Episode 27: Creating Unlimited Educational Opportunities…with Virtual Reality

How does an aspiring dancer become a pioneer of virtual reality technology? On this week's episode, we highlight the extraordinary life of Dr Carolina Cruz-Neira, Interim Chair of the Department of Computer Science and Executive Director of Emerging Analytics Center at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock. As one of the inventors of the CAVE (cave automatic virtual environment) she is able to transport a room of people virtually to any place in the world, creating a collaborative learning environment. Hear more from Dr Cruz-Neira about the exciting applications of this technology.
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Listen In To Learn

  • What are the opportunities for VR to lead in educational training?
  • What’s in the future for VR?
  • What are some of the obstacles and hurdles to overcome in order to make VR adoption more widespread?
  • How immersive virtual experiences like CAVE are being applied in particular industries

Virtual Reality (VR) Isn’t Just For The Video Game Industry

VR opens up an amazing array of possibilities for the arts, sales, exhibits and more. For educational training, it allows for field training in areas we never imagined. Instead of engineering students creating bridge models out of toothpicks, why not build a model in VR and let it truly come to life.

In this podcast, Dr. Carolina Cruz-Neira scholar and faculty member at the University of Arkansas dives into VR opportunities for education. She takes us behind the curtain into her career progression, starting as a dancer, and her climb to develop CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment), an immersive VR system: think of it as a version of a holodeck (yes, like in Star Trek). Listen now to dive into the opportunities and challenges VR can bring.

Featured Luminary: Dr Carolina Cruz-Neira, Donaghey Distinguished Professor, Interim Chair of the Department of Computer Science, and Executive Director of Emerging Analytics Center, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Dr. Carolina Cruz-Neira, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, is a pioneer in the areas of virtual reality and interactive visualization, having created and deployed a variety of technologies that have become standard tools in industry, government and academia. She is known world-wide for being the creator of the CAVE virtual reality system, which was her PhD work, and for VR Juggler, an open source VR application development environment.

Her work with advanced technologies is driven by simplicity, applicability, and providing value to a wide range of disciplines and businesses. She serves in many international technology boards, government technology advisory committees, and outside the lab, she enjoys extrapolating her technology research with the arts and the humanities through forward-looking public performances and installations. She is also recognized for having founded and led very successful virtual reality research centers, like the Virtual Reality Applications Center at Iowa State University, the Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise and now the Emerging Analytics Center.

She has been named one of the top innovators in virtual reality and one of the top three greatest women visionaries in this field. BusinessWeek magazine identified her as a “rising research star” in the next generation of computer science pioneers; she has been inducted as a member of the National Academy of Engineering, an ACM Computer Pioneer, received the IEEE Virtual Reality Technical Achievement Award and the Distinguished Career Award from the International Digital Media & Arts Society among other national and international recognitions.

“If you can take that population virtually to any place in the world, then they experience other cultures, and they see the world…that opens a lot of opportunities and it opens minds…[it] puts dreams in people’s heads.”

— Dr. Carolina Cruz-Neira , Donaghey Distinguished Professor, Interim Chair of the Department of Computer Science, and Executive Director of Emerging Analytics Center, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Luminaries Hosts

  • Mark Schaefer Author, Consultant, College Educator. Mark is a leading authority on marketing strategy, consultant, blogger, podcaster, and the author of six best-selling books, including "KNOWN." He has two advanced degrees and studied under Peter Drucker in graduate school. Some of his clients include Microsoft, GE, Johnson & Johnson and the US Air Force
  • Douglas Karr Technologist, Author, Speaker. Pre-Internet, Douglas started his career as a Naval electrician before going to work for the newspaper industry. His ability to translate business needs into technology during the advent of the Internet paved the way for his digital career. Douglas owns an Indianapolis agency, runs a MarTech publication, is a book author, and speaks internationally on digital marketing, technology, and media.

