When Sonny Cirasuolo ’21 discovered the course Virtual Reality Storytelling at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, it was if he’d struck gold. At the time, Cirasuolo was just looking for a fun course. Little did he know it would lead him to the forefront of developing immersive media in the metaverse, the simulated digital world of extended reality (XR) that blends the real and virtual. After first taking readers on interactive journeys for Yahoo Sports, Cirasuolo signed on as a creative technologist and XR engineer for the startup Nowhere, which provides a robust platform for multitudes of people to gather in the metaverse. “I really enjoyed the Virtual Reality Storytelling class,” he says. “Everything I’ve been doing is based off that one class. It ended up being what shaped my career, which is pretty cool.”
It’s about making the impossible possible for storytelling and making things seem like you’re actually there—transporting people to a new place, and I think that is very powerful.
Sonny Cirasuolo ’21
The course introduced Cirasuolo to Professor Dan Pacheco, a leading expert on journalistic storytelling that uses emerging media platforms and the metaverse. “Sonny threw himself fully into projects, often inspiring others to join him. I saw an opportunity to help harness and focus his energy on something creative,” says Pacheco, the Peter A. Horvitz Endowed Chair in Journalism Innovation and professor of practice in the magazine, news and digital journalism department. “It has been exciting to see his career flourish as he continues to inspire others with his work in the industry.”
Plunging into Immersive Experiences
Following graduation, Cirasuolo—who earned bachelor’s degrees in advertising from the Newhouse School and policy studies from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs—joined Yahoo Sports as an augmented reality and video producer. After a year there and a “ton of great experiences,” he welcomed a new opportunity at Nowhere to further expand his repertoire of interactive virtual projects. The startup’s video-based platform is designed to host avatar-free, large-scale events like concerts and conferences for hundreds of people, but also caters to small gatherings—a 3D beach party, for instance—where users can meet and move from one conversation to the next in the virtual space. “Everything exists within that 3D space, and it’s all spatial audio,” he says. “Everybody’s voices and sounds persist and bounce throughout the space, and when you meet with people it’s the closest I’ve felt to talking to somebody in real life.”
Cirasuolo connected with Nowhere co-founder Maxx Berkowitz ’11 through one of his Newhouse mentors—Ken Harper, an associate professor of visual communications who had Berkowitz as a student. At Nowhere, Cirasuolo is pursuing a variety of projects, from coding for the website to building 3D worlds. “Rather than just making 3D models, I’m creating 3D spaces that people walk around in,” he says.
One of Cirasuolo’s specialties is photogrammetry—a technique that employs software to stitch together vast numbers of images to create photorealistic 3D models of real-life objects—and he looks forward to developing photogrammetry projects at Nowhere. “I see potential in recreating familiar real-world spaces in a virtual space where people meet,” he says.
We’re at the very beginning of the XR industry. I get to watch it happen, be a part of it, and have a huge audience in this metaverse/immersive media revolution. I didn’t expect to be here, but this is where I ended up after my four years at Syracuse, and I love it.—Sonny Cirasuolo ’21
At Yahoo, Cirasuolo created or collaborated on over 45 interactive projects, contributing to sports as well as the news, life, finance and entertainment sections. Among them: 3D maps of the Tokyo Summer Olympics, the Ukraine war and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol; games for grading the quality of baseball cards and for guessing baseball signs; information graphics such as NBA shot charts over time; and 3D models of Buddy the Elf’s costume and chicken sandwiches (for a piece depicting the fast-food wars over fried fowl offerings). “XR technologies start to shine for me when you show people something they could never see otherwise,” he says. “It’s about making the impossible possible for storytelling and making things seem like you’re actually there—transporting people to a new place, and I think that is very powerful.”
In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Star Wars, Yahoo produced a multimedia project featuring 3D models of the movie sets of the Lars homestead dome and courtyard and Mos Espa, all located in Tunisia. Using photogrammetry, Cirasuolo pieced together thousands of images to create the virtual replicas. “I was responsible for building the actual scene and the interactivity in the 3D models—the consumer-facing user interface, the camera movements and everything users are interacting with in the scenes and looking at on their end,” he says.
