Institute of Creative Technologies uses mixed reality to aid in health, military fields

Rhys Yahata, Technical Director MxR Studio with Summer Crunch 16 students. Photo courtesy of MxR Lab Personnel.

The USC Institute of Creative Technologies’ lab in Playa Vista resembles a science fiction movie set — two researchers with headsets and remote controls stand among several autonomous drones, and a free-standing door and its frame are situated in the middle of the room.

In the virtual world, the drones detect walls on either side of the door and do not cross to the other side unless the door is opened by the researchers.

Director of Advanced Prototype Development Todd Richmond gave a tour of the lab to West Coast news anchor Alyssa Julya Smith of Cheddar, an online network that explores budding technology and innovation, last month to demonstrate the work that has been going into developing mixed reality.

“This is really about asking the question of how are humans and autonomous objects going to partner and be teams,” Richmond said in the Cheddar segment.

Founded in 1999, ICT fosters collaboration between students and experts from the film, gaming and computer science fields to “study and develop immersive media for military training, health therapies, education and more,” its website states.

According to Richmond, mixed reality is becoming increasingly popular among service providers who want to understand their fields on a deeper level. By combining aspects of virtual and augmented reality, researchers have been exploring how machines can improve daily life. Mixed Reality (MxR) at USC has been showing soldiers how virtuality can provide a more accurate lay of terrain than an outdated map might, or how medical professionals can better comprehend a patient’s traumatic past experiences.

“A big part of what the lab works on is [asking], ‘Given all of these technological capabilities why should a human care? What is this stuff really going to be used for? What’s it going to be good for, and where [are] the potential harms going to be?” Richmond said.

Creative Director of MxR Lab, David Nelson, who works with Richmond in the MxR Lab, recently wrote about a new mixed reality product in Rolling Stone. He also emphasized how the USC MxR team has increasingly earned the respect of the technological community, as well as its clients from the health and military fields.

“People come to the lab often because of the expertise that’s there,” Nelson said. “I’ve been talking a lot about how the building blocks of storytelling and the language of immersion because that’s my background, but I’m certainly kind of on the front lines of new technology and capabilities. When the new devices start to come out we often called to comment on them.”

Nelson is also working on an MxR project with students to encourage bystanders to take action in a situation of sexual harassment or assault by developing a virtual simulation, which they will present to the sexual harassment and assault arm of the institute this week.

Even as mixed reality research progresses, Nelson highlighted the importance of getting students involved by encouraging creative pitches and motivating students to stop by the MxR studio on the main campus.

“[I’d] like the studio to be an open space where students can come in and try things,” Nelson said. “I always tell students, if you’ve got something you want to work on, we can provide space and equipment … We want it to be a real active prototyping environment.”

Correction: A previous version of this article identified David Nelson as “Project Director.” He is actually “Creative Director of MxR Lab.” The Daily Trojan regrets this error.