ANNOUNCER: Luminaries, talking to the brightest minds in tech.
MICHAEL DELL: And my hope is that we come together to share more than technology, and expertise, and products, but that we share a vision of a future that is better than today, a vision of technology as the driver of human progress.
ANNOUNCER: Your hosts are Mark Schaefer and Douglas Karr.
MARK SCHAEFER: Welcome, everyone. This is Mark Schaefer, and I am so fortunate to be a co-host of Luminaries, where we talk to the brightest minds in tech. And certainly, we are going to make that dream come true today with my co-host Doug Karr. How are you doing, Doug?
DOUGLAS KARR: I am fantastic today, Mark. How are you?
MARK SCHAEFER: What a show. I’m so excited. We’re going to be talking about virtual reality, not the Hollywood kind. It’s not even about influencer marketing, Doug. It’s about– I love your hearty laugh, by the way. I’m not sure if anybody else in the audience laughs at my jokes, but I appreciate you, Doug.
DOUGLAS KARR: I appreciate that.
MARK SCHAEFER: Today, our guest is Dr. Carolina Cruz-Neira. She’s a computer engineer, researcher, designer, educator, and a pioneer of research and technology. She’s a much decorated scholar and faculty member at the University of Arkansas and a good SEC school, I might add, speaking here from Knoxville, Tennessee. She focuses on applied research and development in the areas of emerging interactive visualization, immersive visualization, visual analytics, and virtual reality, and augmented reality. She’s been inducted as a member of the National Academy of Engineering an ACM computer pioneer. She’s received the IEEE Virtual Reality Technical Achievement Award. She is a superstar.
MARK SCHAEFER: Welcome to our show, Carolina.
CAROINA CRUZ-NEIRA: Thank you very much, thank you.
DOUGLAS KARR: Dr. Cruz, I can’t think of a more dynamic and fun career right now. How did you get into this field of virtual reality?
CAROINA CRUZ-NEIRA: I got in this field, I think, just by chance. I was in Spain. I grew up in the country of Spain. And over there, as soon as I was very, very little, I was involved in classical ballet dance, but that was not a career that my family thought was proper for a young woman in Spain.
So I had a deal with my family that, as long as my grades in school were good, they would let me dance, and I very quickly realized, since I was very little, the homework in the sciences was a little faster to do than the homeworks in the humanities, you know? So I became very good at math and physics, biology, chemistry, because I could wipe out most of the homework in the bus on the way back home.
So by the time I got home, I could just jump in the studio. And then as I got older, my father was very excited about this new discipline that was emerging– and this, I’m talking about the late ’80s. That was computers. The future was going to be computers. So he and my mother decided that that would be a good career for me.
At that time, I honestly didn’t care too much, because my plan was, as I became an adult, I would probably pursue my dance interests. So I am now with a cum laude engineering degree under my belt, and my life just in the dance studio. But a broken knee pretty much killed that dance career, so I found myself, you know, about 21 years old, an engineering degree and a broken knee, and naturally not much interested in computer engineering.
But as a result of my grades, I ended up with a scholarship that brought me to the United States, and it was here when I first got in contact with virtual reality in 1991 after several years of kind of soul searching and trying to figure out what to do with my life. Because even though I was doing a master’s degree in computer engineering, I still didn’t like it.
Virtual reality sparked my interest, because I saw it as a platform where I could apply my engineering knowledge, but I could also blend my art interest. And that’s sort of how I got started, basically, I just had very kind of curvy ups and downs until I came here. But you know, I’ve been there for the last 25, 27 years, and it’s been quite a ride.
MARK SCHAEFER: Well, that’s so interesting, because as I was reading about you in preparation for our discussion today, I saw that you’ve actually done some very interesting things combining virtual reality and the arts, specifically dance. So that’s so awesome that you’ve been able to really keep that going with that combination. Can you talk about some of the things that you’ve done in the arts, how you’ve been able to combine virtual reality with your love of the arts?
CAROINA CRUZ-NEIRA: Yeah, I think that’s honestly what keeps me going, because even though we, of course, do very solid scientific work with the technology, for me personally, I do need a little bit of the art as a break. I was of commenting earlier to another person here at the show that a good friend of mine says that art heals. So when I get too technical, I need to do something with the arts. And over the years as we do technologies, one of the fun things about being a researcher is that you really define what you want to do when you want to do it and how you want to do it, as long as you figure out how to fund it.
DOUGLAS KARR: Of course.
CAROINA CRUZ-NEIRA: You know, that’s research, you know? So for me, the arts honestly throughout my career has been ingenious on how I define the test beds for my technology development. So dance performances, museum exhibits, collaborations with well-known artists are ideal test beds for technology, because, you know, art always pushes everything to the limit, and you can never ever reason with an artist.
If an artist wants to do something, it’s going to be done in that particular way, and it doesn’t matter that the technology doesn’t allow it to do that, it has to be done. So it is a big challenge to work in the arts, and it’s a lot of fun. So we have done some performances in theaters where, for example, we have developed wireless technologies, sensor type of technology.
