URI Students Get Immersed in Virtual and Augmented Reality

2019 Immerse-a-thon winners
The winning team of the 2019 Immerse-a-thon was, from left, Fatima Issa, Joshua Gyllinsky and Nathan Ankomah-Mensah.

By Neil Nachbar

The use of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) crosses over many disciplines and industries.

Due to the interdisciplinary nature of this emerging technology, the University of Rhode Island encouraged students from all majors to participate in the inaugural Immerse-a-thon event on March 2.

Held in the makerspace in URI’s Robert L. Carothers Library, 13 students competed for the $500 prize for the best design.

“The energy and enthusiasm of the students, judges and mentors who showed up to immerse themselves in VR/AR design was inspiring,” said Deedee Chatham, director of Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Undergraduate Research at URI.

Bin Li, Deedee Chatham
Mentors such as Bin Li and Deedee Chatham met with the teams before they started the design process.

College of Engineering Assistant Professor Bin Li and several students from his Smart Networking and Computing (SNEC) Laboratory organized the event and provided several demonstrations of how the VR/AR technology could be implemented.

“My main objective was to get students to realize that virtual/augmented reality can be used for purposes well beyond gaming,” Li said. “It has applications in education/training, healthcare, transportation, social networking, manufacturing design and much more.”

After watching the demonstrations, the students formed teams, brainstormed ideas and consulted with mentors. The mentors, who provided technical advice, included URI professors, graduate students and industry professionals.

virtual reality headsets
Students try on the virtual reality headsets.

After going over their presentations, each team had three minutes to pitch their concept to the judges. The judges based 50 percent of their scores on design ideation and originality and 50 percent on scalability and market value.

A couple of the concepts included architecture visualization for building design and implementation and style designs for hair salons.

One project was on augmented reality based textbook visualization, in which a student can use a smartphone to recognize a 2-D image in a textbook and the smartphone will automatically generate a 3-D virtual object. Then, the student can see the 3-D object in the smartphone using VR glasses.

Students try on the virtual reality headsets.The winning team, comprised of Nathan Ankomah-Mensah, Joshua Gyllinsky and Fatima Issa, designed an application to be used for implicit bias training for police and law enforcement personnel.

“Our concept was a VR police training for breaking social bias,” said Ankomah-Mensah, who is from Pawtucket, R.I. “By having police run through challenging scenarios in which they have to make split-second decisions and are more likely to rely on previous experience or social/ implicit bias rather than logic, we can use artificial intelligence to grade if their actions were bias or not.”

Ankomah-Mensah is a double major in computer and electrical engineering, with a minor in mathematics and computer science. Issa is a biomedical engineering major from Worcester, Mass., who is also minoring in mathematics and Africana studies. Gyllinsky is a doctoral student in URI’s electrical engineering program and has a master’s degree from URI in computer science.

All three students work in College of Engineering Assistant Professor Kunal Mankodiya’s Wearable Biosensor Laboratory.

The rest of the teams didn’t go home empty handed thanks to Rhode Island Virtual Reality (RIVR), a non-profit initiative dedicated to cultivating a virtual reality and augmented reality industry cluster in Rhode Island. The organization donated Google Cardboard VR headsets as prizes.

RIVR and the URI Start-Up Program / Accelerator / Resource Center (SPARC) supported the Immerse-a-thon event, which was sponsored by College of Engineering; College of Business; Department of Electrical, Computer, and Biomedical Engineering; Department of Computer Science and Statistics; URI Big Data Initiative; and the National Science Foundation (NSF).