Sask Polytech May 2020
Tech

Keeping it Real: Saskatchewan on the Cusp of Technological Revolution

Virtual Reality

The importance of adopting new technology for work has become crystal clear as the world reacts to the COVID-19 pandemic. People are scrambling to adopt remote working technology and re-examining the Internet of Things (IoT), the gig economy, and how we interact with technology and each other.

New rules are being written and re-written daily about social interactions—and the uncertainty about the economy has people simultaneously trying to course correct immediately and plan for the long term. As people are looking for new ways to conduct business, connect with their families and friends at a safe distance, and balance a healthy respect for the new norm with some good old fashioned escapism, there may never have been a better time to examine virtual reality (VR).

Catching Up with a Saskatchewan Expert

Dr. David Gerhardt

Dr. David Gerhard

Dr. David Gerhard from the University of Regina’s Faculty of Computer Science has been working closely with VR. In his time as a professor, he has seen the technology come a long way. Always interested in how humans interact with computers, he watched VR emerge as something that aligned with his interests.

“I was a Kick-Starter on the original Oculus Developer kit,” he says, getting up from our interview to pull a large black box from a shelf. “This is the original Oculus developer kit,” he says as he explains that he’s been passionate about VR for some time.

His excitement about VR has been well received, and VR is now a course at the University of Regina. It began last summer with a small and informal group and grew into a full course this term. “It’s a graduate and undergraduate course and we talk about not just how to build stuff for VR, but all of the issues around the current state of technology, and where it’s going in the future,” he says.

VR is not new technology, but it is relatively new to achieving usable levels of sophistication in education, business, and entertainment. The huge polygons of the 90s and the giant, heavy, expensive, hard-wired head gear and single click controllers have been replaced by increasingly versatile equipment, faster software and a wider variety of applications thanks to the growth of supporting programmers.

How long until we see VR ingrained in our everyday life? There’s a way to go yet, with technology, software, and industry adoption.

“The Quest and the Cosmos are good enough standalone options that you don’t need a big beefy computer and a big bay station anymore,” Dr. Gerhard explains. “The big thing holding VR back was expense—devices were hundreds of dollars. The computer to run the software was expensive. Plus, a user needed space and the “inside out” tracking devices. It was all very prohibitive for wide adoption.” But with newer, smaller, faster and cheaper options—we’re getting closer. One major hurdle will be the interaction—how to get the environments to recognize movement.

Increasing Adoption in Saskatchewan

If you need to teach people how to use your program, they’re going to be slow to adopt it. Dr. Gerhard recognizes this and is working with the next generation of developers to solve this and other problems.

This has resulted in a lot of very interesting projects being developed—some of course, can’t be discussed as they are in development.

One that he has seen, however, is a nursing simulator that allows you to interact with patients and do procedures in virtual reality. “They’re looking to sell this across the country—and it’s not bad! It’s starting to get to the point where the interactions are good enough that you can see a real path for education to use these types of technologies.”

That tipping point could be game changing in Saskatchewan, where we have jobs that require training that can be expensive and potentially dangerous. VR used to train people in the mining, agriculture, and heavy construction could reduce costs and save lives for the end users—but what could it be doing for our economy more directly?

Saskatchewan’s Time to Shine

In Saskatchewan we have institutions, population and industry—what could we be doing to connect them and grow this innovative and exciting sector?

Dr. Gerhard muses, “We have a couple of good computer science departments in our universities, we’ve got our technical colleges, all of these are full of people interested in this stuff.”

“Those institutions could start working together more, and industry needs to bring interesting problems to them. Universities needs to reach out to industry to find these interesting problems. Because we’ve got bright students who want to build projects as a part of their classes, and these industries with interesting problems to solve. This is a perfect opportunity for a kind of industry-academic collaboration.”

Industry-academic collaboration projects that can be commercialized benefit the economy. We have an opportunity in emerging industries where other large markets are already set in their ways. While they have been doing it for a while, we can experiment with new ways of doing things. As a smaller market that’s been a bit slower to embrace the technology, we are at a great place to innovate.

We’re seeing a real urge to connect at all levels—government, academia and industry. We want to turn our weaknesses into our strengths. In the bigger markets, your chances of getting a meeting with the right people is smaller. Small community can work to our advantage. It’s important to know what other markets are doing so we can build up.

“Where we can really shine is in the production of peripherals,” says Dr. Gerhard. Building a headset is big, expensive and complicated—but building an object that interacts with the headset is much easier. A real-world object that can interact with the VR world created what some people are calling Augmented Virtuality—an entire virtual world with a real-world object you can feel in your hands.

How does Saskatchewan take Advantage Now?

Dr. Gerhard envisions the development of a program where industry and academia work together to provide specific training to employees who are already doing some of the basic programming. It could be as simple as a professional development course where industry can send developers to university for a week-long workshop, get them up to speed with the new tech, let them play with university hardware, teach them best practices in terms of development and send them back into the workforce as VR developers.

As academic institutions examine ways to offer their own classroom content in innovative ways due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the timing could be perfect in Saskatchewan to create a specialized and lucrative economic contribution to the VR industry.