Jeremy Nelson, Director of the XR Initiative

collage of Alternate Reality Initiative (ARI) event photosIn this week’s MiXR Studios podcast, we talk with Beste Aydin and Matthew Kosova, co-presidents of the University of Michigan’s student-run Alternate Reality Initiative (ARI). Beste and Matthew are founding members of the student organization created to provide a community and a home for students at U-M who were interested in exploring extended reality technologies.

We discuss its origins and how a group of enterprising students created one of the largest student XR organizations in the country. This was a real grassroots effort to create a place on campus for students to learn more about XR and explore what is possible. ARI was founded in January 2018 and quickly became a hub for interested students to connect and learn more.

student members of Alternate Reality Initiative

Quickly, the founding members realized there was more interest than they anticipated, and both decided they needed to start conducting workshops and training for their fellow students. They were able to utilize the Visualization Studio at the Duderstadt Center to bring students together and explore the software and Oculus Rift and HTC Vive Pros. In 2019, ARI grew to more than 100 interested students and weekly meetings had between 30 to 50 attendees. They mixed social events with food and VR game competitions with sessions featuring a structured curriculum of detailed training for Unity, Blender, and other development tools.

Attendee of XR Midwest conference using VR headsetIn 2018-19, the ARI leadership team decided to run an XR conference to gauge the interest across industry and academia in the region. They postulated that the midwest was home to a lot of talent and entrepreneurial spirit, and they created the XR Midwest conference. They secured 10 speakers and 15 exhibitors from industry and the university. The event was attended by more than 100 people. In 2020, they were forced to move virtual because of COVID-19, but they quickly adapted and had more than 200 attendees and featured speakers from across the country. As if that wasn’t enough, they pushed further to become a founding member of the Intercollegiate XR community that consists of student organizations from 20 universities across North America. \

I thoroughly enjoyed talking with Beste and Matthew and learning about what they are wanting the university to do for XR and how they see the future evolving. Please share with us what you would like to learn more about in the XR space at jernel@umich.edu.

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Transcript: MiXR Studios, Episode 11.

Jeremy Nelson (00:10):
Hello, I’m Jeremy Nelson. And today we are talking with Beste Aydin and Matthew Kosova, two undergraduate students at the University of Michigan. We are talking about their work in founding the alternate reality initiative student group, dedicated to learning and exploring XR and what they would like to see us do at Michigan with XR coming up next in our Mixr podcast. Welcome Matthew and Beste. I appreciate you spending some time with us today.

Beste Aydin (00:53):
Thanks for having us.

Matthew Kosova (00:54):
Thank you.

Jeremy Nelson (00:56):
Yeah, I’m really excited to have you join the podcast and share the, your experience, the student perspective, all the exciting work you’ve been doing with ARI. Matthew, since you were one of the founders I’d love for maybe you to start off, you know, describing how ARI was founded, what is it, what your goals were, how it’s evolving?

Matthew Kosova (01:19):
Yeah, of course. So I guess first of all, ARI stands for the alternate reality initiative. It is an XR student organization at the University of Michigan. And it happens to be one of the largest XR organizations in the country and in the Midwest. So we started Ari almost three years ago now, it was my freshman year at the University of Michigan. And especially what happened was one of the other co-founders Michael Sidon. He had posted something on a Facebook page saying if there were any students interested in XR technology to like his message and you know connect and they would be up. So I saw that and I liked that because I had some experience with the research with AR back in high school. So I decided why not connect with this other student and kind of see where it goes.

Matthew Kosova (02:17):
So we ended up meeting up at a bar with a few other people through an Ann Arbor meetup, and we started to discuss a possibility of starting a student organization around XR technology. From there we got a small group of students to help kind of be the core of the team. And we were able to get the process and get a student organization started. And, you know, through talking with other students at the university, talking with students from other universities who already had experience with running a student organization, and of course, talking with professors and other faculty members at the university, we were able to get a small group of students around 10, 15 students to be able to come to our meetings. And we were able to kind of start this community at a small level a few years ago. And then really ever since then, we’ve kind of snowballed our way up our first year that we started, we were able to get $15,000 in funding through the optimized program at the university, as well as through the BLI capstone program.

Matthew Kosova (03:27):
So we were able to use that funding to buy equipment, to buy marketing materials. There’ll be about 1000 stickers that we still have, are given away to the state. And we were able to start a couple of projects and have additional funding that we still have now. So it was a very, it was a very grassroots effort I think, and it’s become a very special project for me because it’s been three years in the making.

