The University of Michigan will advance its work in extended reality, or XR, through a major campuswide initiative announced Sept. 16 by Provost Martin Philbert.

The three-year funded commitment led by the Center for Academic Innovation will leverage emerging XR technologies to strengthen the quality of a Michigan education, cultivate an interdisciplinary scholarly community of practice, and enhance a nationwide network for academic innovation.

“Our commitment to academic excellence is longstanding,” Philbert said. “The XR initiative will provide significant opportunities to explore how these new technologies can bolster excellence — in student learning, in new research possibilities and in serving the world more effectively.”

XR encompasses augmented reality, virtual reality, mixed reality and other variations of these forms of computer-generated real and virtual combined environments and human-machine interactions.

Philbert charged the Center for Academic Innovation with establishing and facilitating the new priorities, to seed new projects and experiments that integrate XR into residential and online curricula, and to create innovative public-private partnerships to develop new XR-related educational technology.

“XR applied thoughtfully in an educational context has the potential to fundamentally change the way we teach and learn,” said James DeVaney, associate vice provost for academic innovation and founding executive director of the Center for Academic Innovation. “We are eager to explore possible breakthrough innovations that enhance teaching and learning across disciplines, foster equity and inclusivity, and increase access and affordability.”

A new XR Innovation Fund will provide the U-M community access to financial and in-kind support for new innovative projects.

The center will work closely with units across campus and across disciplines to fully understand the potential for these new technologies to enhance learning. Many faculty and academic units are already thinking deeply about these technologies, DeVaney said.

In fact, U-M faculty are using the technology across various disciplines to treat and diagnose illnesses, test cars of the future, teach students in the sciences why architectural structures fail, help those in education practice teaching before stepping into a classroom full of youngsters, and allow students in the Department of Film, Television, and Media to take a look at the work of Orson Welles through a different lens. 

“An important part of this project, which will set it apart from experiments with XR on many other campuses, is our interest in humanities-centered perspectives to shape innovations in teaching and learning at a great liberal arts institution,” said Sara Blair, vice provost for academic and faculty affairs, and the Patricia S. Yaeger Collegiate Professor of English Language and Literature.

“How can we use XR tools and platforms to help our students develop historical imagination or to help students consider the value and limits of empathy, and the way we produce knowledge of other lives than our own?

“We hope that arts and humanities colleagues won’t just participate in this (initiative), but lead in developing deeper understandings of what we can do with XR technologies, as we think critically about our engagements with them.”

Joanna Millunchick, associate dean for undergraduate education at the College of Engineering and professor of materials science and engineering, is working with augmented reality in her courses to help students better understand crystal structures at the molecular scale. She believes the technology has the potential to impact STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — retention.

“The language of the STEM fields is math. But for many students, math is too abstract and not linked to the physical world,” Millunchick said. “Using XR in the classroom could bridge that gap in ways that is not currently possible.”

At present, an interdisciplinary team of faculty from several U-M departments, led by the School of Information, is working on an augmented, virtual and mixed reality graduate certification that provides advanced training and research in computer-generated technologies.

Through the XR Initiative, U-M will explore additional curricular and co-curricular offerings, research opportunities, and multi-institutional and industry collaborations, said James Hilton, vice provost for academic innovation.

“XR is exciting because it has the potential to touch all of the disciplines at Michigan,” he said. “While it will initially be physically located in the Duderstadt Center, in order to take advantage of the VR technology and expertise that is already there, the scope of the initiative is campuswide and builds on Michigan’s long-standing commitment to continually ask, ‘What’s next?’ — to experiment with leading edge technology to discover how it may change the ways we learn, create and educate in our third century.”

The center has named Jeremy Nelson as director of the XR Initiative. Nelson, a graduate of the College of Engineering, returns to U-M from the health care and public sectors where he worked to leverage innovative technology to solve customer problems.

Most recently, Nelson was a managing partner at Afia, an Ann Arbor-based health care consulting firm he co-founded in 2007. Prior to Afia, Nelson was the chief information architect at the Washtenaw Community Health Organization.

A first objective for Nelson will be to engage a wide range of stakeholders across and beyond campus, DeVaney said.

“We are embarking on the next great shift in how human beings interact with technology and use it to alter the future,” Nelson said. “The XR Initiative will be an inflection point for the University of Michigan to continue to lead and engage the world to solve the problems that matter most.”

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