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UW computer science students showed off their VR and AR applications on Thursday at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

Seattle’s robust virtual and augmented reality industry does not consist of only companies such as Microsoft, Oculus, Valve, HTC, and others that are developing the futuristic technology here in the Emerald City. It also extends down to the educational level, where computer science students at the University of Washington are learning about the growing field and building their own innovative mixed reality applications.

The Paul G. Allen School held a demo day for its VR/AR Capstone Course on campus Thursday evening as community members had a chance to try out games and apps that undergraduate students developed over the past ten weeks.

The six projects ranged from a drunk driving simulator to a game meant to train firefighters about search and rescue missions. The student teams learned how to develop with Unity using the Magic Leap One and Acer Windows Mixed Reality headsets.

“They’re really talented engineers, great designers, and really good thinkers,” said Aditya Sankar, a UW CSE professor who led the capstone course. “I’m really impressed with the results in just ten weeks.”

Many of the projects had a social good element, thanks to a guest lecture that inspired the students to think about VR and AR beyond just traditional gaming or entertainment applications.

“We tried to encourage students to think of VR as a tool for telling stories,” Sankar said. “How can you use it for a social message; or to tell a story; or to train or educate someone?”

Candice Miao, a UW senior, helped build “RockIT Physics,” a VR app that helps improve student learning through interactive physics education.

“We realized how much physics students struggle with the idea of an electric field since it’s not something you can see in real life,” Miao said.

Ayaz Latif helped build the firefighter simulation. The UW student said the class inspired him to pick up his own VR headset and build projects.

“It’s really intimidating at first because we don’t have prior experience working in Unity, let alone with VR,” he said. “But if you work hard enough, it’s not that different.”

Aditya Sankar, a UW CSE professor who led the capstone course.

The UW launched its VR/AR capstone class in 2016. The industry is still in a nascent stage, though this week’s demo day showed how far the hardware and software technology has progressed. Sankar said it’s still early days.

“We may be in that phase for a while longer,” he said. “But I do know that there are incredibly smart people working on this, both at the forefront of industry and also in academia. It’s really encouraging to see this young talent that is also interested in the space.”

Seattle has become a nexus for VR and AR, with so many tech companies big and small in the region building related technology products and services. Sankar said the UW provides a “neutral ground” for companies to come together and collaborate on ideas. Several of them provided headsets to the students this quarter.

“The UW has a great position in this space to be a leader and an educator,” said Sankar, who also helps run the UW Reality Lab, a VR/AR research center funded by Facebook, Google, and Huawei that launched earlier this year.

You learn more about the student projects here.

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