The Future of Virtual Reality @ The Phillips
by Evan Golub, faculty mentor, "The Rest of the Story" FIA Innovation Spark Grant team
Dan Russell of Google speaking with David Cronrath of UMD (click for 360° context).
On June 6th, 2017, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. was bustling with activity(click for short 360° clip of reception). as the University of Maryland's Future of Information Alliance (FIA) and the Phillips Collection hosted an event to explore the frontiers of virtual reality, augmented reality, and immersive storytelling. The main event of the evening was preceded with a reception on the main level. As part of the reception, four "FIA Innovation Spark Grant" teams from the Univeristy of Maryland had stations set up where they showcased and discussed some of the work they did on virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and other 360° projects. The FIA also provided Google Cardboard headsets for them to give away (these are inexpensive devices that can be used to viewing VR/AR/360° content using a smartphone).
The main program, organized in collaboration with UMD sponsors the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, the Maryland's College of Information Studies, the College of Arts and Humanities Center for Synergy, and the Baha'i Chair for World Peace, began with welcoming statements by FIA co-directors Ira Chinoy and Allison Druin. They introduced the overall theme of the evening and provided some biographical highlights of each of the three upcoming program speakers. This was followed by opening remarks delivered by Mary Ann Rankin, provost of the University of Maryland. She discussed the FIA's history of presenting events on topics at the edge of where the world is going. She also spoke of the importance of the partnership between the university and The Phillips Collection, as well as how the university sees work in the areas of virtual and augmented reality as a strategic priority.
The first program speaker of the evening was Amitabh Varshney. He is currently the interim vice president for research at the University of Maryland as well as the director of UMIACS, the university's institute for advanced computer studies. He mentioned how last year a Goldman Sachs report had speculated the VR/AR wave could represent an industry worth a few hundred million dollars in ten years, and how this year a report from Citibank speculated it could be worth two trillion dollars in 20 years. He then expressed why this technology is so compelling, and not going to be a passing fad. He drew parallels to the way the cellphone have become ubiquitous. Among the projects at Maryland, he mentioned a FIRE (First-Year Innovation & Research Experience) team that is going to have its focus on VR and AR, as well as a summer camp program Jan Plane runs at Maryland where middle-school children are learning to program VR experiences.
Amitabh Varshney giving overview of AR at UMD (click for 360 degree context).
The next speaker was Maribel Perez Wadsworth, senior vice president and chief transformation officer at Gannett. She discussed the ways that advances in technology have disrupted the new industry but also noted that it represents tremendous opportunities. She showed and discussed examples from a project at USA Today that is a weekly news program called VRtually There that uses 360° video and VR to "place [the] viewers right in the midst of the story, immersing them in the sights and sounds" of those stories. The themes of active viewers, removing filters, and supporting transparency came out in several of her examples, especially in the context of political news stories.
Maribel Perez Wadsworth talking about immersive storytelling (click for 360 degree context).
The third and final program speaker was Dan Russell, "director of user happiness" at Google where he talked about what he called "cognitive telescopes" that allow people to think "farther forward" allowing them to "[see] the world in ways [they] just couldn't do before." He began by talking about (and showing some examples of) what he would mean when using the common terms being used in relation to immersive media, VR and AR and 360. As he showed examples of work being done, at Google and beyond, an ever-present theme in his presentation was the notion of "reality" and what that meant. Towards the end, he spoke of how the view of Saturn that Galileo saw presented an inaccurate image ("an orb with two ears") due to the technology of the time, and then showed several modern images of Saturn. He showed a CG rendering based on physics models, an image that had been corrected in various ways (such as color correction), and then an unprocessed picture of Saturn. He then posed the question of "which is reality?" and talked about how point of view and context matter. He went on to say how part of what needs to be taught about is the ability to understand what we are seeing. He pointed out that context has mattered since photos started being taken, but that in a world with 360° and VR and AR and the power of image processing tools today, "ups the ante seriously."
Dan Russell discussing the meaning of terms like AR and VR (click for 360 degree context).
After each of the three presentations were done, all three speakers took to the stage to answer questions from the audience. Transparency, privacy, feedback channels, capturing and sharing information, and how the ability to see things in so much realism remotely could impact appreciation of in-person experiences were among the topics that came up during this Q&A session.
The speakers were then all thanked, and the evening concluded with dessert and conversation back upstairs following the program. The four FIA Innovation Spark Grant teams were again there to continue to share their work with attendees. The above is also a demonstration of some of the ideas behind one of those team's project, "The Rest of the Story," which explores how 360° content can be used to augment a web-based article to provide on-demand context for certain elements of the story and allow the viewer to even walk in the footsteps of the reporter (as shown in examples on their project page such as a walk through the press area of the White House).