Virtual Reality Universe-ity: The Immersive “Augmentarium” Lab at the U. of Maryland

"A Touch of Science", Image by Mars P.

“A Touch of Science”, Image by Mars P.

Got to classes. Sit through a series of 50 minute lectures. Drink coffee. Pay attention and take notes. Drink more coffee. Go to the library to study, do research and complete assignments. Rinse and repeat for the rest of the semester. Then take your final exams and hope that you passed everything. More or less, things have traditionally been this way in college since Hector was a pup.

Might students instead be interested in participating at the new and experimental learning laboratory called the Augmentarium at the University of Maryland where immersing themselves in their studies takes on an entirely new meaning? This is a place where virtual reality (VR)  is being tested and integrated into the learning process. (There 14 Subway Fold posts cover a range of VR and augmented reality [AR] developments and applications.)

Where do I sign up for this?¹

The story was covered in a fascinating report that appeared on December 8, 2015 on the website of the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled Virtual-Reality Lab Explores New Kinds of Immersive Learning, by Ellen Wexler. I highly recommend reading this in its entirety as well as clicking on the Augmentarium link to learn about some these remarkable projects. I also suggest checking out the hashtag #Augmentarium on Twitter the very latest news and developments. I will summarize and annotate this story, and pose some of my own questions right after I take off my own imaginary VR headset.

Developing VR Apps in the Augmentarium

In 2014, Brendan Iribe, the co-founder of the VR headset company Oculus², as well as a University of Maryland alumni, donated $31 million to the University for its development of VR technology³. During the same year, with addition funding obtained from the National Science Foundation, the Augmentarium was built. Currently, researchers at the facility are working on applications of VR to “health care, public safety, and education”.

Professor Ramani Duraiswami, a PhD and co-founder of a startup called VisiSonics (developers of 3D audio and VR gaming systems), is involved with the Augmentarium. His work is in the area of audio, which he believes has a great effect upon how people perceive the world around them. He further thinks that an audio or video lecture presented via distance learning can be greatly enhanced by using VR to, in his words make “the experience feel more immersive”. He feels this would make you feel as though you are in the very presence of the instructor4.

During a recent showcase there, Professor Duraiswami demo-ed 3D sound5 and a short VR science fiction production called Fixing Incus. (This link is meant to be played on a smartphone that is then embedded within a VR viewer/headset.) This implementation showed the audience what it was like to be immersed into a virtual environment where, when they moved their heads and line of sight, what they were viewing corresponding and seamlessly changed.

Enhancing Virtual Immersions for Medicine and Education

Amitabh Varshney, the Director of the University’s Institute for Advanced Computer Studies, is now researching “how the brain processes information in immersive environments” and how is differs from how this is done on a computer screen.6 He believes that VR applications in the classroom will enable students to immerse themselves in their subjects, such as being able to “walk through buildings they design” and “explore” them beyond “just the equations” involved in creating these structures.

At the lab’s recent showcase, he provided the visitors with (non-VR) 3D glasses and presented “an immersive video of a surgical procedure”. He drew the audience’s attention to the doctors at the operating table who were “crowing around” it. He believes that the use of 3D headsets would provide medical students a better means to “move around” and get an improved sense of what this experience is actually like in the operating room. (The September 22, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled VR in the OR: New Virtual Reality System for Planning, Practicing and Assisting in Surgery is also on point and provides extended coverage on this topic.)

While today’s early iterations of VR headsets (either available now or early in 2016), are “cumbersome”, researchers hope that they will evolve (in a manner similar to mobile phones which, in turn and as mentioned above, are presently a key element in VR viewers), and be applied in “hospitals, grocery stores and classrooms”.  Director Varshney can see them possibly developing along an even faster timeline.

