Over the past twenty years, the Silicon Valley tech boom has laid out the foundations for technologies like iPhones, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and many other internet-enabled services that are now a part of daily life for many Americans. Unfortunately, today’s smartphones have fewer groundbreaking features, sales are beginning to slow, and venture capital cash for conventional startups is drying up.
The mainstream market seems to be slumping, yet a thirst for exciting advances in technology is still apparent. A new field called “frontier tech” has emerged, and it aims to create the next big leaps that will change our lives, instead of simply incrementing slowly on existing tech. While Stanford may still be the de-facto leader for tech innovation hubs on the West Coast, USC has slowly crept into the conversation due to the school’s many courses, research projects, labs, and startups that are leading the way in emerging technologies.
VR/AR – Mixed Reality
With several laboratories advancing frontier research at USC, the university may be the leader in mixed reality research. Many significant developments in virtual reality (VR) were created at USC’s Institute of Creative Technologies and MxR Laboratory. Under Director Mark Bolas, researchers have worked on applications of life-like simulations, such as treating veterans with PTSD. Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus, also did his research at the MxR Lab before starting his famous VR company, which is now owned by Facebook. Additionally, Professor Mike Zyda’s Advanced Games program at the GamePipe Laboratory works on developing serious games, like the VR memory-enhancement tool Recall.
VR journalism is not forgotten at USC as Professor Robert Hernandez leads a VR-focused communications class and employs resources provided by the new Annenberg Digital Lounge. Nony De La Pena, the leading voice in VR journalism and the author of Project Syria, is a research fellow at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism and has shown her work at the DAVOS Economic Forum.
Many people consider Augmented Reality (AR) to have even more global potential than VR and has been on display in movies like Minority Report thanks to the work done by Professor Alex McDowell, who is also the director of the USC World Building Media Lab.
Additionally, students at the USC Iovine and Young Academy are currently working on new AR projects, and the school recently sent out immersive acceptance letters to new students.
Transportation & Infrastructure
USC’s world-class engineers in the fields of transportation and infrastructure also contribute to frontier tech. The USC Hyperloop team designed pods to be used in Elon Musk’s futuristic tube-based transportation system and competed against schools like MIT in Texas.
Autonomous cars may be associated with Google’s home up in Mountain View, but USC Professor Jeffrey Miller is regarded as an expert in autonomous vehicle ethics. The computer science professor has been published in IEEE and interviewed in The Verge as his research is used to write the laws and study the consequences of self-driving cars.
USC’s advanced rocket propulsion programs and its extra-curricular rocket club have made the school one of the principal recruiting destinations for space companies like SpaceX and JPL.
To address our growing energy needs, USC SmartGrid formed as a joint project with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and aims to optimize power grid infrastructure to be sustainable.
It’s clear that USC is at the forefront of developing many of tomorrow’s technologies and students should take advantage of the opportunity to get involved in these projects. While Silicon Valley may be held up as the center of today’s innovation, USC is firmly positioned to lead as we transition into the next frontier.