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Technology: Interacting with people and information

Contributing Writer

Remember the printing press? The radio? Television? Technology has progressed incredibly since the year 1440 and continues to do so with the integration of the Internet and mobile technology. Now, in the year 2015, researchers at the University of Maryland (UMD) are exploring the world of interactive technologies in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR).

Supported in part by a $600,000 award from the National Science Foundation and supplemented by an additional $400,000 in funding from UMD, The Virtual and Augmented Reality Laboratory, also known as the UMIACS Augmentarium, became fully operational in December 2014.

Virtual Reality immerses users literally and directly into an audio-visual environment, enabling direct interaction and manipulation in real time. According to a UMD source, the Virtual Reality Laboratory (VRLab, one of 16 UMD VR and AR labs) allows design engineers to literally walk around inside their virtually created structures and adjust the design parameters.

“Virtual reality either mimics real-world settings or creates worlds that would otherwise be impossible to represent; augmented reality embeds digital information into real-world settings,” describes Amitabh Varshney, Ph.D. Varshney is a UMD professor of computer science and director of the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS).

Reality technologies are vastly contributing to Maryland’s tech economy in the computer/video gaming industry, but Varshney believes “future uses of VR and AR are limited only by one’s imagination.”

The UMIACS Augmentarium explores the uses of these advanced technologies for surgical training, consumer experiences (shopping, dining, tourism, travel) and industrial use to complete intricate assembly or repair projects and contributes also to “national security related to enhancing the safety and efficiency of United States warfighters in a battlefield environment,” states Varshney.

Currently, UMD is establishing the Brendan Iribe Center for Computer Science and Innovation, made possible by a $31 million donation from co-founder and CEO of Oculus VR, Brendan Iribe. “When completed,” Varshney says, “the Iribe Center will serve as a unique hub for advancing new discoveries in virtual reality, computer visualization, robotics and more.”

The Department of Computer Science is in its fourth year hosting a camp designed to stimulate interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) for underrepresented groups. Oculus VR has helped the two-week day camp to grow with its financial support and supply of 3-D VR headsets these campers can use to create games and increase skillsets in cyber security, webpage development and programming.

If the innovation of the UMIACS Augmentarium were not enough, Varshney states, “[The Iribe Center] will elevate the University of Maryland to a worldwide leadership role in advancing the state of the art for virtual and augmented reality.”

It is evident that technology has the power to transform how people interact with information and with each other. Mobile devices are the mini computers of today equipped with applications allowing users to access millions of websites with the tap of a finger. As more of the world demands smart devices and ultramobiles, which include tablets, hybrids, clamshells, e-readers and the like, suppliers in the technology marketplace are increasing the mobile applications jobs available in America.

Rising to tackle the demand, the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) added to its two-year associate degree (AA) in Information Technology (IT) a concentration in Mobile App Development in the fall semester of 2014. Following this addition in June 2015, the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC) approved certification as a second option for those interested in creating apps called, The Mobile App Development Certificate.

Darlene Cross, associate professor in CCBC’s School of Applied and Information Technology (SAIT) and Computer Science/Information Technology (CSIT) proudly notes that, “CCBC is the only school in Maryland, and possibly the United States offering this type of certificate at this time.”

While the IT degree with a concentration in Mobile App Development is designed for students interested in obtaining an AA degree or continuing on to a four year college, the certificate requires a total of only 16 credits for completion, preparing students for instant work.

Susan Hecht Maggio, Interim CSIT Department chair states, “The goals of this certificate are to provide a pathway for students who may already be employed as an IT professional but need to update their skills in mobile application development, and to provide a ‘stackable’ credential pathway for students who are interested in mobile development.”

Whatever your academic or career situation, CCBC is seeking candidates with strength of character, the willingness to work with a team and the ability to communicate ideas effectively. “One thing that is not required is a vast mathematical skill set,” Cross notes. “This is a myth!”

Baltimore County high schoolers interested in mobile app development have the option to fast-track into the certificate program. According to Cross, these students can take “four classes for free at CCBC,” not including two introductory courses labeled as prerequisites. However, students who have taken Advanced Placement (AP) courses in Computer Science in high school are automatically “pre-req done!” states Cross. The fast-track essentially equips students for real world employment upon graduation from high school. Should these individuals further their education towards an AA in this field, they and their families have the satisfaction of knowing that half of their IT degree came free of charge! This is something not to be taken lightly in an age where college graduates enter the work force in over their heads in debt.

Both Cross and Maggio represent a team of enthusiasm, experience and strength committed to the betterment of the Baltimore County public and all who will train under the mobile app certificate and degree services in years to come.