And you know, if you try to put sensors and you try to do network communications in the middle of a dance performance, I cannot think any more complicated test bed than that. Because first of all, your technology has to work flawlessly, because there is no second take when you have a dancer on the stage. It has to perform and it has to perform right that minute. There is no, sorry, let me go backstage and I’ll come back in five minutes.
That’s just not going to happen. It’s also the demands of being able to do, you know, whatever performance has to happen, and it also has the other element, which is the acceptance of the public, that the public actually understands the performance and appreciates what happens on the performance.
So it is also a good test bed also for most of my engineering students, because they are totally, totally out of their element, because it’s a world that is not necessarily logical, is not necessarily ordered, so it’s also not only a good technical test bed, but it’s also a good sort of profession and a human skills test bed.
So most recently, we have done a show in Chicago, a fine arts show, where we cross disciplines between us, art to the end, which is very well known detail artist group over there at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Atomic Scientists, and we just use virtual reality to explain the doomsday clock and how different, let’s say, landmark events in the world throughout history have made the clock move forward and backwards. So it’s fun.
MARK SCHAEFER: I just love that, because I’ve been in so many different environments where it is so technologically and logically focused, and I’m more of a creative person. And I’m always like, gosh, if they could just insert a little bit of the arts in here, think of the breakthroughs in creativity. So I really admire what you’re doing.
CAROINA CRUZ-NEIRA: Yeah, I think creativity is the key because, you know, if you are very technical, but you cannot be creative, you cannot put yourself in situations completely outside your technique called boundaries. I don’t think you can do any innovation or progress, to be honest with you.
DOUGLAS KARR: That’s incredible. You know, virtual reality is almost always portrayed around a technology for gaming, so I love that you’re bringing this new light, you know, to this technology and that we’re discussing that today. I’m curious, what applications are most exciting to you? Obviously, the arts are there. But when it comes to business and even small business, what are you seeing as the breakthrough technologies with virtual reality?
CAROINA CRUZ-NEIRA: Well, for me, a lot of the breakthroughs with the technology is when, you know, whatever it is that we do helps in some manner. So with small companies, just last year, there was a small company on the state of Arkansas that was trying to bid a very, very large construction job.
And of course, being so little, they were a little bit at a disadvantage with the bigger architectural and construction firms, so they came to us and asked us, well, can your technology– can your creativity help us in any manner to compete for this job and communicate to the group that is asking for these bids that, yes, we are small, yes, we are from Arkansas, but we can be as strong or stronger than the big ones? So we were with them, and we helped them to use the technology to communicate their ideas, and they did win the bid.
So for us, that made us feel very, very good, because here we are, a group in the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, you know, some professors and their students, and suddenly this company from the state wins this very large contract against the pretty major multinational architectural firms. So those are the kinds of things that really excite me, when we actually see real, tangible benefit or change for the better. That’s really what my group is about.
MARK SCHAEFER: Now, one of the things that you’re best known for– and this is widely discussed in your Wikipedia entry– is your innovation called Cave, which I think is one of the coolest names for an invention ever. Now, I’m a big Batman fan, so the only way this could ever be cooler than that is if you call it Batcave. So I’m just wondering, could you call your next invention Batcave, just for me because we’re friends now?
CAROINA CRUZ-NEIRA: Just for you. We could.
MARK SCHAEFER: You could even call it Mark Schaefer’s Batcave, and then we’d have you back on the show. But so seriously, so I’ve seen some of the videos online about this total immersive experience called Cave. Oh my gosh, it looks so much fun and so awesome. So tell us why this is a significant development. I know this was part of your PhD thesis and it’s come a long way since then, so what is significant about Cave?
CAROINA CRUZ-NEIRA: The most significance aspect of the Cave is when I first intersected with virtual reality, like I mentioned earlier in 1991, all the things that I saw were headsets, so all the applications were headsets. And for me coming from the dance background that I had then, and just because I’m just a social person, the experience of being alone in the virtual environment felt very lonely to me. I was like, you know, there has to be something that allows me to bring with me my friends, my collaborators, my co-workers.
So that was, in a sense, my driving– I don’t know– principle or something when I developed the Cave. It’s not something that I just woke up in the morning and said, oh, I’m just going to build a cave. But I was trying to bring the social element that we all have as human beings. You know, we like to share things, we like to talk to each other, we like to see our faces. You know, like this interview right now is a little hard because I don’t see your faces and you don’t see mine. So for all I know, you might be sticking your tongue at me and I don’t know about it.
MARK SCHAEFER: We would not do that, would not do that.
CAROINA CRUZ-NEIRA: So that makes me, you know a little uncomfortable.
MARK SCHAEFER: Doug might do it. Doug might do it.
MARK SCHAEFER: I’d never put anything past Doug.
