Smiling woman wearing a virtual reality headset.

To Reality and Beyond

Augmented and virtual reality technology expand engaged learning experiences at U-M

Students wearing headsets
Students demo Microsoft Hololens (augmented reality) headsets during an introductory AR-VR course.

The concept of virtual reality has been captivating the human imagination since the 1800s, but the term “virtual reality” didn’t enter the English language until 1979, when IBM announced plans for a new operating system that could “enable the user to migrate to totally unreal universes.” From perception-bending simulations to galactic science fiction, virtual reality (VR) has long been associated with ideas of escape. But as computer-generated technologies like augmented, virtual, and mixed reality (AVMR) continue to develop,  they are also enabling us to imagine a more vibrant reality here on earth.

The University of Michigan is at the forefront of AVMR research and education. One way U-M is pioneering the field is through AVMR graduate certification that provides advanced training and research in these computer-generated technologies. Spearheaded by the School of Information (UMSI), this interdisciplinary certification initiative is truly a campuswide effort, involving 14 U-M units and 32 faculty members. With its breadth of knowledge and resources, U-M is positioned to be among the leaders and best in AVMR education. “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,” said Thomas A. Finholt, dean of UMSI. “So we are a very rich environment for producers of AR, VR and MR technology. We’re also a top research institution. We combine these things, and that combination is not present in very many other universities.”

The Google Cardboard headset.

Support during the Victors for Michigan campaign from Lenovo Group—a pioneer in technology and innovation in its own right—provided key hardware and funds to enhance U-M’s AVMR infrastructure. The gift put U-M one step closer to offering a graduate certificate. The Beijing-based tech company has also helped fuel interest across campus in finding new avenues for AVMR technology in both education and research. Medical simulations are being used to train aspiring doctors to understand and help mediate pain for their patients. Environmental education is using AVMR simulations to better represent the effects of climate change. New pedagogical applications are being implemented with each semester. Lenovo also helped support joint research between UMSI and Michigan Medicine to explore ways that AVMR can transform medical outcomes among children with diabetes.

Though the certification is yet to be finalized, U-M’s foray into AVMR education is already in full swing, launching a new introductory course in AR-VR technology taught by UMSI Assistant Professor Michael Nebeling. The course is technologically immersive, teaching students the ins and outs of AR and VR technology through hands-on experience with state-of-the-art devices. It also equips them with the ability to articulate trends and trajectories in current and future AR-VR systems.

With support from partners like Lenovo, U-M will redefine the meaning of  virtual reality in 2019 and beyond.


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