Initiative paves way for certificate in augmented, virtual and mixed reality


Augmented reality, virtual reality, mixed reality. AR, VR, MR.

Today, these are increasingly familiar terms and acronyms as this technology grows more familiar. Once cutting edge and sci-fi, AR/VR/MR — or AVMR — is approaching business-as-usual status.

Ongoing and proposed applications of AVMR across campus are numerous and varied. It is being used to treat childhood illnesses, decode brain activity of dental patients’ clinical pain and anxiety, for sports concussion research and for adaptive interventions for health behavior change.

This is why the University of Michigan has launched a sweeping, interdisciplinary initiative to develop a graduate certificate in AVMR. The initiative will increase cross-campus research collaboration, and will include the cataloging of research, courses and U-M faculty involved in any form of AVMR.

Rebecca Epstein, executive secretary in the office of UMSI Dean Thomas A. Finholt, tries out an HTC Vive at a wireless virtual reality demonstration at UMSI in July. (Photo by Jeffrey Smith, School of Information)

In the works since September 2016, this initiative involves 14 schools, colleges and offices, their respective deans, and 32 faculty members. U-M is also offering opportunities for corporate partners’ involvement, led by the Business Engagement Center.

“We are preparing a report that outlines a potential roadmap for U-M research and instruction in this technology, and its applications,” says Mark Newman, associate professor of information and chair of the AVMR Steering Committee.

The initiative will place U-M as a leader in the emerging academic field, says Thomas A. Finholt, dean of the School of Information. What’s distinctive about U-M’s initiative compared to other AVMR university programs is its breadth, he adds.

“We have the health sciences. We are a top engineering college with proximity to one of the world’s greatest manufacturing centers. We’ve got an entertainment venue, Michigan Stadium, where we can play to live audiences of 100,000 seven times a year. So, we are a very rich environment for producers of AR, VR and MR technology,” Finholt says.

“We’re also a top research institution. We combine these things, and that combination is not present in very many other universities.”

The AVMR initiative also proposes a network of labs on campus for experiential learning, research collaborations and prototyping and simulation.

Michael Nebeling, assistant professor of information and director of the Information Interaction Lab, has equipped a School of Information meeting room that he calls the “Holodeck.” It’s equipped with the latest display and interactive technologies, but also is a space that can be connected remotely via new forms of AVMR collaboration systems.

“The goal is to make this a testbed for future AVMR design and collaborative spaces in UMSI and on campus,” Nebeling says.

Nebeling is also working on teaching AR/VR design and development to students with non-technical backgrounds.

“I work with a lot of talented and motivated students that are keen on creating AR/VR user experiences,” he says, “but the technical and design skills required to work with these technologies are significant.

“Most students, and frankly even most professional designers, currently don’t have the necessary theory and training, let alone the tools, to create AVMR interfaces.”

The idea of developing an overarching AVMR program and certification at U-M began, appropriately enough, at Disney Studios.

Finholt was speaking with U-M alumnus Jamie Voris, chief technology officer for Disney, at an alumni event in California.

“He noted a concern at Disney and other places that there didn’t seem to be a robust pipeline producing talented graduates that could either design the AVMR technologies and experience, or produce content for those systems,” Finholt says.

The new AVMR certificate will be a great recruitment tool, Finholt adds.

“We often struggle at UMSI to demonstrate what we do here. There’s nothing like playing with an AR app on your phone to bring home what the school teaches.”

Involved long with the School of Information, which is leading the initiative effort, are the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, College of Engineering, School for Environment and Sustainability, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, Medical School, schools of Nursing, Kinesiology, Dentistry and Education, LSA, the Exercise and Sport Science Initiative, U-M Office of Research, and the Office of Academic Innovation.


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