These days, virtual reality is red hot, with Forbes proclaiming 2016 as “Year One for VR in China” as the sector picks up the pace and begins to grow here. With Alibaba, Xiaomi, HTC, Chukong, Shanda, and Tencent embracing the technology, VR looks to have an exciting future in China. Technode reports that total VR investment in 2015 and 2016 reached 4 billion RMB ($593 million USD).
As usual, ShanghaiTech is ahead of the trend. The School of Information Science and Technology (SIST) features a brand-new Virtual Reality and Visual Computing Center run by Professor Yu Jingyi, who returned to Shanghai after over twenty years in the US, most recently working in light field, computer vision, computer imaging, and video surveillance at University of Delaware, where he is also a professor.
Professor Yu walks through the circular lab overlooking SIST’s entryway, which he affectionately dubs “The Enterprise” (he’s a Trekkie). The space is littered with cameras and computers in and surrounding the lab’s 360-degree light field dome.
“VR is an old concept, actually; You can backdate it to 1965,” he explains. “Recently, the display technology suddenly passed a critical point. Display-wise, they are actually able to create very fine quality headsets with very little delay. When you put it on, you will feel minimum dizziness.”
That technological development has spurred growth and interest in a number of connected industries, from surveillance to entertainment to gaming to online shopping. Professor Yu says the collaborations are providing ShanghaiTech with an ample amount of fascinating research and development projects.
“I'm very lucky to have a team working with me altogether on building this platform. I think this is really unique and also all of us are pretty young, so this is a fresh start for all of us,” he says. “We're not bound by any restrictions. We can use our imagination. We can do freely what we want to do. I think this is pretty essential.”
ShanghaiTech is an ideal place for the lab, he says. “I know at many established Chinese universities, junior faculty members would work with senior faculty members for years before they become independent,” he says. “Here, we give everybody freedom and enough resources so we can open our mind to any new ideas to do anything. This is very unique. I think this is how innovation should work.”
Yu, who runs his own start-up, Plex VR, alongside teaching at ShanghaiTech, says getting students involved with research and innovation is important. His team of student researchers are working on exciting projects, collaborating with everyone from Shanghai’s Public Security Bureau to Alibaba. Six undergraduate students spent the summer of 2017 working on a VR virtual ShanghaiTech campus. “They did an amazing job,” says Yu. Perhaps in the future, he adds, potential students could use this technology to take a “virtual ShanghaiTech tour” before ever setting foot on campus.
Another group of students worked on developing a new technology which Yu calls 360-degree holograms. “Holographics are very challenging,” he explains, adding, “You can only do holographics with a very narrow field of view, but we're able to do a very fancy panoramic holographic effect.” He says the quality of the students’ work is impressive. “They're actually filing for patents,” says Yu, emphasizing, “[They’re] undergrads.”
Yu says there is a lot of collaboration going among research teams in SIST. A top-notch group of researchers in ShanghaiTech’s School of Information Science and Technology are working together, including professors working on computer vision algorithms, robotics, semantic analysis and extra language processing. “I think the future of AI and VR will be together,” he says. “I think artificial intelligence and the virtual reality/augmented reality will be put together. We have extraordinary strength in both areas here.”
The VR lab is gearing up for some cross-disciplinary projects as well. “We're building a VR lab in the [still under construction] Creative Arts Center which we'll call a light stage. It's even bigger and uses super speed hi-res cameras to try to produce movie-quality VR/AR content.” The other half will remain as a panoramic VR experience, so the audience can view panoramic VR content with and without glasses. “I'm super excited about that experience,” he says.
The array of projects that Yu and his students are working on is quite diverse, from creating 3D avatars for every student on campus as a trial for what could be a next-generation social network, to creating digital 3D hongbaos that could be ready by Chinese New Year.
Yu says he has high hopes for his students. “I think the goal of ShanghaiTech is to foster, to educate the students to have their own startups, to become leaders and entrepreneurs,” he says. While he’d love to hire some ShanghaiTech grads, “I'll always encourage my undergraduate students to start up their own businesses.”
“They’re very young people, they're very energetic, very open minded,” he adds. “We're going to excel in all programs and pioneering technologies thanks to the resources and the support [at ShanghaiTech]. I think this will enable us to develop next generation technologies that will change the world.”