XR stage expands global education through virtual production


Imagine being a University of Michigan student, or a learner anywhere in the world, logging on to an online course. Instead of seeing a talking head delivering a lecture, you see your instructor walking through ancient Cairo, in an operating room in Tokyo, or on a construction site in Rome.

When instructors step into the new extended reality stage at U-M’s Center for Academic Innovation, ​they can transport learners anywhere or to any time in the world. The center is building online learning opportunities so students can engage and dive into an immersive virtual journey.

The XR studio can incorporate augmented, virtual and mixed reality into virtual production, and was built upon the technological milestones achieved by the Disney+ series “The Mandalorian.”

Producers of that series figured out how to use large LED screens and cameras to render 3D environments where the cast is immersed in real-time. The technology produces high-quality video content and doesn’t require a lot of post-production work after filming is completed.

Photo of Eric Schreffler, XR developer at the Center for Academic Innovation, working in the XR studio control room
Eric Schreffler, XR developer at the Center for Academic Innovation, works in the XR studio control room. (Photo by Jeremy Marble, Michigan News)

The center’s XR studio is one of six studios at its new facility in downtown Ann Arbor dedicated to developing accessible online learning experiences. While that is a long way from virtual production’s Hollywood origins, the new studios have the potential to change the way people teach and learn just as virtual production changed the film and TV industry.

That transformative power comes from the combined expertise of U-M’s faculty and the center’s digital artists, media producers and learning experience designers.

“The studio opens a new chapter on scalable, personalized and immersive learning technologies, giving us an opportunity to pull students into different environments that would be very difficult to create on campus,” said James DeVaney, associate vice provost for academic innovation and founding executive director of the center.

“This allows our learners to practice in high-stakes environments while reducing risk. It helps students develop a sense of belonging in complex areas and solve complex problems in an increasingly uncertain world.”

Watch a video that explores the capabilities of the Center for Academic Innovation’s new XR studio.

Jonathan Rule, clinical assistant professor of architecture and urban planning at the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, set foot on the new stage looking for a more engaging way to teach his classes in construction and design.

“My research has always been aligned toward studying things that would be beneficial for use in practice,” he said. “That might be how we use new technologies to shape teaching and practice. Then, once a student finishes school, he will be prepared to thrive in architecture.”

Rule leads “Augmented Tectonics,” a new project that leverages virtual reality and augmented reality, and demystifies construction concepts currently presented through abstract drawings and images. Rule is exploring the use of extended reality to redefine the meaning of immersive and hands-on education for students and learners beyond campus.

“By creating an immersive environment, construction concepts become more tangible and supplement current learning methods through drawings and images,” he said.

“Teaching on the XR stage, I can categorize, animate and highlight things. I can pick up augmented reality objects and move them around. You can actually pick up the virtual elements as if they were physical.”

Photo of Jonathan Rule, clinical assistant professor of architecture and urban planning,
practicing his course on the CAI XR studio
Jonathan Rule, clinical assistant professor of architecture and urban planning,
practices his course on the CAI XR studio. (Photo by Jeremy Marble, Michigan News)

And there is more.

“I can pick up the intersection of two walls, for example, so one is perpendicular to the other,” Rule said. “It allows me to show viewers how those members come together to create a corner and where you can attach the finished material to it. Things that are complex layers are easily made visible through these types of technologies.

“This also begins to grab the attention and sparks the interest of a student or a viewer, as opposed to a static image. It’s interactive. It’s in motion.” 

The new studio is set up like a broadcast facility that can support asynchronous and live multi-camera productions as well as cinematic-quality projects. In combination with augmented reality, camera tracking brings an unprecedented level of interactivity and engagement to course creation, making it a more engaging experience for learners.

“We have Hollywood here in Ann Arbor, and our faculty and student communities have access to this technology,” said Jeremy Nelson, senior director of XR, media design and production at the center. “This technology will shape the future and is a step forward in making education accessible to everybody.”

Nelson said some universities have similar studios to teach film students how to use this technology to create movies and broadcasts. But U-M’s new XR studio is the first in North America to use technology to support teaching and learning goals in online courses for all subjects and disciplines.

The center is experimenting with different types of environments, from digital twins of the Diag or the Ford Nuclear Reactor to tiny worlds like the inside of a DNA helix to fantastical worlds on other planets or deep in space.

Another add-on of the new stage is the ability to “teleport” another person from anywhere in the world.

“If a scholar is home, let’s say, in California and has a green screen behind him, we can beam him onto the stage in Ann Arbor,” Nelson said.

“We are using the studio to collaborate and create courses in engineering, mathematics, science, dentistry, medicine and many other fields. We have a studio here to create online learning of the same caliber as ‘The Mandalorian.'”


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