My Questions

  • Is the establishment and operation of the Augmentarium a model that other universities should consider as a means to train students in this field, attract donations, and incubate potential VR and AR startups?
  • What entrepreneurial opportunities might exist for consulting, engineering and tech firms to set up comparable development labs at other schools and in private industry?
  • What other types of academic courses would benefit from VR and AR support? Could students now use these technologies to create or support their academic projects? What sort of grading standards might be applied to them?
  • Do the rapidly expanding markets for VR and AR require that some group in academia and/or the government establish technical and perhaps even ethical standards for such labs and their projects?
  • How are relevant potential intellectual property and technology transfer issues going to be negotiated, arbitrated and litigated if needed?

 


1.  Btw, has anyone ever figured out how the very elusive and mysterious “To Be Announced (TBA)”, the professor who appears in nearly all course catalogs, ends up teaching so many subjects at so many schools at the same time? He or she must have an incredibly busy schedule.

2.  These nine Subway Fold posts cover, among other VR and AR related stories, the technology of Oculus.

3.  This donation was reported in an article on September 11, 2014 in The Washington Post in an article entitled Brendan Iribe, Co-founder of Oculus VR, Makes Record $31 Million Donation to U-Md by Nick Anderson.

4.  See also the February 18, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled A Real Class Act: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are Changing the Learning Process.

5.  See also Designing Sound for Virtual Reality by Todd Baker posted on Medium.com on December 21, 2015, for a thorough overview of this aspect of VR, and the August 5, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled  Latest Census on Virtual Senses: A Seminar on Augmented Reality in New York covering, among other AR technologies, the development work and 3D sound wireless headphones of Hooke Audio.

6.  On a somewhat related topic, see the December 18, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Mind Over Subject Matter: Researchers Develop A Better Understanding of How Human Brains Manage So Much Information.

Latest Census on Virtual Senses: A Seminar on Augmented Reality in New York

"3D Augmented Reality Sculpture 3", Image by Travis Morgan

“3D Augmented Reality Sculpture 3”, Image by Travis Morgan

I stepped out of the 90-degree heat and through the front door of Adorama, a camera, electronics and computer store on West 18th Street in Manhattan just before 6:00 pm on July 28, 2015. I quickly felt like I had entered another world¹ as I took my seat for a seminar entitled the Future of Augmented Reality Panel with Erek Tinker. It was the perfect venue, literally and figuratively to, well, focus on this very exciting emerging technology. (Recent trends and developments in this field have been covered in these six Subway Fold posts.)

An expert panel of four speakers involved in developing augmented reality (AR) discussed the latest trends and demo-ed an array of way cool products and services that wowed the audience.  The moderator, Erek Tinker ( the Director of Business Development at an NYC software development firm The Spry Group), did an outstanding job of presenting the speakers and keeping the audience involved with opportunities for their own insightful questions.

This just-over-the-horizon exploration and displays of AR-enhanced experiences very effectively drew everyone into the current capabilities and future potential of this hybridization of the real and the virtual.

So, is AR really the next big thing or a just another passing fad? All of the panel members made their captivating and compelling cases in this order:

  • Dusty Wright is a writer, musician, and has recently joined FuelFX as the Director of Business Development in AR and VR. The company has recently worked on entertainment apps including, among others, their recent collaboration on a presentation of AR-enhanced images by the artist Ron English at the 2015 SXSW festival.²
  • Brian Hamilton, the head Business Development for the eastern US for a company DAQRI, spoke about and presented a video on the company’s recently rolled out “Smart Helmet“. This is a hardhat with a clear visor that displays, using proprietary software and hardware,  AR imagery and data to the worker wearing it. He described this as “industrial  POV augmented reality” and believes that AR will be a part of the “next industrial revolution” enabling workers to move through their work with the data they need.
  • Miguel Sanchez is the Founder and Creative Director of Mass Ideation, a digital creative agency working with AR, among its other strategic and design projects. He sees a bright future in the continuing commercialization and application of AR, but also believes that the public needs to be better educated on the nature and capabilities of it. He described a project for a restaurant chain that wanted to shorten the time their customers waited for food by providing AR-enabled games and videos. He thinks that in the right environments, users can hold up their smartphones to objects and soon sees all manner of enhanced visual features onscreen.
  • Anthony Mattana is the founder of Hooke Audio which has developed an app and wireless headphones for recording and playing “immersive 3D audio”. The technology is build upon the concept of binaural audio which captures sound identically as it is heard. He showed this video of a band’s live performance contrasting the smartphone’s standard recording capabilities with the company’s technology. The difference in sound quality and depth was quite dramatic. This video and five others appear on Hooke’s home page. He said their first products will be shipped within a few months.

