Technologies of virtuality such as virtual reality, video games, and social media are transforming the way we interact with the world. At the forefront of innovation and the effective deployment of such technologies is D. Fox Harrell, Ph.D., a Professor of Digital Media and Artificial Intelligence in the Comparative Media Studies Program and Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT. Prof. Harrell’s interdisciplinary research — based in computer science, cognitive science, and digital media arts — explores the relationship between imagination and computation and involves inventing new forms of digital media and computer-based art.
As the Director of the MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality, Prof. Harrell aims to pioneer innovative experiences using computing technologies that paint a layer of imagination atop the physical world. In addition to virtual reality, mixed reality, and augmented reality, he investigates other media forms, like synthetic media, that generate content using artificial intelligence-based techniques and other forms of interactive narrative technologies supported by AI. Producing immersive technologies is only part of the equation: Prof. Harrell and researchers in the center also analyze these technologies and design and engineer the technical components of these systems, as well as consider the social, cultural, and ethical impacts of these systems as they design them.
Prof. Harrell also leads the Imagination, Computation, and Expression Laboratory (ICE Lab), a research group in CSAIL that builds computational systems for analyzing social phenomena and expression, and builds upon his idea of phantasmal media to study how biases emerge in computing systems. He studies, for example, how algorithmic bias or bias within AI systems are built into computational ontologies and other knowledge representation systems, and investigates how to design systems to respond to the needs of diverse stakeholders and diverse cultures so that systems support social and ethical needs as well as rigorous areas of application.
In addition, he uses AI for simulating social identity phenomena to help create richer experiences for users, educate diverse learners, and conduct social scientific research studies in VR and videogame setting, and uses AI for analyzing how people develop and use virtual identities. His techniques for analyzing virtual identities can guide researchers and developers in implementing systems that avoid, or actively combat, the worst of virtual identity phenomena such as discrimination, bias, and stereotyping.
By taking both a design and analysis approach to his work, Prof. Harrell is able to build systems that simulate social and learning phenomena in ways that are engaging, dynamic, and personalized, and then build analytical tools using AI and other statistical mathematical approaches to identify trends, biases, and diverse user needs. From there, he can develop new principles for design for academia and industry and build his own systems to address the issues that arise. For example, he and his research team applied their principles to the design of their own custom software for teaching computer science in different international regions to serve the needs of diverse user groups.
Increasingly, Prof. Harrell envisions that if we can use AI technologies to reveal embedded values or biases in computational systems, technologies such as gaming, social media, and VR/AR can become tools for social commentary and harness interactive and immersive technologies for social and ethical ends. Such revelations could bring us closer to more diverse and personalized experiences in learning and entertainment, open our perspectives in the way we engage with others, and contribute to a deeper understanding of virtuality’s impact in the social sciences.
D. Fox Harrell, Ph.D., is Professor of Digital Media & Artificial Intelligence in the Comparative Media Studies Program and Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT. He is the director of the MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality. His research explores the relationship between imagination and computation and involves inventing new forms of VR, computational narrative, videogaming for social impact, and related digital media forms. The National Science Foundation has recognized Harrell with an NSF CAREER Award for his project “Computing for Advanced Identity Representation.” Dr. Harrell holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science and Cognitive Science from the University of California, San Diego. His other degrees include a Master’s degree in Interactive Telecommunication from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and a B.S. in Logic and Computation and B.F.A. in Art (electronic and time-based media) from Carnegie Mellon University – each with highest honors. He has worked as an interactive television producer and as a game designer. His book Phantasmal Media: An Approach to Imagination, Computation, and Expression was published by the MIT Press (2013).
The computer as a medium offers a unique expressive palette for storytellers. With it, we can build and convey models of crucial, moving issues in our world. As a step toward this aim as it relates to sexism, we present our interactive narrative called Grayscale. The experience is intended to provoke players to reflect critically on sexism in the workplace, both overt & hostile and more subtle.
Our research seeks to discover best practices for using avatars to enhance performance, engagement, and STEM identity development for diverse public middle and high school computer science students. As sites of our research we run workshops in which students learn computer science in fun, relevant ways, and develop self-images as computer scientists.
We aim to study the impact of computer-supported roleplaying in changing social perspectives of digital media users. Such media could take the form of videogames, VR systems, training software, and other types of interactive narrative technology.
Mixed-methods qualitative (interviews and coding) and computational (AI) approach to understanding relationships between social identities, cultural values, and virtual identity technologies (e.g., online profiles and avatars).
Communicating through computers has become an extension of our daily reality. But as speaking via screens has become commonplace, our exchanges are losing inflection, body language, and empathy. Danielle Olson ’14, a first-year PhD student at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), believes we can make digital information-sharing more natural and interpersonal, by creating immersive media to better understand each other’s feelings and backgrounds.