Inside USC’s Crazy Experimental VR Lab – The Verge
Even by virtual reality’s usual standards, the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies is taking things a little over the top.
“You’re gonna see this drone fly up,” warns Todd Richmond, IEEE fellow and director of advanced prototype development. In ICT’s warehouse-like Los Angeles lab, he’s indicating a brand-new miniature quadcopter, which researchers are just starting to put through its paces. From inside a head-mounted display, though, the drone is a hovering sphere in a nearly featureless virtual landscape. I move towards it, balancing the massive headset and trying to keep glowing elastic bands from slipping off my shoes. It drifts away. “It’ll always be two meters from your face, so you can never actually touch it,” he says.
That role seems especially precarious when companies come out with products either similar to or directly influenced by ICT’s experiments, especially if those companies get credit for inventing it. Google’s Cardboard headset, for example, was predated by a nearly identical ICT project called FOV2GO. “As long as we’re still able to be funded to work on interesting problems, we’re kind of okay with that. Otherwise we’d be out doing startup companies,” says Richmond. “We kind of accept that as the cost of doing business.”
Perhaps academia’s role is to be a testbed for potentially unprofitable ideas, or to create a place where profitable ones aren’t kept under wraps as trade secrets, Richmond suggests. And part of it is to act as a conscience. He doesn’t believe that ICT’s military funding presents a major ethical dilemma, because it’s rarely focused on actual combat; as he puts it, “the Army is one of the last areas that actually has decent research budgets to look at hard problems.” But it’s also ICT’s job to scrutinize even the most benign technology — including virtual reality.
If the medium that ICT has spent decades working in goes mainstream, how will we use it? It’s a question that no one can answer. “We’re really struggling to figure out augmented and virtual and mixed reality, and what those spaces mean and how we’re going to have interactions that are meaningful,” says Richmond. “And the only way to do it is by doing it. ”