Husson University will receive $2.2 million from the Harold Alfond Foundation to train more students in extended reality technologies that allow people to mix reality with virtual experiences for training and a variety of other purposes.
The iEX Center at the School of Technology and Innovation, which is housed in Husson’s College of Business, will receive the grant as part of a push to educate students and address a growing need for workers who are well-versed in emerging technologies.
Extended reality is an umbrella term that refers to three-dimensional computing environments that allow users to interact with their surroundings using immersive devices like virtual reality glasses or that overlay artificial realities onto one’s real-life surroundings using devices like smartphones and electronic tablets.
The mobile game Pokémon Go used augmented reality technology to allow users to “catch” digital cartoon monsters using their real-time locations and physical surroundings.
Social media giant Meta sells a virtual headset, the Oculus Quest, that uses a display screen, sensors, handheld controllers and sound to allow the user to engage in virtual reality gaming environments and block out their real-world surroundings.
Husson is one of only a few universities in the US that offers a degree in extended reality. Husson’s iEX Center, located in Harold Alfond Hall on the university’s Bangor campus, began allowing students to earn a bachelor of science in extended reality this past fall.
The iEX Center will use the foundation grant to hire more staff, buy equipment and continue excelling as New England’s leading institute in extended reality, said Brave Williams, an associate professor and director of the iEX Center.
Students at the iEX Center built a three-dimensional virtual courtroom to simulate a mock trial, and are developing a project that would allow hospitality students to simulate the experience of serving customers in Geaghan’s Pub in Bangor, Williams said.
The iEX Center students took three-dimensional scans and 360-degree videos of Geaghan’s interior to allow hospitality students to learn how to serve food and conduct other transactions in a virtual environment.
“As people work in [virtual reality] environments, they learn a lot quicker, because they have the information they need in the context they need,” Williams said. “It’s presented in the way they need in the environment, that they need it. And they’re able to interact with it more intuitively.”
Another iEX Center project allowed students to design an augmented reality app that let set designers see their work transposed onto the stage at Husson’s Gracie Theater, he said.
A handful of film and television shows, like “The Mandalorian,” use extended reality technology in their productions to cast a moving image of what the show’s setting should look like while actors are on screen, Williams said.
He anticipated that an infinite number of industries, like health care, the military, marketing and architecture, will use this technology more and more to allow workers to work remotely while participating in conference calls with their far-off coworkers, conduct training or simulate surgeries and military drills.
“It’s almost like asking, ‘What industries will benefit most from using a computer?’” he said.
Maine has a critical need for business students who are tech savvy and information technology professionals who are knowledgeable in both virtual and augmented reality, Husson University President Dr. Robert Clark said.
“Creating a high-tech workforce has the potential to transform Maine’s economic landscape and attract good paying, high-tech companies and jobs to the region,” Clark said.
The Alfond Foundation, the largest philanthropy in Maine, is a major donor to Maine colleges and universities. Harold Alfond Hall, which Husson opened last year, was the result of a $4 million gift from the foundation, which was the largest ever for Husson when it was announced in 2017.
The foundation announced a $240 million gift to the University of Maine System in 2020, funding a new statewide engineering college, new athletic facilities at UMaine in Orono and other initiatives.
It was the largest gift to a public higher education institution in New England.