Phat Nguyen: Life as a Graduate Student by Mariah Flick

Congratulations to Phat for graduating with his MFA in Creative Technologies from the Virginia Tech School of Visual Art!

Mariah Flick created this documentary about Phat and his thesis work. Phat discusses graduate school and developing his final thesis showcase, which was shown on the Cyclorama in the Cube.


Robot Fan Mail

A little while back, Phyllis was forwarded this letter from a pre-school class originally sent to CHCI Interim Director Andrea Kavenaugh.  It’s quite sweet.  See the original letter and Phyllis’ response below:

Phyllis’ response:


March 18, 2016

The Rosa Sharks Class
Blue Mountain School
470 Christiansburg Pike
Floyd, VA 24091

Dear Ms. Stefi and the Rosa Sharks Class,

My friend Dr. Andrea Kavanaugh gave me your wonderful letter and drawings of robots and asked if I could help answer your questions.  I really like the way you explored what you already knew about robots and then asked questions to find out more about them.  I think you must be very good thinkers.

  1. What do robots eat?

This is a great question.  Robots need energy to work just like you do.  They use energy from batteries, solar panels, or an electric cord plugged into the wall.  They also need instructions so that they know what to do and when to do it.  We call those instructions “code,” and code comes from humans who tell the robot what it can do.

  1. Where do most robots live?

Robots live in lots of places.  Some of them live in houses.  Some live at businesses.  Some even live in outer space.  There are some robots on Mars right now, but I don’t know of any on Jupiter.  Robots live wherever humans need them to do a job.  The robot on Mars took pictures and sent them back to Earth.  People can’t live on Mars, so it was a great way to learn about the planet.  Some people keep a robot in their house to do the vacuuming!   (That’s a job they just didn’t want to do.)  You might even have a robot in your toys.  If you have a toy that does something like move or make a sound when you push a button or squeeze it, you have a robot.  My kids have Zhu-Zhu pets and a toy backhoe that are robots.

  1. Do robots go on vacation? Do they like to play?

Robots can’t do anything that humans don’t teach them to do.  A robot could go on vacation or play, but it would only do that if a human told it to.  Most of the time, humans just want robots to do work.  When the robots are not working, they might rest in a closet or on a shelf.  If you know someone with a smartphone, you can ask the smartphone about robots and vacation.  Siri is kind of like a robot, and she might know a better answer than I do.  Everything that Siri says, though, is something that a human told her to say.

  1. Where do robots come from?

Robots are built by people.  Sometimes robots are built by other robots, but people have to tell the building robots what to do.

  1. Do you need tools like a hammer and nails or a wrench to build one?

Robots are things that move and follow instructions.  You can use hammers and wrenches to make the thing and its moving parts.  You can also use scissors and tape and cardboard.  The shape of a robot can be made out of anything.  A lot of robots have motors that help their parts move.  The instructions part of a robot is usually a small computer.  People use coding tools – usually a bigger computer – to put the instructions into the robot’s computer.

  1. Can you build a robot for us to play with?

I suppose I could, but I think it would be more fun if you built one yourself.  You’d have to decide what kind of job you wanted it to do and how it should look.  I like to use a Makey Makey to make a basic robot that makes sounds.  You can also use a program called Scratch For Kids to learn to code.  Another way to learn about robots is to take apart some old toys that work like robots.

I hope I have been able to answer your questions.  Thank you again for asking them.  I hope you will keep asking questions and learning more and more.  I am sending your class a viewfinder that shows some fun things we do at my work.

All the best,


VR particle physics update

We’ve made a number of tweaks and user interface adjustments to this project, and it’s time to share them.

  • We now have sprites and colors for EVERY type of particle.  It makes it look so much more amazing.  Jesse toiled over this during Thanksgiving break.  Thanks Jesse!
  • The user interface is now diegetic, existing in the world of the virtual environment rather than as a heads-up display or thru a physical tablet.  Right now it just hangs out at a particular spot.  But when the user is in VR, being motion-captured in the Cube, they will be holding an Xbox controller which will also be tracked.  The virtual menu will take the position of the Xbox controller – so essentially users just need to look at their hands to look at the menu.  They then select whatever part of the menu they are looking at with a simple look-and-click interface.
  • We’ve also added the ability to select particles by looking at them and pressing a button.  When you select them, a display pops up over the particle, showing key info.  On that display, if you click the Save button, the info for that particle gets saved to a display up on the wall (which is still in the works).
  • The Model section now has a preset subsection, so you can save and load different configurations of the BelleII model being on and off, along with the relative transparency values.
  • There are also two “scoreboards” on the Cube walls now.  One shows the current simulation time, so you can glance at it from anywhere in the room.  The other allows the user to start and stop a timer with a press of a button on the Xbox controller.
  • At Leo’s request, we’re also now showing “dead” particle sprites.  Instead of a particle sprite disappearing after the data for the sprite has ended, a “shell” takes its place, showing where the particle was when it … passed away?  This has caused some new frame rate issues that I’m struggling with.  30k is a lot of individual sprites!  They’re not correctly batching right now, which is what I spent most of my day trying to figure out.  I learned a few things that increased the frame rate here and there, but it’s still not great yet.  It gets worse as the simulation goes on, because more and more sprites are added.

Additionally, the educational side of this project is really starting to kick into gear.  Instead of spending most of the meeting time talking about features for the simulation, we’re talking about lesson plan development, which is awesome!  That’s exactly where we want to be moving in to next semester.  We plan on piloting this thing with Society of Physics Students folks immediately following spring break!