Jeremy Nelson (04:00):
Yeah, no, I love that, that origin story and meeting up at a bar and sharing ideas and that’s great. It’s like a startup. And what were, what were some of your initial goals or objectives or what did you want to just explore?

Matthew Kosova (04:15):
Yes, the main goal overall was really just to start a community, which sounds kind of cliche, but it was true. Because at that time for undergraduate students, there really weren’t any resources on campus to go to if you were interested in augmented or virtual reality.

Matthew Kosova (04:35):
Most of the equipment on campus was tied up with individual professors. And I think at that time, a lot of professors or faculty members who were doing research with XR kind of kept a lot of their equipment and a lot of their resources to themselves it seemed like. I don’t remember exactly, but I remember when we first started out, we interviewed a lot of different faculty members and I think 1% he had like 20 Microsoft HoloLenses and that probably constituted the majority of HoloLenses on campus.

Jeremy Nelson (05:09):
Yes. Yes.

Matthew Kosova (05:10):
So it was really interesting to hear.

Jeremy Nelson (05:15):
Yes, I’ve, I’ve been able to find out who has them all now that’s, that’s professor Chesney. There’s about almost 50 across campus at this point, at least the HoloLens one we were just able to secure the HoloLens two a couple of those. So when.

Jeremy Nelson (05:34):
Yeah, when we get back together, back to campus, we’ll be happy to have you try those out and check them out. Beste how did you get involved in, what was your role in the founding? Were you one of the founding or at least the first group, or how did that evolve?

Beste Aydin (05:47):
So I I’ve been interested in XR technology like Matthew since high school, where I wrote a paper about how XR could be used to help people with disabilities. So when I saw Michael’s posts online, I was also very interested. So I started joining from the first meeting and I remember it was just a small group of us trying to teach each other development and build the community around this. I remember when we first went into one of the visualization studio labs and there were these sweet computers with headsets, and we were just so excited to try them out and see all the cool things we could make with them. And it’s been great seeing how that small group community has grown since then and how we were able to build off of those that very small beginning. After that first year I joined the team as a developer to help make workshops for students and to teach them. And then I started meeting to workshops to teach, to organize what we were teaching and created a global curriculum. And this past year I came as the co-president with Matthew leading the club. So it was a journey. My growth was sort of with the club as well.

Jeremy Nelson (07:10):
Oh, that’s great. Congratulations. That’s, that’s super exciting. Wow. I didn’t realize you had a whole curriculum and I knew there were some of the workshops, but what was that based out of you wanting to, to share knowledge? Were people asking for more targeted learnings? How did that start?

Beste Aydin (07:28):
So ARI personally, I see it as like two areas where we want to teach development to students because we want them to be able to explore the technology and give them tools to explore as well. But we also want the community with us. So we have social events paired with workshop events and the workshops where we have a team of people who make workshops. So we have a leadership team and we all make workshops based on our personal interests and what our members seem to be interested in. So it works out with how, you know, we might be very enthusiastic about a topic and we might know a lot about it, so we will teach that or members want, might want certain topics. So we’ll make sure that we teach that as well.

Jeremy Nelson (08:13):
Yeah. That’s exciting. What are some of your favorite topics or areas that most interest to you?

Beste Aydin (08:20):
One of the favorite workshops I did was actually with Blender teaching how to make simple assets that people could use in their virtual reality projects, because it seems so unique because it wasn’t as technical as the other workshops, but people still found it very useful to make their own projects and have their own assets in their projects. So that was my favorite workshop.

Jeremy Nelson (08:46):
Yeah, no, I bet. I think that’s, that’s great. Were there, anybody surprise you or anybody create something you were like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe you did that’?.

Beste Aydin (08:53):
Oh yes, we had a workshop. Well, for this was not with the Blender workshop, but another workshop we had the basketball workshop teaching how to make a basketball hoop and shoot basketballs in their, Matthew you probably remembered his ball.

Beste Aydin (09:12):
Nick, he made a basketball cannon where he could blast basketballs into the hoop and that was just so crazy and so much fun.

Jeremy Nelson (09:21):
That’s great. No, it’s we’re working on a VR physics lab project now in the, and the first prototype we’re launching cannon balls. So that made me think of that. We should talk to him. Well, that’s, that’s great. So what sort of you know, how many people joined, you know, it sounds like it started out slow as a smaller group, but now how has it evolved? What’s it look like this last year?

