SMAAASH: VR Entertainment Review

On Thursday, my friends and I went to check out the newly opened virtual reality games and arcade center at the Mall of America, SMAAASH. While many might be fooled by my studious outlook, I am actually a huge fan of arcade games. I have spent many hours in my teenage years in arcade centers and have always enjoyed new game stimulations. So, I was very excited about the chance to check out this new experience.

SMAAASH is an interactive gaming facility that is built around virtual reality (VR) technologies. Opened on Dec. 20, 2016 at the Mall of America, SMAAASH offers America’s first VR-driven “adrenaline arena,” coupled with sports, music, and bar dining experiences.

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When walked into the arcade arena, I was immediately drawn to the flashy LEDs and screens set up to get visitors registered for their play. My friends and I got an all-access pass that gives us unlimited access to all games and one round of Sky Karting (go kart). Main attractions include Finger Coaster, Exterminator, Vertigo, Art of Attack, X1 Simulator, Haunted Hospital, Hot Shot, Zombie Outbreak, and three sports based challenges namely Super Keeper (soccer), What the Puck (ice hockey), and Extreme Takedown Challenge (football). There is also a “smart arcade” with classics like race cars, skiing, and basketball ring toss, and other screen based games. You can read all game descriptions here.


Having studied VR and wearable technologies since 2015, my colleagues at UMN and I have been intrigued by the potentials of VR in gaming and social engagement. SMAAASH embodies a combination of both. While back in our home lab there’s one set of HTC Vive for individual research and user simulation, SMAAASH offers interactive and communal participation in VR experiences. These experiences are made possible mainly by Oculus and Vive technologies. What’s interesting to me is how the player/user can be a part of creating their VR experience, and sharing it with their friends.

For instance, at Finger Coaster, players can design their own roller coaster tracks and bring up to four friends to share the ride they have invented.

^ This is one of my most favorite.

Another highlight at SMAAASH is the Vertigo experience. I’d say that simulation is indeed not for the faint hearted. Through the VR headset, the player is lifted to about 50 feet above ground to a single plank, with the mission to save a kitten at the middle of the narrow walkway. I almost chickened out of this particular simulation (although I actually did with the zombies), I am glad that I tried–and succeeded in saving the poor kitty–because it was something I would never have done in real life.

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VR does trick the mind into believing the simulation to be reality. What the Vertigo experience teaches me is that there are truly many ways VR can be used to simulate scenarios that are hard to create in reality, but might be useful in shaping or changing one’s perspective.

We ended up spending about 2.5 hours there, not including the time in the dining space (the wings are delicious, by the way). I think SMAAASH could be a great group trip for those who don’t mind spending a little more on the tickets that traditional entertainment. The ticket prices at the Mall are:

  • $5 per Active and Virtual Reality Game; $1 per Arcade Game, or
  • All Active & Virtual Reality Games: $28 for once; $35 Unlimited, or
  • All Arcade, Active & Virtual Reality Games: $34 for once; $40 Unlimited

I give this new arcade a 4 out of 5 stars for its innovative approach to social gaming. I reserve one star for when it lowers its ticket prices and for when the players can be even more involved in designing their own VR experience.

Coke Ad Shows True Beauty of the United States


This column originally appears in St. Cloud Times, Monday, February 10, 2014. 

If you watched the Super Bowl commercials, you should be aware of the controversy Coca-Cola stirred up with its new ad titled “It’s Beautiful.” The 60-second ad featured “America, the Beautiful,” sung in seven languages during scenes of Americans of different ethnicities spending time together.

Soon after the ad aired, outrage swiftly broke out on Twitter and Facebook, as evidenced by a newly created hashtag: #SpeakAmerican. Apparently, many Americans do not think Coca-Cola, as a U.S. corporation, should advertise in languages other than English.

As an international student pursuing my studies in the United States, it is ignorant for some Americans to feel the only language that should be used in their everyday lives is English.

While many who protested against Coca-Cola for showcasing non-English languages in the context of a patriotic song think that such action was anti-American, these critics might not have realized that multilingualism is the reality in America.

According to the latest American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, many people living in the U.S. speak languages other than English, despite the predominance of English as the quasi-official language in America. In the survey, the Census Bureau created a list of 381 languages spoken by Americans and reported that 22 percent of Americans do not consider themselves good English speakers.

Given these conditions, many U.S. citizens are still blind to the fact that the American society is constantly diversifying into a multicultural community.

Reproaching the ad, some tweeters expressed they felt un-American for drinking Coke. Many said they were disgusted by how a patriotic song is sung in different languages. Some even said they would boycott Coke for allowing an American anthem to be reproduced in “a terrorist language.” (It should be pointed out, for anyone confused on the matter, that America’s actual national anthem is “The Star-Spangled Banner.”)

Without endorsing any Coke products, I stand by the brand’s intention to send out a good message during an event watched by at least one-third of Americans. After airing the commercial, Coke tweeted: “The only thing more beautiful than this country are the people who live here.”

Coke has probably realized how that is not quite true.

To say beauty is in the eyes of the beholder is fairly accurate. As one of the most controversial Super Bowl ads this year, Coke did not rely on usual tactics — humor, terror, catchy tunes or clever wordplay — but captured our attention by simply reflecting the reality of life in America.

That is the real beauty.

Thanks, creators of the Coke ad, for reminding America that multiculturalism and diversity should be valued and emphasized in our society. It’s a shame not everyone thinks this way.

Accept it or not, multiculturalism is what America is founded upon. Coke’s ad did not push that concept down anyone’s throat. Truly, “America, the Beautiful” by any other language is still “America, the Beautiful.”

