RU Expands VR Research With AI

By: Bryant Lopez, Follow South Jersey Intern

GLASSBORO, N.J. – Rowan University has launched a newly expanded virtual reality research center that is enhanced by machine learning and artificial intelligence. Directed by Nidhal Bouaynaya, Rowan’s Machine and Artificial Intelligence Virtual Reality Center (MAVRC) aims to create a realistic VR experience that responds to user interaction in real-time.

“We’re trying to push the research boundaries in, you know, basic research, but also applied research in AI and VR and look at the intersection,” said Bouaynaya.

Military simulation at MAVRC. Photo credit: Bryant Lopez.

The center is home to a multimillion-dollar project with the U.S. Army Picatinny Arsenal that already incorporates machine learning to speed the development of a combat simulation system. It uses AI to sense the environment and recommend responses to its users.

The project currently with the army costs $8.5 million with it coming from the Department of Defense. The partnership has been collaborative, stated Bouaynaya, with both having biweekly meetings.

The center is able to create an immersive virtual environment by using AI and VR.

“If you’ve seen caves or VR environments, many of them are not very realistic actually. Right?” Bouaynaya said. “The tree is not like really a tree, they don’t seem very alive. So what we’re trying to do is, now these are only two-dimensional images, but for example, leverage the power of AI for three-D imaging, which is still in its infancy to create a realistic VR environment.”

The center is not limited to military research but has applications all across the board, said Bouaynaya. She stated they have applications funded research and funded applications with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the U.S. Army, basic research applications with the National Shooting Sports Foundations (NSSF), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

One of the difficulties is that the technology needs data, Bouaynaya stated.

“AI and VR need data,” said Bouaynaya. “And with military applications, availability of public data or data that could be shared, right? For a research project is hard. But medical data that is de-identified, actually there are many publicly available reports, datasets and benchmarks for medical data, but not for the military. So I would say the data aspect makes it harder for one application or the other, not the technology per se.”

Robi Polikar is the department head and professor of electrical & computer engineering and he states having this center at Rowan is a great benefit.

“Well, it provides a capability to Rowan that the other institution has,” said Polikar. “And for the kind of problems that require that expertise, Rowan will be the only place that companies, organizations, institutions, government agencies, and various industrial partners can go and request help and assistance.”

Polikar stated that when he came to Rowan in 2001 he was probably the only one who was doing machine learning work on campus. 

“Most people hadn’t heard the phrase including, you know my other colleagues and parents when they asked what I was doing,” said Polikar. “AI became almost a household item. Everybody has at least some idea of what that means. And that is a testament to the dramatic growth in this area.”

Polikar states the importance of Rowan having these types of facilities.

“I mean, if you’re not in front of it, you’re behind it,” said Polikar. “I mean, there’s no other way to say this, right? If we are going to be the institution that  we set out to be that is at the forefront of all kinds of scientific engineering, and social development, then it is an important role to have these kinds of facilities to have this kind of expertise to teach the relevant classes to support the economy of South Jersey in particular, the state of New Jersey and the region in general.”

There are facilities at the South Jersey Technology Park in Mantua Twp. and the Joint Health Sciences Center in Camden. The research center features a virtual reality system designed to immerse multiple users in virtual and mixed-reality environments. 

The Mantua system has the capacity to support a maximum of 15 users who can engage in activities such as exploring simulated environments, accessing data, viewing live feeds, and participating in video conferencing.

“There are lots of applications for AI and machine learning,” said Polikar. “Many people’s lives are impacted [by the fact] that you are using this talk on a daily basis whether you realize it or not. And, the impact of this field on society is hard to ignore. So when you have a center now that works in this area works on solving new problems, all solve problems that help the industry around us, that helps the faculty, that helps the university, that helps the students.”

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