Inspiring students to imagine, create and play digitally
When William Bares was young, he loved arcades. He played a few games, but mostly he studied them – sketching their graphics, studying how they worked, noting their stories.
At home, he used his Atari computer to practice creating graphics. Soon he programmed his own games.
Looking ahead, Bares’ career is little different from his allure at the age of 12. As an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Whitman College, Bares uses computer programming and advanced equipment to create surprising, accessible, and story-rich digital experiences.
Through his Immersive Stories Lab, he gives students the opportunity to discover the same thrills he felt in the arcade.
“I hope they get inspired to create the amazing,” he says. “We can do amazing things here at Whitman. You might think of Hollywood and movie special effects and those interactive, immersive experiences that are what you need to be at Pixar or Disney for. We can do that here too.”
Digital worlds… and ducks!
Bares came to Whitman in the fall of 2020 and began work at the Immersive Stories Lab by setting up computers, projectors and screens in the basement of his faculty rental house.
One of his early projects was a game to introduce Zoom to aspiring students. He was inspired by a campus landmark: Lakum Duckum.
He programmed a virtual pond, projected it onto the lab floor, and coded digital ducks to follow a human player walking across the pond’s surface. The more ducks you follow, the louder the flock quacks.
The lab, now located in Olin Hall, is designed to allow students to create their own digital worlds, whether through immersive displays like the duck pond, motion capture, or virtual or augmented reality.
During the summer of 2021, Bares worked with now Whitman Senior Abdelrahman “Awadly” Elawadly, a computer science and mathematics major, to explore ways to create accessible content
Designs using an eye-tracking device and a Kinect full-body motion sensor. With a grant from the non-profit organization Teach Access, Bares turned the results of her research into a module with open-source software, sample programs, and guides for other teachers to use.
In 2021 he used the module in his own classroom. Students in Bares’ Intelligent User Interfaces course used the Immersive Stories Lab to design accessible projects.
For example, one team created an adaptive version of the classic video game Pong. The game is projected onto the floor and players move the racquets with their bodies. But there is no set way to move – the game adapts to each player’s range of motion and speed.
The possibilities are endless
Bares is excited not only to introduce more students to the Immersive Stories Lab, but also to expand its opportunities on campus and in the community. For example, during the pandemic, he and his students worked with the theater department to develop a tool that would allow performers to rehearse remotely. He strives to find collaborators in other disciplines.
“What I do with technology helps people tell stories,” he says. “Being in a smaller college like Whitman makes it a lot easier to make those connections with people who have creative stories to tell — whatever discipline they come from, whether it’s art, drama, biology, or chemistry.”
He also works with community partners to develop outreach programs for younger minds. By introducing children to computer programming, he hopes to help them realize that they don’t just have to play games or watch movies—they can create through technology. “That’s the great message I teach,” he says. “You can do that too.”