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Technology on Tap – Mary Lim Keeps It Real in the VR/AR Department at VFS

Technology is advancing daily and we are shifting toward a world with virtual hallways, doors that open to virtual neighbourhoods, meetings or even your first tutorial.  The virtual world can have a multitude of applications but augmented reality is also part of the shift. AR can allow a person to wear a visor or glasses with augmented visuals on the lenses. You can receive step by step instructions for fixing a leaky tap, changing a tire, replacing a kidney or fixing the wing on a plane… the possibilities are endless. Both VR and AR technology is a game changer. In order to keep pace with leading industry and manufacturing advancements, we need to educate ourselves through schooling and training facilities. Vancouver Film School is known for staying ahead of the curve and its VR/AR program is a cut above the rest.  

 

Mary Lim, VR/AR Program Lead and Manager of Instructor Training and Program Development at VFS, has exclusive insight on how the Metaverse will impact education over the coming decades. With the dark cloud of Covid crashing the party, the VR/AR Program has gone completely online/virtual… and the transition has been almost seamless.  In comparison to other programs offered at VFS, the class was pretty equipped to deal with virtual classes – it was in their wheelhouse. Virtual and augmented reality technologies have become an integral part of student experience throughout this pandemic.

  

While the transition to e-learning was a big culture shock for lecturers and students, VR technology has enabled the faculty to deliver an immersive and engaging digital learning experience. During the pandemic, students in the VR/AR program at VFS attended lessons in virtual classrooms. The school has also used VR to hold virtual graduation ceremonies, guest lectures and industry events.

 

Additionally, VFS runs a popular VR/AR design and development course that is training the technologists of the future. The students have created their own immersive experiences, including a VR training simulation for Tesla, an AR experience for finding local convenience stores and many more unique applications. Students have also had an opportunity to develop virtual learning experiences used by med students at The Faculty of Medicine at the UBC. 

 

Take a look inside. 

 

Feel free to walk around the school’s virtual classroom.

 

I’m not much of a techy, so I went to the source of this ground-breaking technology to talk to VR/AR guru and Program Lead, Mary Lim.  I was in for quite an education, roll the tape!

 

   

 

HNMAG “Considering the pandemic has resulted in more people working from home, does this help cement and promote the need for more VR/AR technology?”

MARY “I think there is a need for people working from their home but it really depends on what industry they’re in. There is a lot of growth in the industries, such as automotive, manufacturing and real-estate.  Although we’re a film school, we’re not focused on films, we’re more involved with design and development in enterprise and industrial applications. Our students are working on things like, training simulations, educational VR experiences as well as collaborating in VR together inside a 3-D space.  People who work like that will definitely have a need for VR, but for everyday office meetings, I don’t believe it’s necessary.”

 

HNMAG “I suppose there’s a lot of entertainment applications as well?”

MARY “There is a lot of opportunity there but the novelty things like rollercoasters and other things can make people sick however. There is a lot of stuff out there but they have to keep the frame rate in mind for anything being produced in VR. If it’s something animated or created entirely, it’s less likely to cause motion sickness.  I’m currently into fitness and have been using the VR Boxing. XR is the app I’ve been using; Beat Saver is super fun. I’m moving but I lose complete track of time, so it’s pretty good.” 

 

HNMAG “When you’re boxing, are there other people in the room as well?”

MARY “I’m not entirely sure. There’s a leader board and some heads next to me with names attached, but I don’t know if it’s real or not. What are the chances that there’s 8 of us in there at the same time, I don’t know (laughing).”

 

HNMAG “There must be so many ways to utilize this technology.  New uses must come up all the time?”

MARY “There really are. Every time we have a new group of students, they will each bring in a new bag of ideas and it’s really interesting to see what they come in with. We really try to impress upon them to not do it because it’s cool or a novelty. Do it because it’s the right tool for the problem you’re trying to solve. In the second term, they get to work on their personal projects.”  