Much of modern technology capitalizes on convenience and efficiency. The University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) noted in a survey that the writing faculty had concerns about the effectiveness of their written comments for students’ learning and retention and the time it took to produce these comments.

Inspired by research from Washington State University and North Carolina State, nine UMBC faculty and four hundred students from various first year English courses participated in a research project designed to test the effectiveness of audio-commenting on student writing as an alternative to traditional written feedback.

Among the faculty participants was lead investigator, Sally Shivnan, associate director, writing and rhetoric division of the English Department. Shivnan and her team used iAnnotate, an editing app for iPad with hopes of avoiding some of the limitations of traditional written feedback, such as interpretation of meaning and tone and the time required of instructors to write clearly while managing the “feedback load.”

Shivnan notes, “We were looking specifically for data from both the participant and control groups showing student response, faculty response, and time spent, in order to see if the audio-feedback approach was a viable option for ongoing use.”

The results were quite positive with some individual variation among teachers who were faster or slower in both the all-audio and all-written groups. Overall, the team concluded that audio feedback does not appear to take faculty any more time to provide than written feedback, nor does it take students any longer to deal with audio comments versus written comments. However, the clarity and detail offered by the conversational nature of the audio approach left 90 percent of all-audio students believing their feedback to be “mostly” or “very” clear, compared to 77 percent of all-written students, and 84 percent of all-audio students believing their feedback to be “pretty” or “very” complete/detailed, compared to 67 percent of all-written students.

Patrick Wheltle, an Information Systems senior experimented with audio commenting in a creative writing class. “I felt like it really enhanced my experience,” states Wheltle. “It was like having someone talking one on one with you about your work, much like going to office hours.”

Though Wheltle had a good experience using audio feedback, he still recognizes the value found in the traditional writing approach. He sees it being most useful in “certain contexts,” but believes “papers about history or research papers” benefit when a professor can “point out specific details in a paper and go over them with you.”

Wheltle is optimistic about the audio approach and considers it something he would like to see more of in his college experience. He states, “It would be nice to have this kind of thing for my programming classes, so that way you can see where you can improve your style, as well as understand how the code was being graded.”

In summation, Shivnan echoes Wheltle’s optimism saying, “Audio comments work because they are conversational and clear; students don’t have to work to interpret the tone or meaning, and they feel the instructor is talking to them rather than writing comments about their work, all of which frees up the student to concentrate on the content of the comments and how that content can help them revise and refine their work.”

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Q&A

Q: What is a career in Applications Development and why is it a valuable career option?

Darlene Cross (CCBC): “The HOTTEST, NEWEST thing in software/application development.

The apps are written in Android (Google), iOS (Apple) or C# (Windows) for the largest three phone providers. CCBC teaches all three! The developers usually have flexible hours with project based jobs that are fun. They work in teams, and the turn around is fast. Lots of games are written for the phones, so game development is involved. Lastly, some apps for the phones are web apps, and that’s taught at CCBC too. There are currently [as of Wednesday, August 26, 2015], 20 ready-to-fill mobile applications developer jobs IN Baltimore City ($55k - $99k/year).” 

Question: How does audio-commenting allow teachers to foster student retention and learning when editing written assignments?

Sally Shivnan (UMBC): “Audio comments work because they are conversational and clear; students don’t have to work to interpret the tone or meaning, and they feel the instructor is talking to them rather than writing comments about their work, all of which frees up the student to concentrate on the content of the comments and how that content can help them revise and refine their work...We are anticipating trying, informally, other variations on audio-commenting such as screencasts.”

Question: What are some of the proposed Virtual and Augmented Reality projects that predate the creation of the Augmentarium?

Taken from information given by Amitabh Varshney, Ph.D. and umiacs.umd.edu (UMD):

“Visualization tools being developed by UMD researchers could be used in the operating room, where digital images could be superimposed on patients to provide surgeons with real-time data on organ structure and function.”

“Soldiers could use the visualization tools on the battlefield to clarify data on weather, equipment and the location of other soldiers and units, both friend and foe.”

“New visualization tools could help shoppers quickly get information on ingredients or cost to help them choose which products to buy.”

“Museum visitors could custom-design their visit to include information only about the artwork and exhibits they want to see.”

Varshney directs us to a published article that ran in 2009 by scientificamerican.com entitled, “Researchers Turn to Artificial Intelligence and Real Data to Improve War Games.” The slug says this: “University of Maryland researchers have created a virtual world they hope intelligence analysts will use to develop antiterrorism policies.”  Read more.

This article along with the proposed projects listed above represent a few among many existing UMD labs and projects being conducted by UMD faculty and students involved in Virtual and Augmented Reality research.

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