Facebook, Google, and Huawei Fund New AR, VR “Reality Lab” at UW

The University of Washington will host a new computer science laboratory focused on virtual and augmented reality technologies, having attracted $6 million for the effort from Facebook, Huawei, and Google.

For Facebook and Huawei, the Chinese devices and telecom giant, the $2 million each will contribute represents the largest single gift they’ve made to the UW, according to a university spokeswoman.

The UW Reality Lab, housed in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, will build on faculty research into VR and AR technologies, and the growing cluster of companies working on them locally. It’s yet another example of the deep integration between the tech industry and the preeminent research institutions that advance the field and educate its practitioners.

The lab will be co-led by computer science professor Steve Seitz, who also works for Google, where his title in 2016 was “teleportation lead,” in a nod to the potential of VR. The other co-leaders are assistant professor Ira Kemelmacher-Shlizerman, whose startup company, Dreambit, was acquired by Facebook in 2016, and where she is also a research scientist; and professor Brian Curless, an expert in computer graphics and 3D imaging. The lab is designed to bring together the different computer science disciplines that underpin VR and AR technology, including object recognition, game science, distributed computing, stream processing, computer architecture, and privacy and security.

“We’re seeing some really compelling and high-quality AR and VR experiences being built today,” Seitz said in a news release. “But, there are still many core research advances needed to move the industry forward—tools for easily creating content, infrastructure solutions for streaming 3D video, and privacy and security safeguards—that university researchers are uniquely positioned to tackle.”

The Seattle area’s VR and AR cluster boasts Microsoft’s HoloLens; a large and growing presence for Facebook VR unit Oculus; and Valve, an early partner with VR headset maker HTC; as well as many startup companies, and a long-established video games and digital entertainment industry cluster. The UW’s CoMotion innovation and tech transfer office also made VR and AR technologies an emphasis of one of its incubator spaces.

Researchers and students working in the UW Reality Lab will have access to new technologies from sponsoring companies, which will also be able to test their “new ideas in a focused setting with computer science students,” according to the UW’s announcement Monday. Representatives from the sponsoring companies also have seats on the lab’s advisory board.

The Reality Lab will seek applications of the technology with appeal beyond entertainment and gaming, where VR and AR have a foothold, but have yet to gain mainstream adoption. Kemelmacher-Shlizerman said UW students are already thinking about these applications through an augmented reality capstone course that began in 2016, using 40 of Microsoft’s HoloLens AR headsets.

“Students had fantastic ideas and were able to create amazing AR and VR applications ranging from Holographic Chess to teaching one how to play the piano or cook,” Kemelmacher-Shlizerman said in a news release. “This opened our eyes to the potential of investing deeper in development of algorithms and applications for AR and VR. We realized there were so many cool things we could do if only we had more resources, more time, and more devices. Given those, we can help bring the world’s AR and VR dreams to life.”

UW researchers have also been at the forefront of thinking about the potential security and privacy risks that come along with those VR and AR dreams. See, for example, assistant professor Franziska Roesner’s piece in MIT Technology Review last fall.

“In my view, what sets AR apart from other technologies is its immersive nature: it allows technology to directly mediate a person’s perception of and interaction with the physical world,” Roesner wrote. “From the perspective of how we might use AR for good, this presents exciting opportunities; but it also makes security and safety concerns much more pressing, and potentially dangerous, compared with any issues raised by more traditional technologies like phones or laptops, which don’t directly affect our view of reality.”

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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