Mr. Tinker then turned to all of the panelists for their perspectives on the following:

  • Adoption Forecasts: When shown a slide of AR’s projected market growth of companies producing this hardware, everyone concurred on this predicted 10-year upward inclination. Mr. Sanchez expects the biggest breakthroughs for AR to be in gaming systems.
  • Apple’s Potential Involvement: Mr. Wright noted that Apple has just recently acquired an AR and computer vision company called Metaio. He thus expects that Apple may create a version of AR similar to their highly popular Garage Band music recording system. Mr. Sanchez added that he expects Apple to connect AR to their Siri and Maps technologies. He further suggested that AR developers should look for apps that solve problems and that in the future users may not even recognize AR technology in operation.
  • AR versus VR: Mr. Mattana said that he finds “AR to be more compelling than VR” and that it is better because you can understand it, educate users about it, and it is “tethered to powerful computing” systems. He thinks the main challenge for AR is to make it “socially acceptable”, noting the much publicized awkwardness perceived awkwardness of Google Glass.

Turning to the audience for Q&A, the following topics were addressed:

  • Privacy: How could workers’ privacy be balanced and protected when an AR system like the Smart Helmet can monitor a worker’s entire shift? Mr. Hamilton replied that he has spoken with union representatives about this. He sees this as a “solvable concern”. Furthermore, workplace privacy with respect to AR must include considerations of corporate policy, supporting data security, training and worker protection.
  • Advertising:  All of the panel members agree that AR content must be somehow monetized. (This topic was covered in detail in the May 25, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Advertisers Looking for New Opportunities in Virtual and Augmented Spaces.)
  • Education Apps: Mr. Wright believes that AR will be “a great leveler” in education in many school settings and for students with a wide range of instructional requirements, including those with special needs. Further, he anticipates that this technology will be applied to gamify education. Mr. Mattana mentioned that blind people have shown great interest in binaural audio.
  • New Sources and Online Resources: The panelists recommended the following
  • Medical Application: Mr. Wright demo-ed with the use of a tablet held up to a diagram, an application called “Sim Man 3D” created for Methodist Hospital in Houston. This displayed simulated anatomical functioning and sounds.
  • Neural Connections: Will AR one day directly interface with the human brain? While not likely anytime soon, the panel predicted possible integration with electroencephalograms (EEG) and neural interfaces within 10 years or so.
  • Media Integration: The panel speculated about how the media, particularly in news coverage, might add AR to virtually place readers more within the news being reported.

Throughout the seminar, all of the speakers emphasized that AR is still at its earliest stages and that many opportunities await in a diversity of marketplaces. Judging from their knowledge, enthusiasm, imaginations and commitments to this nascent technology, I left thinking they are quite likely to be right.


June 5, 2017 Update: For latest development’s on DAQRI’s AR technology and products, see this June 3, 2017 post entitled Why Daqri Has Spread Its Bets with Augmented Reality Technology, by Dean Takahashi, on VentureBeat.com.


1.  Not so ironically, when someone from the audience was asking a question, he invoked an episode of from the classic sci-fi TV series The Outer Limits. Does anyone remember the truly extraordinary episode entitled Demon with a Glass Hand?

2.  See the March 26, 2015 Subway Fold Thread entitled Virtual Reality Movies Wow Audiences at 2015’s Sundance and SXSW Festivals for extensive coverage on VR at both of these festivals.