Matthew Kosova (09:49):
Yes. So when we first started out for members of, for students that would actually come to our meetings in person, we were probably getting at most 10 to 15 students that first year. I remember the very last meeting of that first year. We said, Hey, everyone, we’re going to buy pizza. We’re going to have happy finals, you know, good luck party and not a single person showed up outside of leadership.

Jeremy Nelson (10:16):
Oh no.

Matthew Kosova (10:16):
It was definitely tough getting, trying to figure out how to get students interested and how to get some succumb, but then if we’re looking at last year, so two years later, we were probably averaging around 25 to 30 students in person at each of our meetings, which was by far our best record.

Jeremy Nelson (10:38):
That’s great. Yeah.

Matthew Kosova (10:39):
Our best numbers throughout the entire year. I think our first meeting had around 55 students there, right after we did the initial recruitments, even 55 students there then the next one, you know, went down to 45, 40, but it usually settled around 25, 30, which was fantastic for us and allowed us to really start to build up that community of projects with everyone.

Jeremy Nelson (11:06):
Oh, that’s great. What, where were the students coming from? Their specific schools or disciplines?

Beste Aydin (11:12):
So mostly mainly people who were interested are from engineering, mainly CS, but we’ve seen students from many different disciplines and we also encourage students from different backgrounds in terms of knowledge, to join as well. So when we teach workshops, we’re not teaching them. We teach them assuming that you might not be familiar with programming or any of the stuff we’re talking about. And that’s why sometimes we have beginners join. Sometimes we have more experienced people. I think you have a graduate students too Matthew, right?

Matthew Kosova (11:44):
Yeah. The first year we had a good amount of graduate students our first year, but then they graduated and went on to their professions. But last year as well, we had a few graduate students. Thanks in part to Michael Nebeling giving us a shout out in his courses.

Jeremy Nelson (12:04):
Yes. Yep. Yeah, no, he’s, he’s been great for advocating and making sure that I connect with you all and, and we, we stay connected and, and try to coordinate well, so what what’s, what’s the future look like? You know, obviously this last semester, things changed dramatically for everybody, but what does the future look like? Where would you like to see this go? What are you hoping to accomplish?

Matthew Kosova (12:31):
I think for the most parts, it’s going to be, try to do what we’ve been doing for this next year, for the next few semesters. Kind of like you said, you know, with, COVID disrupted to say the least our final semester last, last school year. So now we have to figure out over the summer, how do we proceed for the next school year? Do we have things in person would people want to have meetings in person? So I think for this year, success for us would look like doing what we did last year and just continuing to have workshops, whether in person or online, continuing to run some of our different programs, such as project teams. And then later in the year, I would still love to hold our annual conference hopefully in person, but if not online.

Jeremy Nelson (13:22):
Yeah. Yeah. Well, we’ll get to the conference in, in a second. The do many of the students have equipment, did they have VR headsets or do they come to the lab to do that?

Beste Aydin (13:35):
Some of them do, but majority of them don’t, we’ve been using the school’s facilities, which, which is amazing it’s like 20-30 headsets. And that’s how we’ve been hosting more of the virtual reality themed workshops with like Oculus virtual reality, augmented reality, you can even use a phone for it. So if things go online, that’s more of an area we might need to focus on augmented reality and using phones, but virtual reality equipment wise, most of the students don’t have that.

Jeremy Nelson (14:09):
Sure. Yep. Yeah, no, we we’ve seen that a lot of folks are interested in like, Oh, with this hybrid remote, can we use XR to do this? And it’s like, yes, but we don’t have enough equipment out there yet. And so that’s a bit of a challenge. Well you, you started to mention the conference Matthew, and you mentioned potentially other university student groups. Could you share a little bit more about, you know, the XR Midwest and what you’re doing there and other institutions?

Matthew Kosova (14:37):
Yeah. So during our second full year, or I guess our first full year of having a viritual reality initiative, we had some leftover funding from what I talked about earlier with that those two programs. And we decided to run a conference mostly just to see if we could and to see if students on campus would be interested if we could get people from just the Michigan area or maybe even people from just closer, next nearby States to come.

Matthew Kosova (15:09):
And so we ran a, what, we call it, the XR Midwest conference. And the idea with that was, and still is to essentially showcase different projects, different companies, and different people who are working on this technology in the Midwest with the idea being that the Midwest region of the United States generally lacks the attention as opposed to the West coast, specifically, California, East coast, even the South in Texas there’s a lot of tech hubs. A lot of times the Midwest is overlooked. So we want to give those people and their projects attention that we think that they deserve. And so our first year in 2019, we got, let’s say 10 speakers in total. We had, it was all in person to be an exhibition where we had 15 different exhibitors from both those companies and students and a few professors were there. And in Toby, we’re about to get Ed people to attend. So we sold those tickets and it was a really, really great experience, especially for us doing it for the first time ever and not really knowing what to do.

