My research area is focused on the design and development of virtual experiences. Several of my research projects have resulted in publications, grants, and conference presentations.
I first became interested in research in 2013 while working on my Master’s degree at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center. I worked on a semester-long project with 7 other students, a faculty advisor, and a mentor from the Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center. This project was funded by the U.S. military with the goal of exploring how biometric data can be used to improve the exergaming experience.
The project resulted in my first conference presentation at Games for Health, and my first journal publication in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Our published research shows how we used the players’ heart rates in the gameplay to engage the players while they exercised.
Currently I am a Co-PI for a grant-funded research project through the University of Texas’ Planet Texas 2050 research initiative. I work alongside a PI and a second Co-PI, and we have two PhD students working on this project. I supervise our three undergraduate research assistants with the design and technical development of the project.
This project is focused on using the climate and population data generated by other PT 2050 teams, and turning it into an immersive VR experience to engage the public.
All of my research utilizes technical and design skills to create immersive experiences. Currently I'm interested in research that combines those skills with my passion for teaching, and exploring how immersive technology can empower educators and improve efficiency while making learning more meaningful for students.
I hope to pursue this research in human-computer interaction in the subfield of computer-mediated learning. I believe that data tracked by computers through our interactions can be used to customize and individualize a user's experience.
VR Futures, 2019-present
I serve as Co-PI on this grant-funded project, which focuses on developing an immersive VR experience in collaboration with other PT 2050 research teams. We presented our work at the Planet Texas 2050 Research Showcase and it was accepted to the Texas Resilience Conference. You can download and play VR Futures for yourself.
I've also written about our research in an article titled The Transformative Power of Games slated to be published later this year in the Journal of Creative Technologies.
Webz of War, 2013
This semester-long research project was funded by the U.S. Military and the Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center. I was the lead designer on the project, and we were tasked with exploring the use of biometric data in exergames.
We built a 2-player game that used a Kinect, two Wii Fit Balance Boards, and two Polar Heart Monitors. The game involves leaning side to side to steer a hoverboard, and punching to shoot plasma projectiles at giant robot spiders.
The heart rate monitors take a base-level heart rate at the start and then track the player’s heart rate as it goes up and down throughout the experience. We translate increases in heart rate to stronger plasma projectiles, meaning putting more effort into the exercise results in more excitement and satisfaction in the game.
We studied the results using data collected from the heart monitors and surveys of the players. Our results were published by IEEE and presented at Games for Health in Boston 2013.
Non-Human Behavior AI, 2017
This independent project was inspired by my interest in how non-human life forms behave and interact in nature. I decided to explore how this behavior could be used in game design to make more interesting AI for non-human characters.
Games are not limited by the constraints of reality, but often when designing creatures in games we default to very human-like behavior. Even when we move away from humans, we still tend to stick to creatures we understand well, mostly mammals.
In my research I took inspiration from insects, plants, fish, and even fungus. I presented on this topic at PAX Dev 2017 and at the Montreal International Games Summit 2017, as well as writing about it in my development blog.
Student-Centered Learning: A Culmination of the 7 Affordances
In the summer of 2020 I enrolled in several online courses to learn more about teaching online. I pursued this topic due to the pandemic forcing all of my classes to abruptly transition online, with the intent of improving my ability to teach my new online classes.
One of these online courses was e-Learning Ecologies offered by the University of Illinois. In this course I had a final research project to explore more deeply one of the topics presented in the course.
The topic I chose was Student-Centered Learning, and not only did I complete my research paper on this topic, I also incorporated it into a full redesign of the courses I teach.
Though my research paper is unpublished, you can read a draft copy of Student-Centered Learning: A Culmination of the 7 Affordances.
Mentorship of Undergraduate Student Research
In my work on the VR Futures research project, I supervise our 3 undergraduate research assistants. At the start of the project, I vetted prospective research assistants, and hired the 3 best candidates. I help them through technical and creative challenges, provide feedback, and offer support, as well as ensuring they are paid for their work.
I also mentor independent student research projects. As the Undergraduate Honors Advisor for my department, I oversee and mentor the Honors Thesis research projects our senior honors students undertake. I teach the Research Methods course in their junior year to prepare them for the Honors Thesis, and I review and critique their writing and research along the way.
The first three honors students completed their theses in Fall 2020, and all three submitted their finished papers to peer-reviewed journals to be considered for publication. Below are samples from each of their papers.
Other projects I mentor are less focused on writing and more focused on creating interactive media projects for applied research. I serve on the Faculty Panel for the Bridging Disciplines Program, which encourages students to take on creative projects across multiple fields. I have supervised 9 BDP projects to date, all resulting in unique creations ranging from AR exibits to website resources for sustainable practices.
- Roundtable Leader, Student Networking Session, IndieCade 2019
- Speaker, “Non-Human Behavior AI” Montreal Int’l Games Summit 2017
- Panelist, “Improving Reality with Virtual Reality” Austin Game Conf. 2017
- Panel Moderator, “Weird Tech”, Unite Austin 2017
- Speaker, “Non-Human Behavior AI”, PAX Dev 2017
- Panelist, “Breaking into the Industry”, Classic Games Fest 2017
- Panelist, “Surviving as an Independent AAA Studio” SXSW 2017
- Featured Speaker, Unity Women in Gaming Austin 2016
- Speaker, “Technology and User Experience” Unite LA 2016
- Panel Moderator, “The Reality of Virtual Reality” PAX South 2016
- Panel Moderator, “The Reality of Virtual Reality” PAX West 2016
- Panelist, “The Current State of VR” Texas Women in Games 2016
- Speaker, “Creating Immersive Interfaces/Interactions” PDC 2017
- “Webz of War” Exergaming Research, Games for Health 2013
Unity's Unite LA Conference 2016:
Publications and Writing
P. Navarro, M. Johns, et al., “Webz of War: A cooperative exergame driven by the heart,” 2013 IEEE International Games Innovation Conference (IGIC), Vancouver, BC, 2013, pp. 187-190, doi: 10.1109/IGIC.2013.6659125.
M. Johns, “The Transformative Power of Games,” 2020 Journal of Design and Creative Technologies
M. Johns, “User Experience in the High Tech Era,” 2019 Journal of Design and Creative Technologies
M. Johns, “Student-Centered Learning: A Culmination of the 7 Affordances,” unpublished
M. Johns, "Experience Design for Virtual Reality," unpublished
Development Blog: meganlaurajohns.blogspot.com