CAROINA CRUZ-NEIRA: So I wanted to bring that sort of face to face social element to virtual reality, and also kind of have a little bit of an overlap with my background in the arts. So as I was thinking and trying and experimenting, little by little it became clear to me that I had to do something where the technology was not on the person but around the person.
And that’s how the Cave came about. So it’s basically a room where the walls, the floor, and in some cases even the ceiling are projected from behind. And when you walk into the space, in a sense, the physical space is a PR and you find yourself immersed in a virtual world. But because it is room, you can bring other people with you.
So now, my body is with me in the virtual world, the body of my collaborators are also there. You know, so we are like we are in the real world sharing the experience, pointing at things, exchanging ideas, but now we are immersive in the virtual world. So that’s how the Cave, in a sense, came about, just trying to understand what the technology was doing at that time and how we can bring that technology a little closer to what we are as human beings.
DOUGLAS KARR: Well, Mark is a big fan of Batman, but I’m a big fan of Star Trek, and that sounds a lot like the holodeck.
CAROINA CRUZ-NEIRA: Pretty much, yeah.
DOUGLAS KARR: That’s fantastic.
CAROINA CRUZ-NEIRA: I didn’t know about the holodeck when I did the Cave. And then when I showed it for first time, people were like, wow, this is the holodeck. This is the holodeck. And I’m like, what are they talking about? Until some of my fellow PhD students, you know, says, oh, you’ve got to see this Star Trek series and you’ll see what it is. So anyway, I didn’t know.
DOUGLAS KARR: No, that’s fantastic. Well, you’re also obviously an esteemed colleague, you know, in academia. I’m curious about the opportunities in your perspective on how virtual reality will help education move forward.
CAROINA CRUZ-NEIRA: Yeah, virtual reality has a very good potential for education because many of the things that we are trying to teach are actually experiential. It’s very difficult to understand what a mathematical equation means if you don’t actually see what it is. I mean, a lot of equation have a physical representation, but you don’t get to see that in the classroom.
As engineers, there are many skills that we have to develop, and most of us develop those skills after graduation. For example, civil engineers, they have to do a lot of field experiences. They have to learn to understand how to take certain measurements off of certain terrains, maybe put sensors, you know, understand many things.
And unfortunately, we don’t have an easy way to provide those field trip kind of experiences during our educations. People, you know, that are studying degrees like history or something like that, they have to imagine a certain time in history, in human history, and now through virtual reality, you know, that really changes all that, because we can do virtual field trips to learn those type of skills, we can do, to some extent, time travel and understand something that happened in the Middle Ages or on the early times of humanity.
So it’s going to change education. It’s changing it a little bit right now. But in the next five to 10 years, I think there’s going to be a pretty massive change on education because we’re going to go from, you know, almost memorization to experiential learning, and I think that’s going to take us much, much farther than we are today and obviously much better prepare graduates.
MARK SCHAEFER: So what do you think the obstacles are to really perpetuating this technology in a wider way? I mentor inner city kids, and I’ve been thinking in the back of my mind, I can’t wait ’til they get virtual reality, so they can go into space, so they can go to the Great Wall of China. And when I go to festivals like South by Southwest or the Consumer Electronics Show, there’s all these amazing demonstrations, but it’s somehow– it’s just not getting into the mainstream, other than like Doug said in gaming. So what’s keeping it back, Dr. Cruz? Why isn’t it getting into the classrooms faster when we see it available in gaming?
CAROINA CRUZ-NEIRA: There are many, many reasons that I can think of for that. Because you know you really think about the effort that is behind developing a game. I mean, there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that took their efforts to produce that game. Now, when you go to education, the main one of the big challenges is that content. You know, how does the educational content get into virtual reality? How are we going to put it in there? And we’ve been talking quite a lot about that here at EduCourse because there is no way to standardize that, you know?
The tools that you need to build, in a sense, experiences and lessons, let’s say, in physics have to be pretty different than the tools that you need to build content if you want to do something like history or you want to do something like culture. So it opens a very exciting future, but it also opens up very serious challenges on how to populate that virtual environment for an educational experience. So that is a big challenge.
Another challenge is also things like logistics. The technology is getting better, but it’s still relatively fragile. Who’s in charge of keeping all those systems up and running? What is the dynamics in the classroom where a lot of these virtual reality technologies get introduced? You know, it might be a different generation of teachers that are more prepared for this style versus the more traditional that we do it right now. So it’s a combination of factors, because it is a technology that really changes using entrepreneurial language disrupts. So it is not a straightforward acceptance. There is a still a lot of work to do to put it in the classroom.
MARK SCHAEFER: Well, there you go. That’s a business opportunity for somebody out there in podcast land.