Jeremy Nelson (16:25):
Yeah, no, that’s great. I applaud your entrepreneurial spirits.

Matthew Kosova (16:30):
Yeah. And then last year, or this year for 2020, because of COVID-19 and we had to switch things around and kind of in the last two to three weeks before our conference, we moved everything online to zoom and that was a whole other type of experience. We ended up getting around 300 people to register for it. I think on the day you had a little bit over 200 unique visitors there. So 200 different people actually showed up at some points and we were able to have seven or eight different speakers from, again, from companies around the, around the Midwest. We also got some larger companies with, Microsoft was one of the speakers and you were one of the speakers.

Jeremy Nelson (17:16):
Yeah, no, it was great. It was great. That was, that was

Matthew Kosova (17:19):
Yes. And that was another, yeah, that was a really, it was a really good experience to see how we were able to put that on

Jeremy Nelson (17:28):
No. That’s, that’s exciting. Beste, you know, our XR initiative is really to bring, you know, XR technologies for teaching and learning. So we’ve been working a lot with faculty and the different schools to try to see where could we bring these tools to the educational experience and their tools, right. They know that’s not going to be the, be all end all to solve everything. But from, from the student perspective, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what, how you’d like to see these tools brought to the different courses, where they might be most useful, what other members are you interested in?

Beste Aydin (18:07):
So personally I haven’t taken any XR related courses directly, although I have used XR in some of my class projects like last year for an entrepreneurship class, we made an augmented reality app. And coming from that perspective I, and I think this is what you’re working towards. It’s just having a resource where students who want to pursue XR, even if it’s outside of the course, even if it’s for their personal projects to have a resource or a guidance. And then for some people they can go to or resource where they can learn so that they can explore the technology and make what they want on their own, or when someone who’s taking a class who wants to go further beyond what the class is teaching, to be able to explore further or learn more from a centralized resource, which could be online courses in person discussions. Personally, I think that would be great. And I think that’s what you’re working towards as well, which I’m very happy about.

Jeremy Nelson (19:07):
Yeah, yeah, no, it’s, it’s kinda, you know, some people talk about, you know, teaching how to make with XR and just teaching with those tools. So, you know professor Sarah Blair taught a course in the fall of 19 around novels in virtual realities where they used XR as the object of study. But others you’ll be building. So there’s, you know, there’s lots of different opportunities to, to use the technology in ways that are unique and bring different opportunities.

Beste Aydin (19:36):
I don’t even talk about using XR as part of the learning experience. That is a whole other thing. And I think that’s really cool. I want to experience that now.

Jeremy Nelson (19:45):
Yeah, no, they they’ve, they’ve they read novels and then went and viewed like VR experiences. And so like the thousand cut journey from professor Dr. Cogburn, they the terminal three, which is an AR experience where you’re a border control agent. So it was just you know, I hadn’t thought of it either. I thought mostly from the building and the making space or, or more of the engineering, that’s my background space. So it’s, there’s just so many different areas.

Beste Aydin (20:15):
Yeah, that sounds so cool.

Jeremy Nelson (20:19):
Yeah. No, well, just in terms of any concerns you see about, you know, the future of XR for teaching and learning, or how to properly bring these to the classroom, any concerns from your perspectives?

Beste Aydin (20:35):
In terms of teaching and learning? I think one of the main things is right now, we’re sort of in the innovation phase of XR, where there is no known best practice, no known industry standards we’re still all exploring and learning. So I think the learning style and the teaching style needs to sort of reflect that where it needs to be more open ended because we don’t know what the future is going to hold. And we don’t yet know the full capabilities of this technology. And I think that might be because that is a different type of learning and teaching. That might be challenging, keeping it more open ended for innovation.

Jeremy Nelson (21:14):
Yeah, no, that’s, that’s a great thought. I agree. We’re still exploring and, and there’s not a lot of great research out there now on like how best to use these technologies to enhance the learning, what type of learning and where best to deploy them. So it is a journey.

