A complete immersive experience, the IMMERSE Center for Immersive Computing first annual symposium

5/8/2024 Lauren Laws

Written by Lauren Laws

While others watch, a person tries an immersive virtual reality (VR) headset.
Nancy M. Amato (right), computer science department head, looks on as students present an interactive demo session at the 2024 IMMERSE Center for Immersive Computing's first annual symposium.

A complete immersive experience. It’s what’s desired for the future of immersive computing: a seamless integration of the virtual with the physical. It could spark the transformation of fields ranging from healthcare and science to arts and entertainment. But achieving the technology of tomorrow requires a meeting of the minds of today.

Earlier this year, the IMMERSE Center for Immersive Computing held its first annual symposium on February 7-8 at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). The goal? Fostering collaborations and building community with thought leaders from academia, industry, government, and funding agencies to move immersive computing forward and gain input for the future of IMMERSE.

“Immerse is a great collaborative center initiative for the campus as it brings together multidisciplinary expertise to advance how we utilize extended reality for education, healthcare, and industry engagement as well as how we can leverage our collective expertise on campus to advance the field for real impact nationally,” said Carle Illinois College of Medicine Dean Mark Cohen.

More than 170 people representing more than 30 national and international organizations and institutions attended the inaugural event, along with many from schools and colleges within the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. It was a welcome turnout that conveyed the amount of work IMMERSE had done over the last year.

A woman at a podium gestures and smiles.
Sarita Adve, IMMERSE Director and Richard T. Cheng Professor of Computer Science, introduces the 2024 IMMERSE symposium.

“The symposium builds on the community-building efforts that started during last Spring’s workshop and paved the way to an inclusive and holistic approach for IMMERSE,” says IMMERSE Director and Richard T. Cheng Professor of Computer Science Sarita Adve. “This shared vision was formalized in the IMMERSE white paper, which also naturally influenced the agenda of our first symposium.”

The symposium included panel sessions that featured IMMERSE’s three main thrusts (Technologies, Applications, and Human Experiences) and cross-cutting activities (Infrastructure and Education). Each of the sessions emphasized some innovative work done by collaborative teams at Illinois, while highlighting some of the challenges ahead for researchers and corporate partners alike.

“There were several outstanding presentations which perfectly aligned or coincided with my experiences and interests,” said Bilal Karim, a student in bioengineering/neuroscience and HML Innovation Intern for the Carle Illinois College of Medicine. “One was Professor Kris Hauser’s presentation on the importance of immersive system design and using novel methods, tools, and resources to strengthen infrastructure that are capable of modeling and manipulating human experiences. The potential impact of this work is incredibly imperative and has wide-ranging applications in healthcare and medicine to improve patient outcomes and re-define healthcare delivery.”

Four people sit at a table with microphones and interact with the audience.
A panel discussion at the 2024 IMMERSE symposium. L-R: Professors Shenlong Wang, Elahe Soltanaghai, Amitabh Varshney (University of Maryland), Kris Hauser. All panelists, except Varshney, are from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

The panels also featured invited speakers from external universities and organizations, who shared their perspectives on current trends and efforts.

“As a domain expert myself in AI, it was especially interesting for me to hear about the perspectives of folks focused on the systems aspects of XR and about its varied use cases in the real world,” said NVIDIA Director of Research and New Experiences Shalini De Mello. “It was a great opportunity for me to connect with a hugely diverse set of interdisciplinary experts from both the industry and academia passionate to advance XR under one roof.”

Other highlights included two keynote presentations: one from Steve LaValle and the other from Bill Buxton.

Steve LaValle, Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Oulu, Finland, and founding Chief Scientist of Occulus, offered exciting views on how to leverage knowledge about perceptual illusions from the biologically oriented sciences of perceptual psychology, neuroscience, and physiology to help develop core engineering principles for VR and related fields. LaValle’s call for a new paradigm in the form of a discipline of “perception engineering” represents an attempt to overcome some of today’s challenges in the field of immersive technologies.

While others watch, a person tries an immersive virtual reality (VR) headset.
An interactive demo at the 2024 IMMERSE symposium.

Similarly, the need for a holistic approach to immersive technologies that places interactions at its core was emphasized by Bill Buxton from the University of Toronto during his inspiring keynote presentation on the second day. Arguing in favor of intentional design approaches rooted in an understanding of ecological and biological evolution, Dr. Buxton offered some insights from alternative fields such as architecture, biology, and even poetry to help challenge traditional viewpoints.

Illinois students and researchers also showcased their work in the poster and demo session. Held at the end of the first day, symposium participants explored close to seventy different projects.

"I was excited to attend the symposium to learn about the scope of extended reality projects being conducted across campus. There was a lot of energy and enthusiasm about the topic,” said Wendy Rogers, Khan Professor of Applied Health Sciences. “I was especially pleased with the recognition of the importance of considering human factors during the design and implementation of these technology applications. Engagement with users to identify their needs, abilities, limitations, and preferences will be critical for advancements in this field."

Two people look at and talk about a research poster.
A poster at the 2024 IMMERSE symposium.

Immersive computing has the potential of changing the landscape of our future. It’s that potential that inspires not only today’s researchers and leaders, but also the innovators of tomorrow.

“We are thrilled with the energy the symposium generated,” said Sarita. “A message reinforced throughout was that our collaborative approach of integrating technologies, applications, and human experience is our distinguishing strength. It is ambitious but also key to delivering on the potential of immersive computing for building a better world for all. The symposium led to new partners with whom we look forward to continuing on this path!”

The First Annual IMMERSE Symposium was sponsored by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, The Grainger College of Engineering, and the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science. If you would like to get involved with IMMERSE, send an email to immerse@illinois.edu.

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This story was published May 8, 2024.