Universities dive into VR research

Juan Parra participates in research experiments at the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University. Photo: Mason Trinca, Special To The Chronicle

Inside Stanford’s virtual reality lab, Juan Parra of San Francisco suddenly found himself transformed into a African American woman engaged a racially motivated confrontation with a taller, agitated white man.

Parra felt instant empathy for his virtual character, even though he knew she wasn’t real.

“I felt that I needed to react,” he said. “I can’t say it was anger, but I couldn’t just stand still.”

Parra was one of a dozen online Stanford Graduate School of Business students who, on Thursday, visited the university’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, which since 2003 has conducted academic research on the psychological and behavioral effects of virtual reality.

Tobin Asher, the Stanford lab’s manager, said the interdisciplinary research includes many departments, such as medicine and education, and focuses on how people react while in a virtual reality experience and whether they carry that experience with them once they return to reality.

Stanford’s lab started more than a decade before the current wave of VR headsets and software brought the technology into the average consumer’s home for the first time.

This week, UC Berkeley received a large corporate donation that will allow the university to build its first VR research lab and classroom by this fall to help inspire students to join the ranks of the nascent VR industry.

“Whenever you have an emerging market, one of the bottlenecks is the (available) workforce,” said Allen Yang, executive director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Augmented Cognition. “You need to have a new generation that can master the new technologies. It’s not enough to have genius co-founders or generous VCs. What we want to bring is more people into this market.”

There are numerous academic institutions around the world studying virtual and augmented reality. For example, Columbia’s Computer Graphics and User Interfaces Lab is known for designing techniques to improve tasks such as surgery, maintenance, assembly and indoor and outdoor navigation, said lab director Steven Feiner, the lab’s director.

But Stanford’s lab “has done some of the most important work on understanding how people conceive of themselves and others when inhabiting a virtual environment,” Feiner said in an email. “This is fascinating work.”

In addition to racial discrimination, the lab can also simulate age discrimination and is experimenting with adding a sense of smell to the virtual experience.

“We’ve made people color blind in VR, we’ve turned people into cows in VR,” Asher said. “We can do a lot of different things, and this is all about gaining a new perspective.”

For example, in one demonstration, the participant cuts down trees with a chain saw and clear-cuts a forest. Researchers found that about 20 percent of people who did the deforestation exercise went on to reduce their use of paper in real life, Asher said.

“We can see how powerful having an actual experience can be, versus just them watching something passively or reading about it,” he told the business students.

In a program showing the effects of climate change, Khash Kiani picked up and cataloged sea snails on a healthy underwater reef, then moved to another section devastated by ocean acidification and found the sea snails were badly corroded and their population almost gone.

“It was a very effective way of making people feel the impact,” Kiani said.

The lab’s main room has a system of low-frequency speakers below a floor of airplane-grade steel that can replicate the feel of rumbling motion beneath a subject’s feet. However, some of the original motion tracking and headset equipment that cost $140,000 is now replaced by an $800 HTC Vive headset and handheld tracking and haptic-feedback controllers.

The university has released the ocean experience to the public for free. “We’re not in this as a money-making thing,” Asher said. “What this is really about is learning about things.”

The UC Berkeley Immerex Virtual Realty Lab, to be housed in the College of Engineering, will have a similar philosophy.

Funded by an undisclosed amount of money donated by Santa Clara virtual reality startup Immerex, the lab will build on work started by a student-run VR club and will tie into the university’s Center for Augmented Cognition, which opened last year to support research by faculty and graduate students.

Yang, a founding faculty adviser for the club, the cognition center’s executive director and a part-time chief scientist for Immerex, said the reality lab’s higher goal is to prepare today’s students for future careers in the virtual and augmented reality industries.

That includes a curriculum that will involve students and faculty from the departments of engineering, architecture, journalism, psychology and performing arts.

“If we want to make Berkeley the center of innovation in the AR and VR space, we really have to foster a community rather do it project by project,” he said.

Yang said the Berkeley VR lab isn’t an attempt compete with Stanford the way the two university battle in sports.

“That would be trivializing the tremendous challenges that we are facing,” he said. “I see a much larger opportunity for collaboration, not just between the universities, but between the universities and the industry.”

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