The University of Central Florida’s new virtual- and augmented-reality lab that will open Tuesday is designed to give hands-on experience for students to better prepare them for high-tech jobs in the field.

The Interactive Computing Experiences Virtual Reality Lab, located in the Barbara Ying Center on UCF’s main campus, provides the space and the same cutting-edge technology used in industry so that anyone at UCF can develop projects using virtual and augmented reality, and at the same time contribute to advancing the technology forward.

Virtual reality, or VR, immerses people in computer-made simulated environments when they put on a special headset. The technology has been used in video games, popular products such as Samsung’s Gear VR, and in a variety of fields. In healthcare, for example, VR programs that simulate medical conditions such as schizophrenia can help doctors build more empathy with patients.

Augmented reality, or AR, is a rapidly emerging technology. AR environments super-impose virtual content onto images of the real world. Developers build algorithms to support human interactions with the virtual content within the physical world to create a lifelike experience for the AR user. A car company, for example, can provide a potential customer with a realistic simulated test drive of a car.

“Opening this lab means UCF recognizes the fact that virtual and augmented reality are technologies that are big and will continue to grow,” said lab director Joe LaViola, an associate professor in the UCF Department of Computer Science and an expert in VR and AR.

“Many diverse industries are investing heavily in virtual and augmented reality, including entertainment, automotive, tourism, real estate, healthcare and others,” he said. “Our students have to be prepared if they want jobs at companies that either make the technology or use the technology. This lab is the best way to prepare them.”

Orlando recently ranked as the ninth-best city beyond Silicon Valley for getting software jobs, according to Glassdoor’s 2017 study of high-tech job growth.

Equipped with five virtual-reality stations and one augmented-reality station, the lab will be open around the clock to allow students and their team members to work on their projects.

“I’m excited at the notion of different, non-computer-science disciplines working together to develop projects that are unique and interesting. The experience will make non-computer science students more marketable too.”

The lab can also help budding entrepreneurs build dynamic prototypes that they can use to land startup funding and in sales pitches.

Companies are welcome to sponsor projects, and LaViola hopes that the lab can be used as a training space for local industry to send employees to learn VR and AR.

For now, anyone at UCF – students, faculty and staff – may propose a project to LaViola. “I’m open to any type of project that people may suggest, and I can help guide the team’s approach and process,” he said. If the proposal is approved, a project team will be assembled to include at least one computer science student. Project teams will be mentored and guided by LaViola and potentially other computer science faculty.

At Tuesday’s grand-opening event, LaViola’s students will demonstrate a variety of projects, including an augmented reality 360-degree video tour of UCF’s Lake Claire; “Tilt Brush” which allows users to make 3-D drawings in a virtual world; a virtual-reality soccer tutor to help users learn the rules of the game; and “Hololens Roboraid,” a game in which users fend-off robots as they virtually break through the walls of the lab.

LaViola joined UCF in 2007 after earning his Ph.D. in computer science at Brown University. He teaches CAP 6121 – which is 3-D User Interfaces for Games and VirtualReality, and CAP 6105 – Pen and Sketch-Based User Interfaces. He is a recipient of the National Science Foundation CAREER Award, and has authored more than100 scientific papers and books. He is the lead author of the book, “3D User Interfaces: Theory and Practice (2nd Edition),” published April 2017.

To propose or sponsor a project, contact LaViola at jjl@cs.ucf.edu and he will provide instructions for how to submit a project proposal and what it needs to contain.

– CECS –

Pictured: Computer science doctoral student Corey Pittman, ’12, ’13, demonstrates augmented reality in the new lab. His project involves physics education. Photo by Kimberly J. Lewis.