Professor Pacheco showed me XR storytelling could be a viable career path. He embraced my enthusiasm and took me under his wing.—Sonny Cirasuolo ’21
One of Cirasuolo’s favorite projects was producing a 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics interactive media package on curling, or as he notes, “What’s the sport everybody talks about every four years and nobody understands?” With the Utica (New York) Curling Club not far from his home in Whitesboro, he called it the perfect opportunity to do research and provide an in-depth explanation of the enigmatic sport. He partnered with club officials for insights and information, interviewed a scientist on curling physics and created 3D visualizations of the curling stone and its spin, the curling sheet, the role and preparation of the pebbled ice and how sweeping techniques influence the stone’s path. “Turns out, though, it’s not as simple as it looks,” he wrote.
Tinkering and Inventing
For Cirasuolo, executing his creations often involves learning coding and programming languages, which seems to come natural to him. Growing up, he loved building and inventing things, doing woodworking and welding, and strapping on VR headsets. As a high school student, he took college engineering courses that introduced him to 3D printing, photogrammetry and 3D model creation. He enrolled at Syracuse as a mechanical engineering major, but changed directions after his sophomore year to pursue advertising and policy studies. “I went through a wild ride as far as my majors went,” he says.
It was in Pacheco’s course where Cirasuolo discovered that with XR storytelling he could combine his engineering background, communication skills and technical abilities with his interest in how people interact with screens. The course also revived his fascination with photogrammetry. “Professor Pacheco showed me XR storytelling could be a viable career path,” says Cirasuolo, who created a 360-degree video tour of the Adirondacks’ Old Forge for his class project. “He embraced my enthusiasm and took me under his wing.”
In summer 2020, Pacheco invited Cirasuolo to work as a research assistant, and they explored new ways to tell stories on the web using immersive technologies. Pacheco also connected him with Professor Harper, who helped Cirasuolo further develop his expertise in photogrammetry. As part of a team of students and faculty advisors, the three put their shared knowledge to work in the national award-winning student project Visualizing 81. Produced by The NewsHouse in 2021, the immersive media project provided a comprehensive look at Interstate 81’s impact on the City of Syracuse’s 15th Ward, a predominantly Black neighborhood devastated by the highway. Among his tasks as the visual and XR lead, Cirasuolo used photogrammetry to create a 3D model of the historic People’s AME Zion Church that had fallen into disrepair. “Photogrammetry is a fun process and gives you models that duplicate real life, which is super powerful for journalism and telling stories,” he says.
Everything exists within that 3D space, and it’s all spatial audio. Everybody’s voices and sounds persist and bounce throughout the space, and when you meet with people it’s the closest I’ve felt to talking to somebody in real life.—Sonny Cirasuolo ’21
Cirasuolo also teamed up with Amanda Paule ’22, the lead writer on Visualizing 81, and photo graduate student Zachary Krahmer G’20 to produce an interactive immersive tour of a hemp research facility operated by Cornell University scientists. The NewsHouse project was published by the USA Today Network and earned top honors in the interactive reality category of the Broadcast Education Association Festival of Media Arts. Amid these projects during his senior year, Cirasuolo built a game app, Pandemic Pandemonium (score points collecting hand sanitizer and toilet paper while attempting to avoid the virus), as a fundraiser for the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Lynchburg, Virginia. “My senior year was just nonstop,” he says.
Shaping an Industry’s Future
Along with engineering and interactive design challenges, Cirasuolo wrestles constantly with coding updates and new technological capabilities, which can represent leaps forward from even months ago. Drawing a comparison to video games, he explains how game designers have the luxury of using a game engine as a standard platform to build their creations, while XR developers have no standard engine yet. “It’s all up in the air, so figuring that out is challenging, but it’s also fun,” he says. “We’re at the very beginning of the XR industry. I get to watch it happen, be a part of it, and have a huge audience in this metaverse/immersive media revolution. I didn’t expect to be here, but this is where I ended up after my four years at Syracuse, and I love it.”