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New Computer Science Lab Allows La Sierra Students to Explore Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence Careers

Experts Say the Industry is Expected to Boom Within the Next Five Years.

Student tries out a virtual reality video game in La Sierra University’s new virtual reality and artificial intelligence lab.

Religious studies major Gregory Jhanapin tries out a virtual reality video game in La Sierra University’s new virtual reality and artificial intelligence lab. Photo: La Sierra University Public Relations

La Sierra University computer science majors and students studying other disciplines now have an opportunity to prepare for careers in virtual reality and artificial intelligence sectors, which analysts predict will grow exponentially over the next several years.

The university’s department of computer science celebrated the opening of a new virtual reality and artificial intelligence lab on Nov. 8 that will allow students to explore the technologies through virtual game play and research.

The “VR+AI Lab” includes a virtual reality, or VR, headset, 15 powerful graphics computers, and a large screen television. It is outfitted with nearly 1,000 multi-colored LED lights that are Wi-Fi-connected and controllable from a mobile phone or computer. The lights, which track around the edge of the room at the ceiling and spell out the lab’s name in letters on a wall, are controlled by a custom-programmed microprocessor. They are designed to activate and produce a colorful show whenever a person enters the lab.

The lab allows students to have direct experiences in working with the virtual reality environment, and to design and build automated intelligence electronic devices,” said Enoch Hwang, chair of the La Sierra University department of computer science. “These two different skill sets are highly sought for in the job market.”

A Growing Industry

According to industry forecasts this year from respective leading international research firms Gartner, Inc. and Transparency Market Research, global business value derived from artificial intelligence is expected to reach $3.9 trillion by 2022, while the market for virtual and augmented reality products and services is expected to hit $547.2 billion by 2024. Healthcare in particular is expected to be a key consumer of virtual and augmented reality in its quest for better treatments. Significant applications are also anticipated in education, gaming, construction, and 3D media.

Provost Joy Fehr asks questions before putting on a virtual reality headset

Provost Joy Fehr asks questions before putting on a virtual reality headset and entering a virtual world where she interacts with a robotic dog. Photo: La Sierra University Public Relations

"I am delighted that our computer science department offers students opportunities to explore artificial intelligence and build their capacity to create virtual environments,” commented Joy Fehr, provost of La Sierra University. During the new lab’s grand opening celebration, Fehr donned the virtual reality headset and entered a digital world where she used a handheld controller to play with a digital robot dog.

“While I have heard much about virtual reality, I had not experienced it before my visit to our new lab,” said Fehr. “I am impressed by the immersive experience our students have created; it is a testament to their capacity for creativity and development of expertise that situates them well for future careers in the field."

Creating the Lab

The La Sierra “VR+AI Lab” is the result of two years of brainstorming on the part of computer science faculty and students. Donors covered much of the costs and provided equipment. Hwang spent the summer designing and programming the lab’s Wi-Fi-linked lights display and preparing the lab for the start of school.

The lab hosted a computer science seminar during the 2018fall quarter with 11 computer science students who investigated and learned how to develop virtual reality programs. Additionally, two students registered for a new, four-credit, directed studies class offered to provide more in-depth research.

Capturing the Students’ Interests

Junior computer science majors Cody Johnson and Christopher Friedrichsen are pursuing directed study projects and will delve further into the science of virtual reality during winter quarter through ongoing research with Hwang.

“The most interesting aspect of virtual reality is its potential,” said Friedrichsen who is interested in game design and development. “Its ability to make a virtual world, a virtual setting, react as the real world reacts in relation to a user distinguishes it from any other medium in existence.”

Visitors look around the new VR+AI Lab during a grand opening celebration

Visitors look around the new VR+AI Lab during a grand opening celebration on Nov. 8 in Price Science Complex. In the background, La Sierra University President Randal Wisbey views a Wi-Fi-connected multicolored light show that is controllable from a mobile phone or computer. Photo: La Sierra University Public Relations

Johnson said he’s interested in a career in computer networking but is also mulling a future in the virtual reality industry. “What interests me most about VR technology is how it’s a new medium to experience the world through a lens where anything is possible, and with the right programming we can make anything possible,” he said.

The lab’s virtual reality capabilities are set up to pique the interests of young people, many of who are interested in video games, Hwang said. “This VR lab is not only a showpiece to attract these young people, but also provides the equipment and tools for our computer science students to learn how to write programs for the virtual reality environment,” he said.

The lab’s artificial intelligence component also ties in with the robotics work Hwang has engaged in over the past five years. That effort has involved yearly summer robotics camps for youth, and robotics education opportunities for students. “But with this new lab, the students will be able to work on more advanced robotic research,” he said.

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About La Sierra University

La Sierra University, a Seventh-day Adventist institution nationally acclaimed for its diverse campus and its service to others, offers a transformational experience that lasts a lifetime. “To Seek, To Know, and To Serve” is the key to the mission that drives La Sierra University, with all areas of campus encouraging students to develop a deeper relationship with God.