Data Sciences Institute conference explores the future of virtual reality

June 5, 2024 by Andrea Smitko – A&S News

The Data Sciences Institute (DSI) — U of T’s multidisciplinary hub for data science innovation and collaboration — recently hosted “Questioning Reality: Explorations of Virtual Reality (VR) and our Social Future,” a three-day conference where leading scholars, industry professionals, and VR enthusiasts gathered to discuss the future of VR and its impact on social interactions.

The conference — led by the DSI’s Bree McEwan, an associate professor in the Institute for Communication, Culture, and Information Technology (ICCIT) at the University of Toronto Mississauga and Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn, director of the Center for Advanced Computer-Human Ecosystems and professor at the University of Georgia — featured a series of engaging discussions, presentations and networking opportunities.

Programmed with the goal of shaping a social interaction-informed agenda for the next research cycle on VR, the event focused on exploring social interactions in mediated environments, including VR, augmented reality (AR), extended reality (XR), and mixed realities (MR).

“This event is an extension of the DSI’s mission to bring the data sciences across industries together to drive social change and work on a concept of social interaction across a variety of realities,” said McEwan. “We’ve brought together not only the academics but also industry professionals to hear their ideas about the potential future of this area of research.”

With the intention of sparking dialogue and fostering meaningful connections, the event was kept to 40 attendees, which allowed for an atmosphere that promoted relationship building, a free flow of ideas and many key opportunities for cross-collaboration.

“Everybody in attendance is interested in social interactions, but across a different range of media or technologies,” said Ahn at the event.

“Each attendee represents a piece of the question: how do people interact in virtual environments using different devices — it could be video games, virtual reality, social media, XR. All of the conversations over the next few days should reveal the kinds of questions we should be asking in the next phase of research: What are the important and critical questions that will push forward the research for the next five or 10 years as an output?”

The conference began on Thursday afternoon with introductions and a keynote presentation on communication in VR/AR by Professor Lynn Miller of the University of Southern California.

In a talk entitled Interpersonal Science in Space and Time: Advancing (and Learning from) Emerging Synchronous Virtual (and “Real”) Worlds, Miller spoke about the importance of understanding and improving social interactions in both virtual and real-world contexts.

On the second day, attendees participated in a series of collaborative exercises and lightning talks on cutting-edge research, brainstormed “blue sky” ideas, and explored forthcoming challenges from privacy concerns to the democratization of VR experiences.

In the afternoon, Shalini De Mello, director of research and distinguished research scientist at NVIDIA, delivered the keynote talk Democratizing Telepresence with AI-Mediated Photoreal Avatar Creation, where she spoke about the exciting field of AI-mediated reality and the intersection of technology with human communication and interaction.

The day also featured an industry panel discussion with leaders Reality Prime, Meta Reality Labs, Engage XR and JP Morgan Chase. Panelists spoke about the important relationship between business and research, and the challenges faced and opportunities available when partnering on future projects.

“I would really love to see, not just online schools but also in-person schools, create an ecosystem with social VR that allows students to feel more engaged with content socialization, because our world is shifting and changing,” said Maxwell McGee of Engage XR and Post University. “It’s not as easy as it once was to travel halfway across the world to your dream university or college. I would like to see more ecosystems created to increase those connections where they otherwise might not be available.”

The last day included a session devoted to forecasting for the future and a final keynote presentation by Tony Liao, associate professor at the University of Houston, Moving Across and Between Realities: An Agenda for the Next Wave of Social XR Research, in which he emphasized the critical need for responsible and thoughtful development of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies as we navigate the intersection of virtual reality and our social future. Liao also noted that the Questioning Reality conference served as a potentially field-configuring event, and that the discussions that took place over its three days may shape the field and direction of research for years to come.

The Questioning Reality conference was supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a not-for-profit, mission-driven grantmaking institution dedicated to improving the welfare of all through the advancement of scientific knowledge. The grant was awarded to the DSI to delve into VR technology and its profound implications for human interaction and communication.

“VR and AR technologies have the potential to reshape how we interact and collaborate as individuals, groups and as a society,” said Josh Greenberg, program director for the Sloan Foundation. “We’re very proud to fund this innovative work through the DSI and to support the advancement of this research that will help to inform the responsible development of this influential technology.”

Discussions from the conference will be reflected in a new edition of Debates in Digital Media focused on virtual reality. The Sloan Foundation will also fund five mini-grant research projects, each designed to propel the field forward through innovative research endeavors. The Questioning Reality conference and Sloan Foundation grant serve as a beacon of support and recognition for the DSI’s commitment to pushing the boundaries of knowledge and innovation in the data sciences.