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This past spring, students and professors from Husson University visited the local Geaghan’s Pub & Brewery, but they weren’t knocking back brews.
Rather, the purpose was to record digital “maps” of the facility with video cameras and iPads. They mapped the overall spaces but also details such as the dining room, service and bar set-ups.
The group returned to campus to begin working with the files, using the latest digital technology that would render them as images for simulated experiences using virtual reality headsets and other mixed reality instrumentation.
The goal? To create simulations that would allow hospitality students to practice working in a restaurant environment without actually being in a restaurant.
With the institution of diverse technologies, Husson is on a fast track to grow this capability in a way that would benefit students and businesses.
And according to leaders at the university, it has great potential, both immediate and yet to be uncovered.
“If you were to ask any business, ‘How do you think Excel or a website or a social media presence would help your business, 10 out of 10 people totally know how it could add value,” says Michael Knupp, director of Husson’s School of Technology and Innovation.
“But if you were to ask, ‘How can you integrate VR into your business?’ one in 10 might have an answer. It’s an emerging space. We have a vision.”
Andrew Geaghan, the pub’s owner and brewer, says the collaboration helps his business stay on the cutting edge to compete with both local competitors and, more so, with national franchises and chains that utilize the most efficient technology and practices.
“While we may have the vision from time to time to see trends coming, partnering with Husson on this, and many other projects like this one, allows us the ability to swing out of our weight class and really propel our business’ vision of the future to a whole new level,” Geaghan says. “New, more efficient practices and thoughtful integration of technology are a must to stay competitive and profitable in the world today.”
Husson’s capabilities for technology and innovation are located in Harold Alfond Hall, the new home of the College of Business, which opened a year ago and also houses schools of accounting, business and management, hospitality, sport and tourism management, and legal studies.
The centerpieces are a new iEX (interactive experience) Center and the creation of a new XR (extended reality) degree program.
Here, the buzz phrases are extended reality, virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality. These cutting-edge tools are designed to expedite problem-solving for many types of businesses and organizations, says Marie Hansen, dean of the College of Business and of the New England School of Communications and a Maine 2021 Women to Watch honoree.
The technology can be used to help with job training, she says. Through collaborations with businesses, students can use it to create virtual simulations that help solve problems. For example, students studying criminal justice can create a mock crime scene in a simulated environment. They can create customer service simulations and even prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist. The goal is to help students learn how to solve real-world problems.
The iEX Center uses computing tools that merge digital and physical space. The hardware includes VR systems, such as a type called Oculus, along with motion capture suits, real-time media servers, and augmented reality projection systems. Students can access kits for fieldwork that contain headsets, hand controllers, iPads and small projectors. An augmented-reality tool is the Microsoft HoloLens, a type of glasses that can overlay digital information on a real-world image. Stand-alone haptic devices allow users to feel sensations such as pressure and texture.
A soundproof XR lab is a large room whose curved walls and high ceilings are fitted with LED displays and audio that can place sound in specific points around the room.
“You can be in a digital environment that’s all around you,” says Knupp.
Earlier this year, Husson received a $2.2 million grant from the Harold Alfond Foundation to accelerate implementation of the programs and to support project research and development as well as business partnerships that will help stimulate job growth and economic development in Maine.
Husson’s president, Robert Clark, has said the money will help the university address pressing workforce issues, including lack of innovation and a shrinking workforce, as identified in the 2018 “Measures of Growth,” published by the Maine Development Foundation.
“Creating a high-tech workforce has the potential to transform Maine’s economic landscape and attract good paying, high-tech companies and jobs to the region,” Clark said.
College graduates with a knowledge of information technology and expertise in virtual reality and augmented reality are in demand. According to data company Statista, “it is forecast that over 23 million jobs will be enhanced by virtual reality and augmented reality technologies globally by 2030, an increase from the 800,000 jobs that were enhanced by VR and AR in 2019.”
Beyond problem-solving, AR and VR have the potential to grow into a thriving industry. A report from PricewaterhouseCoopers says VR and AR have the potential to add $1.5 trillion to the global economy by 2030.
Hansen says a strong understanding of technology can make graduates more appealing to potential employers.
Husson has a longstanding information technology program and long relationships with businesses like Geaghan’s to create career-training opportunities.
The restaurant simulation was a natural segue. The idea was to create an immersive virtual experience for studentas in the School of Hospitality, Sport & Tourism.
“We worked with our team to come up with some language about what we were trying to do and scheduled a time with Geaghan’s,” says Knupp. “Students and a professor went down, met with a Geaghan’s representative, set up equipment and did multiple scans using an iPad.”
The team returned to campus and began rendering the digital file for a virtual reality simulation. Through that process, they realized the restaurant environment was more complicated than they realized, with lots of surfaces such as tables, chairs and service stations. They returned to Geaghan’s to do a video shoot. This summer, students are rendering the imagery, using tools such as light detection and ranging scanners, or lidar, a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure variable distances and provides a high degree of accuracy and specificity.
“The idea is that you have this digital twin of the restaurant,” says Knupp. “Then we can load that into a VR headset so students can experience it.”
VR headsets, also called goggles, cover the eyes for an immersive 3D experience that includes a stereoscopic display, stereo sound and head-motion-tracking sensors.
“Imagine you’re in a classroom and the teacher is discussing food service,” Knupp continues. “The students have the ability to put on a headset and assess and feel what it’s like to be at Geaghan’s. You look at the bar and see how it’s set up. What do customer traffic patterns look like? How many booths and tables are there? And so what does staffing need to be for a place that size?”
It’s an evolving process. “We got to the point where we have a working prototype,” he says. “People have high expectations whenever you talk about things related to computers. The vision is there and we’re working toward it. It’s an emerging space and we’re learning and growing with it.”
These ideas are well known in gaming and entertainment. But its true power, says Knupp, is still emerging as it applies to nearly every industry that uses a computer.
The school is talking with other longstanding corporate partners, such as Jackson Laboratory and Bangor Savings Bank, about the program’s potential usefulness for their needs. And it’s interested in forging new partnerships with businesses of all sizes, says Hansen.
“We certainly have the door open,” she says.
The use of augmented and virtual reality for career training is a growing trend, says Knupp.
“A highly mature model would be something like training a physician who’s performing a particular procedure,” he says. “They might put on a VR headset and can see a simulated patient. They have haptic gloves with tactile responses so they can feel pressures. In the simulated world, they can practice the procedure before actually administering it.”
Eventually, says Knupp, the XR model could be extended to provide training for a company’s staff.
“This is student-centric but it builds our corporate partnerships,” he says.
The XR degree officially opened last year and is welcoming its first class this fall. The goal over the next three to five years is to grow the program to 100 new students. Husson currently draws about 60 students to its information technology degrees and certificate programs.
“An important part of this is recruitment,” notes Knupp.
The collaboration between Husson’s hospitality program and Geaghan’s is called “Project Cheers.” Over the past year and a half, the School of Technology and Innovation has collaborated with the university’s School of Legal Studies on “Project Magistrate” and “Project Sherlock,” courtroom and crime scene simulations, respectively. “Project Stagecraft” is a collaboration with Husson’s New England School of Communication on entertainment production, using virtual reality to design stage sets before physically building them.
Husson is now evaluating potential projects with its school of pharmacy and its nursing program.
Technology is a commonly accepted medium, notes Knupp, but its constant evolution means that professors and students must adapt and learn new types.
“The boundaries between our physical lives and our technical existence are kind of merging,” he says. “These immersive technologies will continue to proliferate.”