People and Community Science and Technology

Fulbright Fellow from Egypt is learning all about VR

During her time at the University of Miami School of Communication, Shaimaa Elrefaei Ber is exploring virtual reality, so she can integrate what she discovers into a program to help draw tourists to her homeland.
Fullbright Professor Shaimaa Ber
Shaimaa Elrefaei Ber is learning to build virtual reality models and plans to start up a curriculum on interactive media at Mansoura University in Egypt. Photo: Joshua Prezant/University of Miami

When you think of Egypt what comes to mind?

Pyramids, camels, and pharaohs.

Shaimaa Elrefaei Ber, an Egyptian professor, is spending an academic year as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Miami. She wants to broaden people’s perspective on her home country. 

“Egypt has a lot of historical tourism but it also has different types of tourism, including health tourism and one of the largest botanical gardens in the world,” she said. “After the pandemic, the country has lost a lot of visitors. I want to use my project to attract more tourists to Egypt.”

Ber is auditing classes at the University’s School of Communication in the interactive media program during this academic year to learn skills in building virtual reality models to help with her project, as well as to start up a curriculum on interactive media at her school, Mansoura University.    

“The quality and nature of her work is testament to the growing global impact interactive media technologies have; beyond entertainment, they are tools to help use presented cultural and artistic artifacts and explore beyond physical and national borders,” said Lindsay Grace, associate professor and Knight Chair of interactive media.

Ber’s main project, “The Egyptian Time,” features a structure that could be built and set up in several large airports that would allow visitors—through 3D and virtual reality technology—to travel through Egypt’s Pharaonic, Roman, and Islamic eras.

Visitors to the time machine would wear Oculus goggles and use avatars to interact with the virtual reality environments including the building of the pyramids, Ber noted. Large screens will project the various Egyptian periods down to the minute details of the architecture. The avatars also would be able to take pictures of each scene as part of the immersive environment. 

Ber’s background as a professor in the faculty of fine arts at Mansoura University has honed her many skills in cinematic and theater design, as well as theatrical and cinematic geometrical drawings. She also has taught classes in computer drawings and the foundation of 3D design.

But when she was awarded the Fulbright Fellowship, Ber wanted to attend a university that was well-known for its interactive media department.

“I had other options besides the University of Miami,” she said. Ber chose the University because of its reputation.  And she said that all the professors have been extremely helpful, in not only teaching her what programs to use for her projects, but also in giving her ideas on how to develop her narratives.  “I really appreciate what professors do for me,” she said.

Kim Grinfeder, professor and department chair of Interactive Media, said that Ber’s interest in the interactive department is not unique.

“UM has some great resources for people like Dr. Ber who want to come and learn more about immersive technologies,” he said. “We are starting to get many requests like hers, and it’s a result of our growing reputation as a hub for immersive content and research.” 

Ber is auditing courses in coding, computer programming, and narrative storytelling, but she also has met with professors in the cinematic department.

Grace said that the fact that the University of Miami has a large number of faculty members and disciplines is a big draw for scholars.   

“Doing this work at UM means not only access to leading technology in games and VR, it’s also about our wide opportunities for research and collaboration in an institution of our size and in a global city like Miami,” he said. “She is working with faculty from the School of Communication interactive media but also in film, architecture, and our community partners.”

Ber plans to take back what she has learned to her university to update current courses as well as create virtual reality courses. She also plans to publish an academic paper on which programs to use to create virtual reality projects.

In the meantime, she is also beginning to enjoy her free time in Miami. She recently visited the Perez Art Museum and the HistoryMiami Museum. “I am really having fun here,” she said.