MARK SCHAEFER: So that’s something I just have a passion for, because it could just really close the gap in some of these schools and open up new worlds to some of these students. So let’s hope that somehow the economic shift away from where all the money is today in gaming and more into education. That’s the only thing I can hope for, I guess.
CAROINA CRUZ-NEIRA: Me too. Again, we’ve been talking quite a lot about this in the last, I would say, couple of years how to influence investments on this direction versus gaming. Because I mean like you say, you work with a certain population. But if you can take that population virtually to any place in the world, then they experience other cultures, and they see the world that opens a lot of opportunities and it opens minds on, you know, puts dreams in people’s heads. So it is exciting, it is an opportunity, but it has to be– the investment, I guess, communities need to see this as an investment opportunity.
DOUGLAS KARR: Well, one way that might happen as well though is that you’ve dedicated a part of your career to transferring some of the research to some open source initiatives, correct?
CAROINA CRUZ-NEIRA: Yes. That was many years ago, still we do that today on, so let’s say, an attempt to increase the use of this technology and to facilitate and speed up the development of the applications. Yeah, we deployed many of our tools on the open source domain, yes.
DOUGLAS KARR: And how can our listeners get involved and tap into that if they’d like to?
CAROINA CRUZ-NEIRA: Well, nowadays, we’re not the only ones. There is actually quite a lot of groups out there, and some of them are open source, and some of them are not necessarily open source, but they are available at no cost. So there’s a number of technologies right now that are very, very easy to get our hands on those tools. And I would just say, you know, find the tool out there that you feel comfortable with, depending on your level of technical skills, and just let your creativity drive what you do.
MARK SCHAEFER: So let’s wrap up our discussion here. I’ve really enjoyed hearing your insights, Dr. Cruz. Give us a little vision of the future. What is in the future, the near future let’s say, for virtual reality? And what are some of the obstacles that you’re working on, some of the hurdles that can be overcome to make this adoption more widespread? Is it on computing power? Is it, like you said, developing content? Is there some other technological hurdle? What are some of the things that you’re working on that you’re excited about?
CAROINA CRUZ-NEIRA: Well, for me, one of the biggest hurdles that I see today for virtual reality to be truly successful is the narrow, narrow, narrow view that the majority of the population has about virtual reality. This is a podcast, so I cannot put images in there. But if the listeners go to our website, they’ll see that there’s a lot of options for virtual reality technology that go beyond goggles. Because goggles is just one way to do virtual reality, but it’s not the only way.
And like everything else around us, having only one choice really limits what you can do, and also might not be appropriate by what some groups of people might want to do. And they might get frustrated because they’re trying to do something, but they’re doing it with a platform that doesn’t support what they want to do. So to me, the biggest hurdle is the limited understanding in general that virtual reality is much more than one specific platform.
So like, the Cave is an option, but in addition to the Cave, there are many other technologies out there that get us into the virtual space and adapt to whatever situation we are. So that is a big, big limitation. Content development is, of course, another big limitation. Another issue that is starting to be a serious issue, at least in my circles, is, because some of those tools, and techniques, and hardware are so accessible, many, many people with just very superficial level knowledge suddenly proclaim themselves virtual reality experts, and then the quality of the applications that are being deployed out there are not very good.
I typically tell people, you know, in the engineering world, you know, there are competitions to build bridges with toothpicks. So you know, there might be somebody that is terrific building these toothpick-based little models of bridges, but I don’t think I’d trust that person to build the next Golden Gate Bridge, because he doesn’t have the complete training to develop a real bridge. Unfortunately, there are many, many communities and many circles where the toothpick builders are actually building the real bridge in virtual reality.
And that’s another hurdle that is hurting this community. So there is a lot of issues, and this is common in new technologies, I think, you know, there is all the early innovators, there is all the early, you know, opportunistic groups out there, there is the early investments. So we had on an exciting time. But at the same time there is also a little bit of chaos. But as we move forward and groups like ours, groups like yours that are spreading information out there, you know, keep going, getting more and more mature, I think we can all come to a really good future in the next, you know, three to five years.
MARK SCHAEFER: Well, I hope that we can help you in some small way with this podcast. We certainly have enjoyed learning about you. And to our listeners, we will have a link to Dr. Cruz’s site where you can learn more about virtual reality. This would be a good time to mention that for every podcast we have a really nice landing page hosted by Dell with lots of resources, background information, and more links that you can go to and explore more about these topics.
So be sure to check out the Luminaries site and the show notes for each one of these episodes. Dr. Cruz, thank you so much for being with us today on this fascinating journey into the latest ideas on virtual reality, and thanks to all of you for joining us. We never take you for granted. Thanks for listening to Luminaries where we talk to the brightest minds in tech.
ANNOUNCER: Luminaries, talking to the brightest minds in tech, a podcast series from Dell Technologies.