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.

NASA is Providing Support for Musical and Humanitarian Projects

"NASA - Endeavor 2", Image by NASA

“NASA – Endeavor 2”, Image by NASA

In two recent news stories, NASA has generated a world of good will and positive publicity about itself and its space exploration program. It would be an understatement to say their results have been both well-grounded and out of this world.

First, NASA astronaut Chris Hadfield created a vast following for himself online when he uploaded a video onto YouTube of him singing David Bowie’s classic Space Oddity while on a mission on the International Space Station (ISS).¹ As reported on the October 7, 2015 CBS Evening News broadcast, Hadfield will be releasing an album of 12 songs he wrote and performed in space, today on October 9. 2015. He also previously wrote a best-selling book entitled An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything (Little, Brown and Company, 2013). I highly recommend checking out his video, book and Twitter account @Cmdr_Hadfield.

What a remarkably accomplished career in addition to his becoming an unofficial good will ambassador for NASA.

The second story, further enhancing the agency’s reputation, concerns a very positive program affecting many lives that was reported in a most interesting article on Wired.com on September 28, 2015 entitled How NASA Data Can Save Lives From Space by Issie Lapowsky. I will summarize and annotate it, and then pose some my own terrestrial questions.

Agencies’ Partnership

According to a NASA administrator Charles Bolden, astronauts frequently look down at the Earth from space and realize that borders across the world are subjectively imposed by warfare or wealth. These dividing lines between nations seem to become less meaningful to them while they are in flight. Instead, the astronauts tend to look at the Earth and have a greater awareness everyone’s responsibilities to each other. Moreover, they wonder what they can possibly do when they return to make some sort of meaningful difference on the ground.

Bolden recently shared this experience with an audience at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Washington, DC, to explain the reasoning behind a decade-long partnership between NASA and USAID. (This latter is the US government agency responsible for the administration of US foreign aid.) At first, this would seem to be an unlikely joint operation between two government agencies that do not seem to have that much in common.

In fact, this combination provides “a unique perspective on the grave need that exists in so many places around the world”, and a special case where one agency sees it from space and the other one sees it on the ground.

They are joined together into a partnership known as SERVIR where NASA supplies “imagery, data, and analysis” to assist developing nations.  They help these countries with forecasting and dealing “with natural disasters and the effects of climate change”.

Partnership’s Results

Among others, SERVIR’s tools have produced the following representative results:

  • Predicting floods in Bangladesh that gives citizens a total of eight days notice in order to make preparations that will save lives. This reduced the number to 17 during the last year’s monsoon season whereas previously it had been in the thousands.
  • Predicting forest fires in the Himalayas.
  • For central America, NASA created  a map of ocean chlorophyll concentration that assisted public officials in identifying and improving shellfish testing in order to deal with “micro-algae outbreaks” responsible for causing significant health issues.

SERVIR currently operates in 30 countries. As a part of their network, there are regional hubs working with “local partners to implement the tools”. Last week it opened such a hub in Asia’s Mekong region. Both NASA and USAID are hopeful that the number of such hubs will continue to grow.

Google is also assisting with “life saving information from satellite imagery”. They are doing this by applying artificial intelligence (AI)² capabilities to Google Earth. This project is still in its preliminary stages.

My Questions

  • Should SERVIR reach out to the space agencies and humanitarian organizations of other countries to explore similar types of humanitarian joint ventures?
  • Do the space agencies of other countries have similar partnerships with their own aid agencies?
  • Would SERVIR benefit from partnerships with other US government agencies? Similarly, would it benefit from partnering with other humanitarian non-governmental organizations (NGO)?
  • Would SERVIR be the correct organization to provide assistance in global environmental issues? Take for example the report on the October 8, 2015 CBS Evening News network broadcast of the story about the bleaching of coral reefs around the world.

 


1.  While Hatfield’s cover and Bowie’s original version of Space Oddity are most often associated in pop culture with space exploration, I would like to suggest another song that also captures this spirit and then truly electrifies it: Space Truckin’ by Deep Purple. This appeared on their Machine Head album which will be remembered for all eternity because it included the iconic Smoke on the Water. Nonetheless, Space Truckin‘ is, in my humble opinion, a far more propulsive tune than Space Oddity. Its infectious opening riff will instantly grab your attention while the rest of the song races away like a Saturn Rocket reaching for escape velocity. Furthermore, the musicianship on this recording is extraordinary. Pay close attention to Richie Blackmore’s scorching lead guitar and Ian Paice’s thundering drums. Come on, let’s go space truckin’!

2. These eight Subway Fold posts cover AI from a number of different perspectives involving a series of different applications and markets.