A New Way to Make AR/VR Glasses

Person using equipment to work with AR/VR lenses.
A metaform is a new optical component that Rochester researchers say can combine with freeform optics to create the next generation of AR/VR headsets and eyewear. (University of Rochester illustration / Michael Osadciw)

University of Rochester researchers combine freeform optics and a metasurface to avoid ‘bug eyes’

“Image” is everything in the $20 billion market for AR/VR glasses. Consumers are looking for glasses that are compact and easy to wear, delivering high-quality imagery with socially acceptable optics that don’t look like “bug eyes.”

University of Rochester researchers at the Institute of Optics have come up with a novel technology to deliver those attributes with maximum effect. In a paper in Science Advances, they describe imprinting freeform optics with a nanophotonic optical element called “a metasurface.”

The metasurface is a veritable forest of tiny, silver, nanoscale structures on a thin metallic film that conforms, in this advance, to the freeform shape of the optics—realizing a new optical component the researchers call a metaform.

Read the full article from the University of Rochester’s Newscenter.

Faculty Interview Findings

During the spring semester and into the summer of 2020, Studio X staff conducted eight half-hour long interviews with faculty members currently working with immersive technologies to inform our fall 2020 pilot programming. We spoke with faculty across the following disciplines: engineering, history, digital media studies, and education. We view these initial conversations as ongoing, and we hope to expand beyond the limitations of the small sample.

Q1: How have you engaged XR through your own research and/or in your classes and other student-centered work?

Faculty discussed their research projects as very interdisciplinary, requiring diverse perspectives and expertise. Several faculty members discussed being more interested in what XR can facilitate rather than the tools and methods themselves, especially when this comes to teaching and learning. They want to address real world problems and leverage XR for active learning opportunities. Faculty also discussed generating content for future research such as assessing tools to guide future development.

Q2: What platforms and skills do your students require to participate in your courses and/or research that leverage XR?

Nearly every faculty member mentioned Unity 3D and its steep learning curve.

Q3: How do students become involved with XR?

Q4: What does a community of practice look like for XR@UR?

Q5: Where do you find inspiration for new ways of teaching, innovative tools, or exciting projects?

Q6: Imagine you have enough funding to work on an XR project with a small group of students. What projects might you choose?

Half of faculty described expanding on current research projects such as generating more content for assessment or making projects more usable. Several faculty members also discussed creating specific XR experiences such as developing AR walking tours centered on social justice topics and designing machines virtually, so one could see the inside of how they operate.

Q7: What challenges do you encounter when engaging with XR?

Faculty discussed their frustrations with the steep learning curve of XR tools and getting students acquainted at an early stage, so they are prepared for more advanced coursework. Faculty find they often must teach students the basics themselves or rely on their graduate student collaborators, who might have no other reason to learn the tool/method. Several participants emphasized the value of resident expertise and introductory, low-stakes trainings.

Access to enough of the same equipment in the same space is also a barrier. Faculty discussed running experiments and struggling to locate the same versions of VR and MR headsets, which are cost-prohibitive. Their research also often requires dedicated, long-term space, and setting up these unique environments can take hours of work before they can even begin to develop. The technology is also rapidly evolving, requiring users to constantly relearn it not to mention maintaining cross-platform compatibility and addressing storage issues.

XR also has a PR problem in that most do not understand its value or see themselves as users let alone creators. One faculty member mentioned that XR seems overly complicated, unrelatable, and not something that everyone is ready to integrate into their courses. Faculty, staff, and students need to see more use cases to pique their interest as well as have access to the costly equipment. Moreover, the timeless debate between theory and practice endures. At a theory-driven institution such as that of UR, hands-on making and skill building remains a challenge.

Q8: Is there anything we should keep in mind?

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Beginner Friendly
Provide introductory workshops and early onboarding opportunities for students

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Facilitate Interdisciplinary Work
Support all disciplines & collapse departmental silos

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Faculty Development
Create new opportunities, space, and time for faculty to experiment

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Think Outside the Box
Push boundaries, take risks, & make challenging interventions. Studio X is a cross-unit initiative that can help to balance theory and practice.

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Be the Hub for Immersive Technologies @UR
Stay up to date on XR news @UR and beyond and share out

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Practical Advice
Host group events and classes, etc.

