Ethical design principles at the forefront of a new AR/VR and Metaverse design training centre

A UK university is to open a dedicated AR/VR and Metaverse design training centre. Paul Milligan speaks to Professor Rajkumar Roy to discuss the centre’s aims.

Last month it was announced that City, University of London is to create the UK’s largest bespoke Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR) and Metaverse design training centre, within its School of Science and Technology. Officially opening in September 2023, with funding from the Office for Students, this facility will train up to 50 students simultaneously in the field of AR and VR and its applications in engineering, computer science and applied mathematics. Part of the announcement including the signing of a three-year deal with ARuVR, a provider of an Extended Reality (XR) training platform. The new facility is a direct result of demand from the City, University of London’s industry and business partners who are seeking talent with skills in this sector.

Professor Rajkumar Roy is the executive dean, School of Science & Technology at City, University of London, and he will be overseeing what is called The Interactive Ethical Learning Design Studio. While Professor Roy admits the take-up of AR and VR technologies in the wider world has been disappointing so far, it is on the rise. “It’s not picked up at the rate we were expecting a few years ago, but now there are cloud-based enterprise versions of AR/VR software which require no programming for application creation, which expedites app development. Now is the time to push for VR technology and take it to market where it can add value in engineering, human computer interaction, computer science, in some visualisation work, even for mathematics students.”

Does he sense a reticence from the wider academic community to AR and VR technology? “Yes, I think there is, because of lack of knowledge. In academia some universities have gone into 3D for example for CAD, and there are universities still going through the transition from 2D to 3D. AR/VR seems to be a little bit too alien for them. It’s our job to educate students for the future, but also, at the same time, improve awareness of the technology with our academics. Not everybody is au fait with the technology. And that’s something our centre will be doing.”

One criticism of AR/VR has been that it can be a very solitary experience sometimes, if this facility the University is building is for 50 students, how will it manage to teach them all at the same time? By addressing those issues using software and clever classroom setup says Roy.

“When we say they will work simultaneously, they will access ARuVR cloud-based AR/VR software to develop content. They can access a library of objects, by combining them in a virtual world they will be able to create a virtual environment, in that they can use 360-degree cameras to superimpose their local environment or any environment they want. It’s a classroom of 50 students, so students will have tables where they will work as a small team of five students per table, and collaborate with each other, they will have computing available to them, they will have headsets available to them. Each table will be guided through by the teacher, that’s how you train all 50 of them simultaneously.”

The obvious specialism to benefit most from the centre would be engineering students, and those doing a engineering design module will be exposed to AR/VR Roy says. But it goes beyond that too. “We are creating some models so that students can get used to the technology, so they can build material themselves, whereas in human computer interaction and games technology we are launching a new module, which uses AR/VR for gaming. There the interaction will be really about human computer interaction in the virtual world,” adds Roy.

What is interesting about the centre, outside of the technology itself, is that it will look to address to two other separate issues – skills shortages and ethical product design. Looking at skills first, why is there a skill shortage in the development of skills in VR/AR and does Professor Roy think the centre help turn that around? “I think STEM skills shortage are very big overall, I also think an acquaintance of virtualisation and virtual worlds, going from 2D to 3D to immersive technology is still not being adopted fully in industry. As a result, there’s not a supply of undergraduate and postgraduate students with these capabilities.”

If the centre is to help with the skills shortage, what is it that industry wants its graduates in three, four or five years’ time to be able to do for them? “To have an appreciation of what AR/VR or a virtual environment can do is the first point,” say Roy. “In the post-pandemic period, people are used to virtual working, you can imagine a technical design review in a virtual world much more now than it was before. Secondly, there has been significant use of this technology in training new staff, which is a big challenge for many organisations. And finally for remote support. If you go out in the field to repair a machine, if you wear a headset your colleague can remotely see the machine, what is broken and what is working on it and give you guidance, visually, step by step, through a very inexpensive process. You can see that type of remote assistance is valid for many applications.”

When the centre is not being used for teaching it will be used for research, a critical part of any forward-thinking academic establishment. City, University of London is in the process of launching a new PhD research on Metaverse design using AR/VR technology. “If you think about how automotive design has changed, a car used to take five to six years to design a new model. Now it takes 18 months. We need to look at why it’s changed. In a manufacturing environment for example, using the Metaverse we can rapidly create multiple multiverses to reflect different type of factory environments, different product families, and this research is going to look at how to create a library of concepts, a library of platforms, which can help in the rapid development of the metaverse. And that will create a shift in what is a major issue in the industry because industry is not adopting technologies because of resource constraints, because they are very resource intensive processes to develop the initial metaverses, we can shift that by doing this research.”

The ethical side of product design and manufacturing has often been sidelined in favour of maximising profits, Professor Roy wants his students to change that. “We should be working for wealth generation and wealth creation, but parallel to this we have to work on social value creation as well. We will be teaching about ethics because that’s the professional behaviour we expect from our students, from our delegates when they come and get taught at the University, and by our researchers. It’s not always true that ethics was considered at the design stage in the past, it was more of an afterthought. What we are trying to do now is actually embed ethical decision making in the design process itself.”

Finally, what does Professor Roy want the legacy of the first students to graduate through the centre to be in a few years time? “I would like to see that our undergraduate students develop skills to create AR/VR content in a virtual environment in the future, so they become a champion of it themselves.”

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