in the Paris bar, which informs Stephen Dedalus about his mother’s decline and which, in the demo, triggers a voice-over of Joyce’s prose read by David Gullette, the literary director of the Poets’ Theatre in Cambridge.
In class the next Monday, Nugent asked the students how they intended to draw users toward the telegram.
“Volumetric light,” said computer science major Evan Otero ’18, referring to a digital effect that creates a partially-transparent beam of light to serve as a beacon.
“And that might be doable?”
“It is possible,” Otero said. “We just need to learn how to do it.”
Nugent is on leave for the spring of 2017, but funding has been secured through the office of the vice provost for research to allow 18 students to continue their efforts on Joycestick as an independent study. They’ve formed into three groups, each consisting of developers, storyboarders, and a sound mixer, and they will meet weekly to complete the remaining work. The end product will feature scenes from all 18 of the book’s sections. With the technology of the project mostly in hand and research well underway, the students expect to finish in May.
They are developing Joycestick for the virtual reality system Vive, and eventually for Google’s Daydream, and will distribute the versions for free. In the meantime, Nugent and students are taking the demo on tour, introducing it at the James Joyce Italian Foundation’s conference in Rome in February and the XXVI International Joyce Studies Conference in Toronto in June.
Christopher Amenta is a writer based in the Boston area.
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