At least one professor is rejoicing at the opportunity to conduct online classes from the comfort of an armchair and pajamas this summer, but imagine being able to cast yourself as a virtual avatar into an actual classroom and teach as if you were really there, still in said pajamas.
It sounds like something out of, well, Avatar.
The impact on waistlines aside, a $1.2 million Defense University Research Instrumentation Program grant from the Department of Defense Office of Naval Research and Army Research Office could enable just that.
Five UCF professors were awarded grants for equipment out of more than 700 proposals sent in by academic institutions nationwide: Mingjie Lin, assistant professor in the department of electrical engineering and computer science, requested $201,500 for high-performance computer and robotic training equipment; Martin C. Richardson, professor of optics in the College of Optics and Photonics and director of UCF’s Townes Laser Institute requested $302,800 for high-energy laser equipment; Mubarak Shah, computer science professor and director of the Computer Visions Lab at UCF requested $281,400 for crowd-data analysis equipment for use in aerial surveillance; Gregory Welch, research professor in the Institute for Simulation and Training requested $281,400 for a physical-virtual human-robot interaction system; and Chengying Xu, assistant professor in mechanical, materials and Aerospace Engineering requested $136,250 for equipment to make a lightweight and super-strong building component, according to the UCF Office of Research proposal database.
“We are trying to break free from the monitor and bring some of it out of the screen physically in front of you,” said Welch, who is working on a “Sensorium” for a physical-virtual avatar. “Have human-shaped robots change their appearance, behavior and their shape in a way that allows them to be flexible.”
The research could yield a physical-virtual human, Welch said, that could move its arms and face and even give you a smile.
Welch had not yet heard the exact amount rewarded for his proposal and Richardson, Mubarak and Lin were not available for comment. Xu confirmed she had actually received $133,416, $2,834 less than she had requested in her original proposal.
The Department of Defense awarded 190 grants in the amount of $54.7 million to 100 academic institutions, almost 3 percent of which went to UCF. MIT, Purdue University, the University of Michigan and the University of California San Diego also landed five awards. Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Maryland, University of Washington and Pennsylvania State University were the only universities to earn more than five grants, according to a DURIP proposal-winners list released by the Department of Defense on May 8.
The goal of these Department of Defense grants, said M.J. Soileau, vice president for research and commercialization at UCF, is to develop a better understanding of some area of technology with the belief that good things will come out of it.
“They are very keen on funding research that has dual use because if [DoD] were the only customer for the technology, chances are it wouldn’t be available. If it were available, it would be too expensive,” Soileau said.
The research would be published in peer-reviewed journals accessible to anyone, Soileau said, including projects that may have nothing to do with the defense department.
“This is what I find exciting about [DURIP], is that it adds to the capability of the university in a broad sense,” Soileau said. “Not only for the DoD specific applications when they funded the work; it builds the capability to do research.”
Welch’s human avatar program could have application in military training.
“Maybe you want to train marines to be able to react with civilians and bad guys. They do this sort of training now where they go to facilities where they have a mix of people running around; selling, buying," Welch said.
Instead of a physical training ground, the environment could be virtual. There could also be medical applications, such as virtual patient treatment that could mimic a human reaction without actual unethical human experimentation.
As far as the grants being military in nature, Soileau feels he has an ethical responsibility to contribute to the national defense and says “the money certainly comes in handy when the state is slashing the budget three ways to Sunday.”
Those who have qualms need not participate, Soileau said. Physical phenomena, like equipment, are not good or bad; they just exist.
“That’s the whole thing about universities," Soileau said. “We don’t force people into directions of research."