These University of Waterloo professors are helping build the metaverse

Facebook's parent company, Meta, is investing in Canadian researchers to help build the metaverse. Two University of Waterloo professors were among 17 Canadian researchers to receive a $30,000 grant to support their work.

Unrestricted grant from Meta speaks to the value of Canadian talent, says researcher

Dan Vogel was among 17 other Canadian researchers to have received an unrestricted grant of $30,000 from Facebook's parent company, Meta, that will support their work in building the metaverse. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

Two University of Waterloo professors are part of a team funded by Facebook's parent company, Meta, to build the metaverse over the next decade.

The Ontario researchers are among 17 Canadians to have each received an unrestricted $30,000 grant from Meta's Reality Labs Research, to support their work.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks of the metaverse as though it's the future of the internet. While there is still a debate on what the metaverse really is, these researchers describe it as the next step for the digital world.

"It's actually a term that's been around for a while and it continues to evolve. It's like how people talked about the internet in the 1980s," said Daniel Vogel, a professor in the university's school of computer science. 

But to Jian Zhao, it's a medium that blends the real and virtual worlds.

Zhao's research, also within the school of computer science, explores how people and computers interact. He said he wants to better understand how that relationship might work in a more immersive environment that the metaverse offers. 

"A lot of information is displayed on desktop or mobile phones, but the metaverse is a growing, new trend for displaying and exploring information," he said. "That's what got me into this field of research: how people become more immersive in data and explore information and communicate." 

Player using the virtual reality system. (Doug Herbert/CBC)

Right now, Zhao and his PhD students are exploring different styles of interaction between virtual reality streamers and their audiences. He said he wants to use the grant money to research and find ways to improve virtual reality technology and make it more immersive.

Virtual reality (VR) streaming is quite popular in the gaming industry, Zhao said, but most technology caters to desktop streaming, which can limit how virtual reality streamers share their content with viewers.

"So we want to ... investigate the frustrations and difficulties that the streamer and viewer encounter and develop technologies to facilitate this communication," Zhao said.

Vogel's research to create their spacial augmented reality uses an array of different equipment like cameras and several of these projectors to track motion and display content. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

Spacial augmented reality

Vogel's work, meanwhile, ventures outside the VR goggles using projections — also known as spacial augmented reality (SAR). 

"Imagine you had special construction materials like paints or wall paper made up of pixels," he said. "Now everything is capable of displaying information: even walls, floors, cups."

He and his students use specialized projectors, cameras and software calibrated to make those projections and the infrastructure was developed in a previous grant Vogel received. 

Now, with this new grant, from Meta, he and his students will be able to test out different scenarios and purchase more equipment.

Vogel said the unrestricted grant from Meta speaks to the value of Canadian talent and gives Meta a chance to try out new ideas.

"It also allows them to do some indirect experimentation with some of the ideas — like what my lab is doing — that maybe don't have commercial viability in the short term," he said.

"There may be more experimental ideas that they may not pursue in house, but they're very happy to use some of their funds to help labs like ours to look even further into the future."

Vogel and Zhao say developing the metaverse is still in the early stages and there will be bumps along the way. But that's where they — and their research — come in.

"Our roles as researchers is to try different things and think about some of the problems that we might encounter in this new kind of technology and to try and work toward solving those now," Vogel said.

Daekun Kim is a third-year undergrad student working with Vogel. He created the software used in their lab's spacial augmented reality. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)


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