Actual reality: New graduate certificate in augmented/virtual/mixed reality

UMSI staff member Rebecca Epstein experiments with virtual reality at a recent demonstration.

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 becoming business-as-usual. 

Ongoing and proposed applications of AVMR across campus are numerous and varied. AVMR 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. 

In the works since September 2016, this initiative involves 14 U-M 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.  

Mark Newman

“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 in the School of Information (UMSI) 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 UMSI. 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 in UMSI and director of the Information Interaction Lab, has equipped a UMSI meeting room which 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. 

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. 

Schools and colleges and departments involved are: School of Information, which is leading the initiative effort; Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design; College of Engineering; School for Environment and Sustainability; Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning; Medical School; School of Nursing; School of Kinesiology; School of Dentistry; School of Education; College of Literature, Science and the Arts; Exercise and Sport Science Initiative; U-M Office of Research; and the Office of Academic Innovation.