 

Mary shared a few links to the student’s projects that they’ve been working on. 

 

 

HNMAG “You’ve moved your entire program online. It seems very well suited for that, but what were some of the hiccups you faced in transitioning over?”

MARY “It worked well because our students that were into their second intake were here (Vancouver) and able to take their machines home. The biggest hiccup for VR and being remote – you can’t share that VR experience with anyone else… unless you develop it, push it and send the build to the other person to try on their headsets. In the classroom, there’s all these headsets that you can try, then wipe down and try another. It’s a much smoother cooperative working environment. The third intake was online from day 1 and they were not all in Vancouver. It was quite a feat getting a headset and laptop to Ecuador. That was a lot of fun (laughing).”

 

HNMAG “Once it’s safe to return to class, will part of this course remain online?”

MARY “Yes, some of the courses will remain online. One program in particular is a research-based course, where we bring in guest speakers. After we went online, it opened up to guest speakers all over the world. I found that the industry is so generous, it’s growing and everyone is so supportive in trying to make the ecosystem get bigger. In the last intake, which was entirely online, we had 45 guest speakers in 8 months. The students were able to network while still in school. In return, the guests that come in are scoping out the talent because they’re looking for people. That course will definitely be staying online because of the access to so many guest speakers.”

 

HNMAG “How long is it safe to wear a VR headset?”

MARY “That one I don’t know. I think it’s up to personal comfort, but I do know that people have played for hours on it. The games are so immersive, you forget where you are and what you’re doing. I’m personally not comfortable going more than 30 minutes. I also googled if the headsets can give you wrinkles because of the rubber seal around the perimeter. People have done full conferences in VR, they even did Burning Man in VR last year.”

 

HNMAG “Does this VR/AR program focus primarily on the business/industrial applications rather than entertainment themed?” 

MARY “The applications that our students work on are definitely on the business side but we could make tools for entertainment. Some of the students do make games but we don’t focus on games because we already have a game design program. Generally, the focus is more on training.”

 

Mary had sent me a link to the students VR projects and each one is so unique from the next one. There are demonstrations in mixing chemicals using VR, another project mapped out the small local stores using a neighbourhood radar. The applications are endless but there is one important acronym that Mary uses as a golden rule to help guide the builds for VR. D.I.C.E – stands for Design, Innovate, Communicate and Entertain. She says that the idea is to replicate things virtually, that might be dangerous or expensive. You can work out many of the problems before building a real model. 

 

HNMAG “Given the sight and sound received through the VR experience, are there any gloves or boots someone can wear that allow the feeling of textures?”

MARY “I’ve not heard of boots but I’ve definitely heard of haptic gloves and I think there’s a company that’s even built suits, where you can feel hugs. I don’t know anything about the shoes but I can certainly see a lot of interesting potential. Something about Oculus Quest 2 that I really like is the hand tracking. It’s built into the headset, so even if you don’t have gloves it will track your hands. In VR you can see your own hands move, it’s pretty neat.”

 

HNMAG “You’ve worked with the Faculty of Medicine at the University of BC. Can you describe how VR/AR was applied?”

MARY “With our first faculty of students, 5 of the students worked with a team at the Faculty of Medicine at UBC. They had their own media team for education and most of them were traditional filmmakers. Our students worked with that team to create a VR experience for second year med students through volumetric capture.  That’s where you’re in a volume/space and there’s cameras all around you that are capturing your movements in 360 degrees.  About 200 med students have used the program now. It’s a VR simulation of meeting your first patient. We hired an actor to play a grumpy patient and the student goes into a virtual room to diagnose the problem. Our students had integrated voice recognition with 20-30 questions they could ask the patient. Based on the questions they asked, a patient’s virtual chart would fill in. Another chart pops up that has the organs displayed. You can actually examine the heart and listen to it beating or look at the lungs to diagnose what the problem is. The 4th year students had attended a demonstration to ensure it was an authentic experience for the students.”

