Image courtesy of Robert Hall Photography

Education and business join forces to create the Augmented Reality Center

With change comes opportunity. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is transforming industries, and none more so than heavy industries like manufacturing and engineering.

From robotics to AI to real-time, cutting-edge technologies are upending traditional workflows, reimagining what factories can be, and creating a whole raft of new types of jobs that didn’t previously exist.

In many ways, these industries are in uncharted territory. The process of exploring this new landscape is one that must be undertaken by educational institutions and businesses alike.

So why not undertake that journey together? That’s the ethos behind a new initiative called the Augmented Reality Center (ARC) at Oakland University in Michigan.
Image courtesy of Robert Hall Photography
A partnership between Oakland University, the College for Creative Studies (CCS), and a coalition of regional industry players, the ARC introduces students to cutting-edge augmented reality (AR) technology.

The aim is to provide a new generation with unique opportunities to work alongside faculty and industry experts, applying real-time technology to various aspects of manufacturing.

Students learn the new skills that will be needed for Industry 4.0—and local businesses have a hand in nurturing the growing pool of talent they’ll require in the future. It’s win-win.

“It’s a collaboration between education and industry,” says Chase Holton, Assistant Professor of Entertainment Arts at CCS. “By combining professionals who use AR/VR every day for work with students ready to take on this ever-evolving industry, we have the perfect groundwork to solidify their future and give opportunities that were previously unavailable.”

So what goes on at the ARC?
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The Augmented Reality Center (ARC)

The ARC is a creative and immersive environment. It enables students, faculty, and industry to collaborate, engage, and explore immersive technology applications across a broad sector of industries.

The center focuses around three core initiatives.

An immersive lab provides an arena for the latest hardware and demonstrations for the industry. Think haptic gloves, all kinds of headsets, and projection-style immersive technology—but harnessed with the intention of demonstrating practical, day-to-day applications in an industrial setting.
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Projects shown in the lab could be anything from immersive virtual showrooms in collaboration with automakers like GM, to the simulation of real-world factories with a view to improving training and assembly processes with ABB Robotics.

The other pivotal objectives of the ARC are to create the educational programs needed for the field, and to assist industry partners with projects in this space so they can use these technologies for real in their businesses.

“The key thing is collaboration,” says Dr. Khalid Mirza, Founding Director or ARC. “We’re encouraging collaboration between all these companies and enabling them to solve their piece of the problem, then take away the whole solution to be used for themselves.”

Opportunities for students

AR technology is set to play a key role in the future of manufacturing by creating more cost-effective and efficient solutions for companies.

With the ARC on their doorstop, opportunities for students in the region have expanded significantly. Those who participate in the ARC educational program will graduate with a unique, in-demand skillset—and a competitive edge over their peers—that will prepare them for successful careers in this rapidly growing field, following their graduation.

“Equipping graduating students with this knowledge will only empower them further as we continue into this age where digital and physical media converge,” explains Holton.

But because this is a partnership with business, the ARC is not just about learning skills in an educational silo. The projects they work on will often be real projects brought to the center through industry partners.

Dr. Mizra says that this practical, real-world application is one of the things that makes the ARC unique—and which can give students a foot in the door as interns. “We’re trying to build an open relationship where there’s an easy flow of resources between the university and industry,” he says.

As well as building a bridge between education and industry, the ARC also provides a space where students of different disciplines can work together on solving the challenges of the future.
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“One of the key decisions early on was to realize that when you're talking about immersive technology, it's not just engineering,” says Dr. Mizra. “That's just half the picture—the hardware, how you build the application software. The other part is how you present it to the user.”

Holton has seen firsthand how encouraging students to leave their comfort zone can lead to an explosion of creativity, and a cross-pollination of ideas. “There’s a pretty large gap of knowledge between the technical and the creative when developing any sort of interactive experience,” he says.

He notes that while learning the artistry and nature of storytelling is integral at CCS, this may not be the number one thing for engineering students at OU—and that this works the other way, too.

“When we have a collaboration between both institutions and industry like this, we can meet in the middle and teach students the intricacies not only of making these experiences possible, but how we can leverage both sides of our minds to create something special,” he explains. 

The experience gained from working alongside those learning parallel disciplines puts these students in an enviable position.
Image courtesy of Robert Hall Photography
“I don't know how many other universities are doing this, but if you look at the emerging trends and technologies, both of these disciplines are equally important—and students who are aware of the other side of the picture are becoming the unicorns needed by the industry,” says Dr. Mizra.

It’s a point on which the Dean of the School of Engineering and Computer Science, Dr. Louay Chamra, agrees. “People often see STEM and industrial design as separate fields, but we create powerful opportunities when we bring these subjects together synergistically to improve efficiency and advance industry all around us,” he says.

A coalition of industry and education partners 

The ARC has been made possible because of the spirit of cooperation that exists between its founding partners, both from across education and across industry.

Those founding partners include the likes of ABB Inc., AM General, Continental, General Motors, Hirotec America, KUKA Robotics, Magna International, MAHLE Industries, Rave Computer, Siemens, and US Military Ground Vehicle Systems, as well as Epic Games.

Epic is providing assistance through its Epic MegaGrants program, an initiative designed to support creators from across a broad range of industries who are doing outstanding work with Unreal Engine or enhancing open-source capabilities for the 3D graphics community.
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“The Epic MegaGrant was the first snowfall that helped the snowball grow into the powerhouse of industry talent we have now within ARC,” says Holton.

This inspiring collaboration of partners from different spheres provides a blueprint for how we can make advances towards Industry 4.0 and reap its rewards together.

The partners have been integral to pulling in projects that neither institution would normally have access to, and this sheds light on what’s going on in these industries.

It creates a drive for students—prospective future employees—to learn and see exactly what they can use their skillsets for when they graduate. “We hope as the ARC continues to grow, we will see more and more opportunities for students with internships through the ARC and the partners to develop more demos and projects,” says Holton.

For Dr. Mizra, if there’s one standout learning from the ARC journey so far, it’s this: “The biggest thing we’ve learned is the advantage of this collaboration—the collaboration between our university, the College for Creative Studies, and industry—is that we come together," he says.

“We brainstorm ideas together, we come up with solutions, and they're phenomenal.”

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