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Shaping the Future of Education

UM and Magic Leap unveil details of their innovative academic alliance.

By Amanda M. Perez

Lorena Knezevic envisions using holograms in one of her architectural design classes to construct scale models of skyscrapers and other structures.

“I could see students being able to step into a virtual building and experience a space inside and out,” said the University of Miami School of Architecture graduate student.

Now, thanks to an alliance between UM and entrepreneurial heavyweight Magic Leap, Knezevic’s vision may no longer be the stuff of science fiction.

On Monday, during an event at the Thomas P. Murphy Design Studio Building, UM President Julio Frenk, Magic Leap CEO Rony Abovitz, and UM Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Jeffrey Duerk discussed how this alliance, which they’ve called Project Alexandria, will transform learning and make spatial computing an important part of the UM experience.

“In 2007 Apple unveiled the iPhone. The company called it a revolutionary and remarkable product,” Jean-Pierre Bardet, dean of the College of Engineering, said in welcoming guests. “Today there is another revolutionary and magical technology which will also transform everyone’s lives.”

Duerk, who moderated the discussion, said, “As an engineer, I’m particularly gratified that it’s not University of Miami and Magic Leap, it’s University of Miami times Magic Leap,” noting the stage backdrop. “It’s that additional power that we get from the multiplicative effect of both of those.”

Abovitz, the University of Miami alumnus who founded Magic Leap, is the driving force behind the South Florida-based company that is creating the state-of-the-art “mixed reality” glasses. The technology uses spatial computing to blend digital content with the physical environment and enable objects to realistically exist in the world around us.

“This partnership is about the campus taking the field of computing and running with it. We hope UM can be the global dominant player academically,” said Abovitz during the discussion with Frenk.

“There is a power of place,” said Frenk. “If you look at history, most major cities were a product of chance. Alexandria in Egypt was selected on the basis of a strategic choice. It was meant to be a connector for the east and west. I think of Miami as the Alexandria of the 21st century.”

Abovitz said the focus of Project Alexandria is to turn UM into a “Magicverse” campus, a system of systems bridging the physical world and the digital world. The bridging of the two worlds will forge new ways to explore art, science, music, and other disciplines.

“It is my hope that this project is going to allow us to reconnect the STEM disciplines with social sciences, the humanities, and artistic creation,” said Frenk.

Abovitz believes the University of Miami will be a petri dish of how the technology will unfold in society.

“I want Magic Leap to use the university as a laboratory,” said Abovitz. “That is what being immersed in a university is all about. We want to put the tools in the hands of students and faculty so they can put their thoughts into action.”

“Try to picture being in a classroom and somewhere in another part of the world there is another person present in the classroom as an avatar,” said Frenk. “Picture a world where you cannot tell the difference between who is physically there and who is thousands of miles away.”

Magic Leap is already in the advanced stages of making this possible at UM. During Monday’s event, Magic Leap demonstrated a software program called Avatar Chat that allows two people in different locations to converse and interact with each other via an avatar.

UM students from a variety of schools and colleges are already looking forward to seeing how the alliance will strengthen their personal educational experience.

“This is really something that could benefit the greater good. It will push the institution forward to other partnerships with a continuing goal to advance technology,” said Michael Warrell, a junior majoring in industrial engineering.

As for Knezevic, she is already brainstorming ideas for how to collaborate with Magic Leap to implement certain interfaces and designs at the School of Architecture.

“I would certainly love to be a part of this and see the world transform in the way I know it can,” she said. “I love the notion of collaborating with different hemispheres of the brain and mixing technology with creativity to open your mind and heart.”

“I hope students get inspired and immediately start building something,” said Abovitz. “The nice part of this partnership is this is not something you have to ponder and think about for several years. Students can band together and create something in hours, days, or even weeks.”

Hitting the ground running 

The University of Miami is no stranger to this revolutionary technology. Several schools across the institution are already exploring and researching ways to implement virtual and augmented reality into their curriculums.

In a move to keep pace with increased interest in the technology, the School of Communication has expanded a high-tech lab where students can develop mixed, augmented, and virtual reality applications and games.

The School of Architecture’s research-oriented RAD lab has also opened its doors to incorporating such technology, unveiling this semester a new virtual reality lab for students enrolled in a new course called Virtual Reality in Architecture.

Mixed reality also has the potential to transform the medical industry. A chief resident at the Miller School of Medicine is researching ways in which augmented reality can help facilitate brain and spinal surgeries. And the School of Nursing and Health Studies has plans to create an augmented reality studio in its new Simulation Hospital.

Researchers in the School of Education and Human Development’s Max Orovitz Lab have developed software that uses augmented reality goggles to test how fast a person responds to a given task. They hope their research can be used in a clinical environment to treat patients with Parkinson’s disease and other conditions that affect the motor system.

Although “Magicverse” is just the beginning of a new chapter, Abovitz has high hopes for the University in its use of augmented reality in the years to come.

“Over the course of a decade I can’t even imagine what will happen,” he said. “In one year, I am confident great things will come about if the campus continually becomes immersed in it.”

Photos: T.J. Lievonen/University of Miami

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