New XR training for UR doctoral students

Biomedical engineering graduate student Tom Stoll, right, adjusts a virtual reality head-mounted display on assistant professor Ross Maddox. The array of speakers in Maddox's lab allows researchers to simulate realistic listening environments.

A $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation will provide additional impetus to a University of Rochester initiative applying augmented and virtual reality in health, education, product design, remote communication, entertainment, and other fields.

The grant will enable 62 doctoral students to be trained in the skills needed to advance AR/VR technologies and will also help them gain an appreciation for the broader cultural and societal implications of the technologies, says Mujdat Cetin, the principal investigator behind the grant. Other Rochester faculty supporting this initiative are Jannick Rolland, the Brian J. Thompson Professor of Optical Engineering; Michele Rucci, professor of brain and cognitive sciences; and Zhen Bai, assistant professor of computer science.

Biomedical engineering graduate student Tom Stoll, right, adjusts a virtual reality head-mounted display on assistant professor Ross Maddox. The array of speakers in Maddox's lab allows researchers to simulate realistic listening environments.
Biomedical engineering graduate student Tom Stoll, right, adjusts a virtual reality head-mounted display on assistant professor Ross Maddox. The array of speakers in Maddox’s lab allows researchers to simulate realistic listening environments. (University photo / J. Adam Fenster)

Read the full article on the University of Rochester’s Newscenter.

Training Brains with Virtual Reality

Brenna James '20 wearing a virtual reality headset with a computer in the foreground of the photo

Duje Tadin, associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences; Jeffrey Bazarian, professor of emergency medicine; and Feng (Vankee) Lin, assistant professor in the School of Nursing, are working together to see how VR can help treat people with Alzheimer’s disease and those suffering from concussions. Through access to technology and training, Studio X will prepare students to collaborate on and conduct cutting edge research.

Brenna James ’20 suffered a concussion in high school. Rochester researchers are using VR to create therapeutic treatments that be used at home by patients like her.

Read the full article via the University of Rochester’s Newscenter.

Augmented Reality Chemical Plant

Coffee mugs on a glass table in Wegmans Hall are transformed into an AR classroom exercise that simulates a sprawling, real-life chemical plant.

Andrew White, assistant professor in the chemical engineering department, and April Luehmann, associate professor and director of secondary science education at the Warner School of Education, are collaborating on research that explores how AR can enhance the way students learn about engineeringStudio X will provide a much-needed space where educators can develop new approaches to increase student learning and engagement.

Coffee mugs on a glass table in Wegmans Hall are transformed into an AR classroom exercise that simulates a sprawling, real-life chemical plant.

Read the full article via the University of Rochester’s Newscenter.

The Temple of Jupiter

screenshot of the reconstruction of the Temple of Jupiter

Elizabeth Colantoni, associate professor of religion and classics, wanted to visualize ancient Roman topography to explore how the Temple of Jupiter fit within the larger context of Roman society. To do that, she collaborated with others at the University of Rochester to create the virtual reality experience seen here, which provides scholars and students new perspectives and expands scholarly conversation.

The experience is based on a model of the temple that Daniel Weiner ’16 (a dual major in computer science and classics) created as an undergraduate, using a program called Sketch-up. Then, in the fall of 2018, Blair Tinker, the Digital Scholarship Lab’s GIS specialist, built this virtual reconstruction, using combined spatial analysis and 3D modeling in Unity Gaming Engine.

Elmina Castle

screenshot of digital elmina unity project.

In “Digital Elmina,” three University of Rochester faculty members—Renato Perucchio, professor of mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering and director of the archeology, technology, and historic structures program; Michael Jarvis, associate professor of history and director of Smiths Island archeology project; and Christopher Muir, professor of mechanical engineering—created 3D reconstructions of Elmina Castle, which were then visualized through Unity Gaming Engine.

Built in 1482, Elmina is the best-preserved and most complete example of early European masonry construction in Ghana and served as an active commercial outpost over four centuries. The castle was also one of the most significant stops on the Atlantic slave trade route. Immersive technologies help us understand Elmina Castle’s past, convey this knowledge in the present, and ensure the castle’s survival in the future.