Matthew Kosova (21:30):
Yeah, I think right now, a lot of that research and a lot of that, a lot of those studies are starting to happen now, which is great. Personally, I think the biggest thing that will not necessarily prevent XR from being integrated more into education at a higher level, but something that could definitely limit it or make it a bit more difficult is that I think that if you want to have XR in your courses, you also have to have the opportunity for students that either don’t want to use it or can’t use it, which, you know, it takes one step forward, two steps back sort of, because if you’re talking about virtual reality, there may be students that, you know, go into VR and they get motion sickness. And so if a portion of their course is in VR and they don’t feel like they’re able to participate, then you know, that can be detrimental to them. And they may not want to take that course. The same thing goes for students with disabilities, if they aren’t able to use a VR headset, or if it’s for AR, if they can’t use one of those headsets, for whatever reason, I think that those courses would still need to have options for them, which definitely makes it a bit tougher on the professor. But realistically, it’s something that would have to happen or be considered.

Beste Aydin (23:01):
Yeah. I completely agree.

Jeremy Nelson (23:03):
Yeah, no, it’s, it’s, it’s definitely something we think about in terms of accessibility and equity, you know, there’s a, there’s a whole XR access group out there of different institutions thinking about and trying to provide guidelines for how to build these experiences and make them accessible. Yeah. Well, I’d love to hear from both of your perspectives, like what do you want to see us do as we continue forward and, and, and help us shape this, what would you love to see us do? I mean, you’re already leaving a great, you know, imprint and mark with, with your work with ARI and how can we help?

Matthew Kosova (23:41):
So I think overall what the university has been doing, and of course what you’ve been doing with the XR initiative, I think that we’re taking the right steps. If you just look at the visualization studio that we have on campus you know, with ARI, we talk with a lot of students, student leaders from other universities, from all over the country, some in Canada, some could say we’re international, but we talk a lot with our students and the number of schools that have a public resource for students like we have with the visualization studio is very, very small. I mean, I don’t know exactly, but I would guess that there are very few public universities and private universities in the US and probably in the world that have that type of resource for students. A lot of students that we talked to get their hardware and get their equipment from individual professors or through private labs.

Matthew Kosova (24:41):
So I think what Michigan is doing with making a bunch of VR headsets public, and I know that at the Duderstadt that you can rent out both AR and VR headsets through that library. So I think in terms of hardware the University of Michigan is doing a really good job, but when we’re, if you want to kind of go into what we could be doing better, the only thing I could really think of would be to add undergraduate courses for the psychology, because if you want to talk about students who were interested in XR at university, they’re really two types of students in my opinion. There are students that before they enter college, they know that they’re interested in this technology and they know that they want to get into a career with this technology. And then there are students that don’t know that when they enter college, but then they get to college and they find the interests that in right now at Michigan, I think that we really only catered to this second type of student, to the student that doesn’t really know that he wants to go into this technology, but they’re able to find your XR at the university, through the public resources, through maybe one of their courses that happens to use it, or maybe they find our student organization, they find, they find a love for it.

Matthew Kosova (26:04):
But right now, if the student knows they want to go into XR, maybe if they don’t live in Michigan, maybe they would go to a different university that offers more undergraduate level courses. So I think that’d be the biggest step that we can make.

Jeremy Nelson (26:22):
Great. Beste?

Beste Aydin (26:27):
I agree with Matthew’s second point right now like the ARI students can explore, but if they want to maybe minor or actually go in depth into this technology, having coursework for that would be great. Additionally, I mean, with the resources we have and the resources we’re getting, something I have learned from some of my classmates is that, for example, like the visual studio, not everyone knows how to get there, what’s available. If they can use it, that information for some people is not very well known. And I think what the university could do is make that more well known for students that we have this amazing facility and students can go there to explore, because some assumptions I got from some of my classmates is it’s only for coursework. You need special access to get in there, which are not true. Anyone can go in there and making that more well known.

Jeremy Nelson (27:23):
Yeah, those are great points. I’ll take that on. We’ll, we’ll start to share that and market that well, this has been great. I love hearing the perspective. I’m excited about the work that you all have done and are continuing to do. I really appreciate you spending some time with us and sharing your stories.

Matthew Kosova (27:42):
Yeah. Thanks again for having us on.

Beste Aydin (27:45):
Yeah. Thank you for having us.

Jeremy Nelson (27:47):
Thanks. Take care.

Jeremy Nelson (28:01):
Thank you for joining us today. Our vision for the XR initiative is to enable education at scale that is hyper contextualized using XR tools and experiences. Please subscribe to our podcast and check out more about our work at https://ai.umich.edu/xr.