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Fellowship allows virtual reality expert to share expertise at Otago

Monday 27 March 2023 11:59am

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Associate Professor Stefanie Zollmann and Kevin Novins Visiting Computer Science Fellow Associate Professor Jonathan Ventura

Even in an increasingly online world, and even when virtual reality is your own specialty, there’s nothing like being able to knock on your colleague’s door for some feedback on your latest project.

After first meeting in 2012 as PhD and postdoctoral students at Austria’s Graz University of Technology, Otago Computer Science Associate Professor Stefanie Zollmann and California’s Cal Poly Associate Professor Jonathan Ventura have continued to collaborate remotely over the years on projects focussed on augmented reality.

But this year, through the support of the Kevin L Novins Computer Science Fellowship, Jonathan is spending six months at Otago in an office just along the corridor from Stefanie.

“Basically we just kept working together,” says Stefanie. “We always talked a bit about how nice it would be if Jonathan could come over and stay here to work closer together.” Talking to her Head of Department, Professor Brendan McCane, she found out about the Novins Fellowship which supports researchers from the United States (US) to come to Otago.

“Now we can just walk across the corridor and knock on the door and say have a look at my demo,” says Jonathan. “It’s very different to how we work remotely. We have a good workflow already, we have Slack [a team working app] and there’s lots of discussion on there but having a door to knock on is very helpful.”

Having arrived in New Zealand in January with his partner and two children, as the Kevin Novins Visiting Fellow Jonathan is spending his time at Otago working on augmented reality projects in the Computer Science department. This includes assisting with PhD students, giving presentations to Computer Science and Information Science staff and students, and taking part in seminars and lectures.

Stefanie says the department at Otago benefits from the Fellowship as staff and students have the opportunity to learn from Jonathan’s research and his expertise about the challenges of capturing virtual content, and he provides feedback and an external perspective on computer vision and machine learning for PhD students.

Coming from a master’s level university [Cal Poly], Jonathan doesn’t have PhD students, “so it’s a treat to have the PhD students working fulltime on research. It’s nice for me to step back from teaching for a few months and get a chance to think about the big picture and what I’m doing, and investigate some things I haven’t really had a lot of time for.”

Jonathan’s main specialty is computer vision, or “doing things with images and video, trying to process them, extract information out of them in different ways.

“Some of the stuff I’ve done is trying to figure out where you are from the image or video, so if you take a picture of the building you can figure out where you are on the map. That’s the kind of stuff Stefanie and I have done a lot of together.”

The first project the pair collaborated on was an outdoor augmented reality application, where they were attempting to visualise geographic data.

“One of the main challenges was to work out where a person was located. If you have a mobile phone and you want to visualise geographic content on a phone you need to know where they are, which is a bit of a challenge because GPS is still not accurate enough to have this really nicely aligned content preparation, so we collaborated on some computer-based vision solutions,” says Stefanie.

Over the last few years, they’ve been working together with Otago PhD students on augmented reality tracking inside Forsyth Barr Stadium, and last week Jonathan had the chance to see it in action.

“The stadium project is about trying to figure out where you are in the stadium. The reason to do that is so that you can render graphics on top of the video stream.

If you can work out exactly where the camera is you can render text and annotations or characters or cool stuff on top of the video. But you have to know precisely where you are and where you’re looking to do it, otherwise the content doesn’t look right or match up with the video.”

Another area Jonathan is working on in the US is a topic from the five-year National Science Foundation project which started in 2022, and is about capturing the environment with a camera, so you can share it with other people through virtual reality.

“I know Stefanie is really interested in that too. How do you convert the video into a 3D experience, that’s more virtual reality. You’re putting on the headset, you’re not augmenting the world around you, you’re just experiencing it in the headset.”

Jonathan says it wouldn’t have been possible to come to Otago without the support of the Novins Fellowship. “It definitely enabled the trip, I’m really appreciative and humbled to have the opportunity.”

Kevin L Novins Computer Science Travelling Scholarship and Computer Science Fellowship

Dr Kevin Novins was a staff member at Otago’s Department of Computer Science from 1995 to 2001. He passed away in January 2011, aged only 47. Later that year his family contacted the Alumni of the University of Otago in America (AUOA), expressing a wish to make a bequest in his name.

Kevin grew up in Westchester County, New York, and attended Harvard University, majoring in computer science and graduating in 1985. In 1994 he gained a PhD at Cornell University.

Kevin was on the faculty of two New Zealand universities for 10 years: first, at the University of Otago and, later, at the University of Auckland, specialising in computer graphics, user interfaces, computer vision and scientific visualisation. He returned to the US in 2006 to work in the financial management industry.

The Novins family’s gift in memory of Kevin was awarded by the board of the AUOA to support the Kevin L Novins Computer Science Travelling Scholarship for graduate research candidates whose studies may benefit from a period spent in the US, as well as to support visits of US computer science academics to the University through the Kevin L Novins Computer Science Fellowship.