 

Mary had expanded on the story of the 4th year med students. One of them had brought their 80 yr. old grandmother along to try her first VR experience, which she thoroughly enjoyed. Mary does stress the importance of a safe space when immersing yourself into the VR world. Be sure that there are no tripping hazards or a table of glasses within your reach before starting.

 

HNMAG “Having seen the film, Ready Player One, where society has become addicted to VR/AR technology. Do you see people’s lives being taken over anytime soon with VR/AR?”

MARY “Do you remember Pokémon Go? (Laughing)  That was a very early augmented reality that I saw take over some people’s lives, including my own to a certain extent. I remember being in Seattle in 2018 and Bellevue Square was such a hotspot, there were so many people there. There was a park across the street that had just as many Pokémon people there. I’ve never seen so many different and diverse groups of people all doing the same thing. It was unbelievable; one person would be at the end of the park and then yell over, that they had found more objects – causing everyone to swarm over to the other end of the park. With AR, the social aspect is huge.” 

 

HNMAG “Is the program divided evenly between the AR and VR training?”

MARY “We cover both and then the students will choose which one they want to do their final project on, so it’s different every time. Our instructors work in both mediums with varied experience within the VR/AR games and industrial applications.  With client projects, we also try to collect as much of a variety of projects for the students to pick from. It should match the vertical they’re interested in, as well as the technology.” 

 

HNMAG “Where can this technology be best utilized right now?”

MARY “I would say in training, training is huge. One of our client projects from the last intake was for Tesla. Four of our students worked on a Tesla training simulation. These projects are all internal, with this person at Tesla trying to make a case to their boss that this is the right tool for training. If you’re not familiar with onboarding, I was quite surprised to learn a few years ago that Walmart was putting their front-line staff through it. It’s an onboarding module for training, but part of it has a first-person shooter scenario. There was an actual incident at a Walmart with employees that had gone through the simulation and they had said that they felt better equipped to handle the situation because of the VR training. There’s a lot to be said for being prepared for any kind of scenario… in addition to the shooter situation. There’s a company in Vancouver that does VR orthopedic training. Once I tried it, I understood the need for the VR application. I was looking at somebody’s shoulder and trying to drill into it.  (Laughing) It was giving me a lot of analytics that you wouldn’t get in real life, but this was telling me I was 2 mm off or within the 5 mm grace range. It was really quite interesting.”

 

HNMAG “Where do you see VR/AR technology in the next 5 years?”

MARY “It’s not going away. I remember starting the program back in 2019 and a lot of people were saying ‘it was a fad, it won’t last’. I see it getting more prevalent once phones improve and apps take a big leap. Once headsets are cheaper more people will have them. Facebook changed their name to Meta. They own Oculus, so they’ve been involved for a while. I believe they’re currently working on AR glasses that are comfortable and not big and clunky. I’d like to see what they look like when finished. I was able to try Microsoft’s HaloLens and that was amazing. The advances they’ve made are incredible. I had the experience of attaching a plane wing to the body of a plane. You’re wearing a clear visor with holograms and you can still see the real world. I had a real wing in front of me and I’ve never seen one that close but I was able to put it together, following the instructions. There were holograms with arrows pointing to where I had to plug things in. It’s a combination of 3D graphics over real world objects. They’re doing so much in the area of industry and manufacturing, with what’s called, ‘remote assist’. They can connect front line workers in factories that need to fix things to people that know how to do it. It’s pretty cool.”

 

HNMAG “If you could spend a virtual hour with anyone in the world, who would you spend it with?”

MARY “Oh gosh, that’s a good question. I think at this point, it would be my father in-law. He’s in England and we haven’t seen him in two years. My husband and my daughter really miss him, so that would be cool.”

 

VR/AR technology is here to stay and society is embracing it for the advantages, the safety and the cost. As far as they’ve come in these short few years, they have just scratched the surface and knocked on the door. The potential is enormous to take it much higher, as new procedures/protocols demand it. The Metaverse is the limit.

 

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