Computer science elective highlights virtual, augmented reality

The Viterbi School of Engineering is offering a new course this semester titled “Augmented, Virtual and Mixed Reality.” The class gives students the opportunity to learn and design in a collaborative space.

Embedded is a virtual reality game presented at the GamePipe Showcase that discusses how the media can change public perceptions. Students in CSCI 538 will be able to build projects like this. Photo courtesy of

The course is taught by USC GamePipe Laboratory Director Michael Zyda and Professor Vangelis Lympouridis, whose classroom has provided an interactive environment where students can learn about a variety of mixed-reality platforms and the progress of computer science in current and future technologies.

“Virtual reality is where you’re in this computer graphics environment and everything you see is computer graphics,” Zyda said. “Augmented reality is a graphics overlay of the world, so you see the table in front of you and there are computer graphics characters walking on that table. So there is a very simple vision solution that happens to find the tabletop and then puts your 3-D characters on top of it.”

The course covers a multitude of topics such as 3-D interactive and procedural graphings, motion trackers, rapid prototyping and virtual reality programming. It is currently open only to computer science majors and students in the Iovine and Young Academy, as their curriculum incorporates innovation and technology.

“This course is necessary because everyone from content creators to big technology companies are invested in developing this new era of immersive media, which essentially will be a new medium,” Lympouridis said.

According to Zyda and Lympouridis, the course was approved for Viterbi several years ago; however, it was never taught. This past year, both professors took the time to revive the course and submitted it again for the Spring 2018 semester.

“Before, it was [titled] ‘Immersive Environments,’” Zyda said. “We never had anyone to teach it and what happened was that it was in the catalogue all the way until June of 2014, right at the start of the latest VR craze, and the student department took it out of the catalogue.”

The course is split into two different parts. In addition to learning through lectures, there is a hands-on development section in which students will build projects related to augmented and virtual reality. The student works will be presented in class at the end of the year.

“We will create some team projects and the best case scenario is to have some that are focusing on AR, so working with Microsoft Hololens or any other AR technology,” Lympouridis said. “Others can focus on virtual reality and developing with Oculus. But the applications and projects are open to student ideas, so you can make a new game, we can do a social experience. It’s whatever the students’ interests are.”

According to Lympouridis, developing immersive media has brought about significant inventions such as televisions, radios and cinema. With new and upcoming technologies, Lympouridis said that these developments can connect new cultures of stories and gaming.

“[Media] will be embraced by every aspect of our lives, so being informed and being prepared on how to properly design and how to develop these applications in the following years can be helpful for someone’s career,” Lympouridis said.

Prior to working at USC, Zyda’s professional experiences were centered around computer science and engineering. Since 1973, Zyda, who had a career in computer graphics, has been heavily involved with STEM fields — he has consulted the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, was the Founding Director of the Modeling, Virtual Environments and Simulation Institute for the Naval Postgraduate School and was a chair of the National Research Council Committee, which produced the study “Modeling and Simulation — Linking Entertainment and Defense.”

Lympouridis received a Ph.D. in Whole Body Interactive Performance Systems, a subset of human computer interaction. With a mixed background in the fine arts, sound design and interactive media, Lympouridis became the creative director at the School of Cinematic Arts, founded Enosis VR and worked with Google last year to produce a “Bohemian Rhapsody” VR Experience.

Zyda hopes that students will build a virtual environment that will help them get a job in the future. Through a hands-on experience and trial and error, he wants them to have produced something that is unique, interesting and personal.

“Virtual reality and augmented reality are the future,” Zyda said. “For now, we have iPhones, but eventually, we’re going to have technology like light-weight augmented reality glasses that do projections into our eyes and it’s going to change the world. That’s the future of computer.”