‘People believe VR research is all about playing games’

24 Mar 2021

Image: Dr Lukasz Porwol

Dr Lukasz Porwol is investigating the serious side of VR and how it could be a useful medium for effective communication in education, government and business.

Could virtual reality be the right medium for meaningful online discussion? That’s something Dr Lukasz Porwol is investigating at Science Foundation Ireland’s Insight Centre for Data Analytics.

Based at NUI Galway, Porwol is researching how social media, AI, open data and virtual reality (VR) can be leveraged to support effective communication, particularly in the context of e-participation, e-government and media convergence.

Following an engineering degree from Gdańsk University of Technology in Poland, he pursued a PhD in computer science at NUI Galway. His PhD dissertation looked at the challenges of online communication and he followed this up with several experiments involving VR.

Porwol has collaborated with researchers around the world and engaged local students in interactive sessions. He has also collaborated with businesses such as Mendeley and Elsevier to investigate how VR communication can benefit knowledge-sharing, training and education.

As coordinator of Compact, the European research project on media convergence, last year he organised international online symposia delivered entirely in immersive VR.

‘I wish to unleash the power of VR to enable a completely new way of collaboration’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I was first inspired at a young age by Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. I fell in love with innovative thinking and technology beyond our dreams. Since then I knew I wanted to be a scientific explorer.

I got strongly interested in VR about eight years ago, as soon as the first next-generation pre-consumer virtual reality headsets emerged. However, it wasn’t until 2016, when I first tried to use a social VR platform, AltspaceVR, that I got a moment of enlightenment. For the first time in an online engagement, I witnessed total strangers having a deep, fundamental conversation about mental health, discrimination and suffering. Moreover, just after three hours, I started to feel a strong emotional bond with all online participants.

My eureka moment happened. I realised what huge potential lies in VR as a communication tool, which seemed to address many of the online communication challenges that I identified in my PhD dissertation.

What research are you currently working on?

Currently, my research focuses on efficient, bias-free, serious communication through emergent immersive virtual reality technologies.

The majority of VR applications today focus on entertainment applications or highly specialised training with grassroots implementations in the medical sciences and engineering. I wish to unleash the power of VR to enable a completely new way of knowledge-sharing and collaboration. In particular, I investigate specific VR affordances that should allow rapid and efficient adoption of this novel medium to a variety of education, government and business contexts.

My current research came about as a convergence of my primary PhD research into technology-facilitated communication in the context of e-government and e-participation with emerging VR technology exploration.

In mid-2020, I was awarded a prestigious European grant in the Next Generation Internet Explorers programme, to travel to the US and continue my collaboration with top researchers in the domain.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Everybody knows that contemporary social media, as much as we love them, have issues. One of the major problems is the polarisation of discussions and low-quality, limited meaningful interpersonal engagements. Also, what is described in the literature as a low appreciation for human attention is a major challenge with current approaches to popular communication.

Having said that, Mark Zuckerberg himself, through his substantial investments into Oculus and now Facebook Reality Labs, is one of the biggest mainstream VR enablers and supporters. The reason why he believes VR is destined to help humanity is that it prioritises the quality over the quantity of interpersonal links and communication. Those matters became particularly important now in the world struck by pandemics, where remote work and education are ubiquitous and we desperately need more innovation to deal with Zoom fatigue.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

I see a commercial application in serious communication, especially in educational and formal business communications. My early research engagements spawned some communication with Microsoft, who acquired the AltspaceVR platform that I am using for my research.

There is no reason why VR communication should not deliver new convergent approaches that would take the existing teleconferencing and social media modes of communication and augment them with interactivity, immersion and a sense of presence that is unmatched by any other digital medium.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a VR researcher?

The biggest challenge for me is the general lack of awareness of the emerging technologies among researchers, especially in the serious communication fields such as e-participation. I have been discussing with Microsoft’s top researchers in the US, and we agreed that much has to be done. We need to have awareness campaigns, to design relevant curricula and to enable new digital education that would include VR and AR technologies being taught at universities as soon as possible.

Are there any common misconceptions about VR research?

There are two major misconceptions in terms of understanding of this area of research.

First is that people believe VR-domain research is all about playing games, while this area has so much more to offer. I am trying to take that medium and apply it to serious use cases in education, government and business.

The second misconception is more technical and spans from a generally limited understanding of differences between popular classic VR (on-screen) and immersive VR (with a VR headset), which is a major game changer in communications. That is, again, caused by lack of awareness of those emerging technologies and their true capabilities.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

One of the major technical areas that I have been tentatively exploring already is combining the information processing capacity of AI and machine learning with immersive VR-based communication. Specifically, I have been working on novel communication methods that will be facilitated by AI for maximum efficiency and value of interaction and collaboration.

In terms of a socio-technical area, something very pivotal for me is to investigate a premise that I arrived at which suggests a strong capacity for virtual reality to overcome conscious and unconscious biases (such as those related to gender, ethnicity, race) in VR and AI-mediated communication.

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