I am a member of the Times Writers Group. My article appears every second Monday of the month in St. Cloud Times opinion page.


Ph.D. Finder for Rhetoric and Composition Programs

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Earning a higher educational degree is a notable pursuit. This pursuit usually starts when one has developed an interest around a certain area of study and began looking for universities and programs that meet his/her academic needs. Yet, as a graduating master’s student and Ph.D. applicant, I cannot rant enough how frustrating the process of school-finding can be. My first instinct was to speak with my advisors about possible programs to look into, and then go on Google to find out more about these schools – about their department culture, Ph.D. dissertations written by students, faculty members’ research areas, criteria for admittance, etc. Miserably, I felt luck was a huge, integral part of the search process.

To help Ph.D. applicants narrow their searches, Rhetoric Review conducted its fourth Survey of Doctoral Programs in Rhetoric and Composition in 2007 and published a print article in RR 27.4 (2008). Later, a Wikia site was set up to allow program directors update their department or program information. However, if you take a look at both the original site and wikia, you may find it challenging to navigate through the sites for a comprehensive outlook across the programs reviewed.

This is why we designed and launched Ph.D. Finder – an interactive app that allows users to find Ph.D. programs in Rhetoric & Composition that most closely match their admittance aptitude and research interests.

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Our algorithms are designed to rank programs based on the user’s selection of research interests and self-ordered strength in the criteria commonly used by Ph.D. admission committees for candidate evaluation. We aggregated data from the Rhetoric Review Survey and picked out programs that currently offer a Ph.D. degree in Rhetoric and Composition. Users will be able to see real-time adjustment on the program ranking as they select their area(s) of research and order their admittance aptitude.

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As this app is still in its infancy stage, we realize there are rooms for improvement and look forward to add more programs to our existing database. Since this app is a startup-like project created by two college students, we are, nonetheless, looking for fundings to help us expand this endeavor. Please contact us if you are interested in a partnership or backing us up.

At the meantime, check out the app and let us know what you think!

Ph.D. Finder is created by Ivan Okhin and Jason Tham, both social entrepreneurs (wannabe) and technology enthusiasts based in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

How are We MOOCing?


This winter break and holidays have been an ideal time for me to work on my MA research, which focuses on power and ideological borders within MOOC interfaces. Having already written about 40% of the anticipated 15,000-word thesis essay, I find my interest and desire to learn about MOOCs grow stronger each time I come across new findings that add to current discussions.

Although there has been a tone of work and scholarship about MOOCs circulating on the Internet, researchers and graduate students are still hungry for new, solid, up-to-date findings that could validate the debates on whether this phenomenon would transform higher education, or just turn out to be another damp squib.

After some long waiting, UPenn Graduate School of Education released on Dec. 5, 2013 their initial report on a study that analyzed the movement of a million users through 16 Coursera courses offered by the University of Pennsylvania from June 2012 to June 2013. These findings were presented by Laura Perna and Alan Ruby at the MOOC Research Initiative Conference (funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) in Texas.

Emerging findings (quoted from PennGSE Press Room; emphases added):

  • Course completion rates are very low, averaging 4% across all courses and ranging from 2% to 14% depending on the course and measurement of completion.
  • Across the 16 courses, completion rates are somewhat higher, on average, for courses with lower workloads for students and fewer homework assignments (about 6% versus 2.5%).
  • Variations in completion rates based on other course characteristics (e.g., course length, availability of live chat) were not statistically significant.
  • The total number of individuals accessing a course varied considerably across courses, ranging from more than 110,000 for “Introduction to Operations Management” to about 13,000 for “Rationing and Allocating Scarce Medical Resources.”
  • Across all courses, about half of those who registered viewed at least one lecture within their selected course. The share of registrants viewing at least one lecture ranged from a low of 27% for “Rationing and Allocating Scarce Medical Resources” to a high of 68% for “Fundamentals of Pharmacology.”

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iPhone 5C: Going for the Colors? Or Price?


Wow, just wow. I am flattered by the jump in viewership that happened overnight after I blogged about why the latest Apple iPhone keynote is rhetorically deficient. Not to jump on the bandwagon but I would like to take this chance to explain why I maintain my argument and so-called cynical viewpoint on the new launch.

While the new iPhone 5S is all well and great, 5C simply represents a revolutionary move that Apple has never before taken – go cheap. Okay, a better term would be affordability, or making iPhone more economical. Yet, never once in the keynote last night that SVP Phil Schiller mentioned about making iPhones more available for everyone. Really, maybe I am missing it, but what is the selling point of 5C? Go around and ask those who would like to get a new 5C: Are they going for the colors or the price? TechCrunch admits that the C in 5C stands for “clueless.” And I second that. An unclear marketing objective is suicidal to the company and product, especial for big players like Apple.

If you are among those who are attracted by the new color options in 5C, I urge you to think again. Look at the comparisons below and choose for yourself the better “looking” device.


The black logo on the polycarbonate, colored cover is a bad visual design. The only two that look okay-ish are white and yellow.


Indeed, imitation is the best form of flattery (for the competitor). Worse is when you didn’t do a better job than you have intended to. Speaking about integrating the OS interface design to the cover, Apple didn’t do as good of a job compared to Windows, IMHO.


Even their own iPod Touch is much better looking than 5C!

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Like, seriously better looking, from any angle!

Ultimately, it comes down to the craftsmanship of the final finish. At this point of the blog I am already disgusted by the way Apply presents their new colored toy. Scroll down and see for yourself how they did it better in 1998 than in 2013.


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It’s time to think different, Apple.