A virtual-reality game that requires you to solve the mystery of your own death.
A practical robot so simple even a four-year-old kid could use it.
An alarm clock that shares your annoyance at the G train being delayed … again.
These were just a few of the projects on display at the NYC Media Lab‘s summit last Thursday at Columbia University. The goal of the MetroTech-based Media Lab, backed by a consortium of the New York City Economic Development Corporation and a group of local universities, is to encourage greater collaboration between academia and local media companies. In the past year, it has developed 20 seed projects matching universities and companies and provided $250,000 in funding to universities, said Amy Chen, NYC Media Lab’s manager of partnerships.
“We’re establishing a talent pipeline,” she said.
The fruits of those efforts were evident at the event, which featured nearly 150 project and company demos throughout the day — making the event well worth the long trek up to Morningside Heights. The summit’s main stage included presentations from Verizon, Hearst, Viacom and MLB Advanced Media on those companies’ latest research and development work. Quite a few of the demos both on stage and in the exhibition hall came out of Brooklyn schools, including NYU Tandon School of Engineering, Pratt Institute and Brooklyn College. (A team of engineers from Brooklyn College won the $10,000 top prize in the Summit’s competition for a programming language they created.)
From Phones to Robots and Snarky Alarms
The summit included many demos of commercial products, including a group of projects out of Verizon Open Innovation, the research and development wing of the telecommunications company.
Connected plant monitors and friendly robots aren’t what you’d expect from Verizon. That’s precisely the point, said Christian Guirnalda, the director of Verizon Open Innovation. He stated upfront that Verizon’s work with the NYC Media Lab is just one way for the company to break free from stodgy corporate stereotypes in order to adapt to present-day needs.
“Verizon isn’t a phone company anymore,” he said. “The folks we used to hire aren’t the folks we have to hire in the future.”
One of Verizon’s biggest projects with NYC Media Lab is its Connected Futures research and prototyping challenge, which it began last year with five local universities. Through that partnership, the company has already made six hires, Guirnalda said. This fall, it is launching another challenge, which Guirnalda announced will focus on three areas: virtual and augmented reality, the internet of things and conversational user interfaces. (Applications to enter the challenge, which is open to university students, will open on Thursday.)
Three of the featured projects in Verizon’s segment came from Brooklyn schools, which we covered earlier this year. Electrical and computer engineering professor Yao Wang and her team, from NYU Tandon, presented a tool to produce composite videos from citizen journalism footage online. Jared Frank, a doctoral student at NYU Tandon, spoke about his project, Caesar, a humanoid robot that can be controlled with gestures on a tablet.
The most colorful presentation came from Pratt assistant professor Victor Vina, who demonstrated what he called teleobjects: “not-so-smart” objects with new interfaces that enable users to interact with them in “delightful and enjoyable ways,” he said. The first of these teleobjects is a ticker that connects to its user’s email, calendar, social media accounts, and alarm-clock settings through an app. It doesn’t just display information, but it analyzes all those data points through machine learning to detect patterns. Hence, the exasperated message “The G train is delayed. Again?” which drew a hearty laugh from the audience.
“It’s about artificial empathy, versus artificial intelligence,” Vina said. (We get his point, though we’d suggest a new moniker. Engineered empathy, maybe?)
What Is This VR Thing, Anyway?
Another of NYC Media Lab’s corporate members is Viacom, which like Verizon also hosts a R&D program in conjunction with the organization. The fruits of that partnership were also on display at the summit. While Verizon’s projects ran the gamut from the internet of things to data analysis, Viacom’s segment was squarely focused on one topic: virtual reality. The company’s R&D arm, Viacom NEXT, focuses on emerging technologies such as VR and augmented reality. As stated on its website, this year, VR has been a big focus for the company. Basically, it’s seeking to get a handle on how best to apply it.
“It’s not quite film, and it’s not quite games,” said Rob Ruffler, Viacom NEXT’s senior director.
The company enlisted NYC Media Lab to create a fellowship in virtual reality for local college students. Six fellows were selected from four area schools, including NYU Game Center, and for eight weeks this summer, they worked on VR projects in collaboration with Viacom’s team. At the summit, Ruffler moderated a panel with three of the fellows, including Michelle Senteio, an MFA student at NYU Game Center.
Senteio’s project, which she developed along with NYU Game Center classmate Samuel Von Ehren, is called Curtain Call. In the VR game, the player is directed by a ghost to trace the cause of his or her character’s death. The haunting image that appears before the player is quite convincing, from the trailer, but according to Senteio, it wasn’t originally a part of the game. The game, she explained, always had a mystery conceit, but test players found it difficult to figure out what they were supposed to do without an explicit prompt. She and Von Ehren responded to that feedback by creating what turned out to be the most compelling part of the game for many players, Senteio said.
Both Senteio and Von Ehren were motivated to create a game that lets players use their hands to manipulate virtual objects, which they believe creates greater engagement, as they expressed in NYC Media Lab’s announcement of the fellowship program on Medium. But at the summit, Senteio was even more enthusiastic about what she believes is next to come in virtual reality: blurring the lines between VR and actual reality.
“Even though you’re immersed in the game, you’re aware of reality,” she said. “I’m excited for where we’re so immersed, we’re there.”