Columbia Celebrates Launch of First Publicly-funded VR/AR Center in the Country

The University is part of a consortium of schools making NYC a global leader in virtual and augmented reality.

Oct 24 2018 | Photo Credit: Timothy Lee Photographers

Columbia University took part in the launch of RLab on Thursday, the country’s first ever publicly-funded virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) lab. In partnership with the NYC Media Lab, Columbia is part of a consortium of New York City universities, including the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, CUNY, and the New School, that will administer the lab as a hub for translational research and innovation, startups, and job training. Part of Mayor De Blasio’s New York Works plan, the RLab is funded by a $5.6 million investment by the New York City Economic Development Corporation and the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment. The RLab is expected to create over 750 jobs for New Yorkers.

Medical student Shirin Sadri works with Steve Feiner's lab on an AR system that allows surgeons to view and interact with patient-specific anatomical models.

Mary C. Boyce, Dean of Columbia Engineering, spoke at the launch event and stressed Columbia’s commitment to advancing the state of the art in VR and AR technology through a diverse array of groundbreaking research.

“As a research institution with a teaching mission, Columbia has been focusing on VR and AR as an exciting new frontier that promises almost limitless possibilities for solutions that will contribute to society’s health, security, interconnection, and creativity,” said Dean Boyce. “We have many examples of faculty spanning departments and disciplines and working across our sister schools to address societal challenges with advances in VR and AR.”

The RLab will also manage a range of entrepreneurship programs to translate research from Columbia and other city schools to the market, as well as programs to help corporations adopt AR/VR technology, and an accelerator program backed by the venture capital firm Super Ventures.

We see the importance of building up a talent pipeline for the growing VR and AR industry, a field that we are only just beginning to see the possibilities of.

Mary C. Boyce
Dean of Columbia Engineering

During opening remarks, Dean Boyce highlighted the work of several Columbia faculty members in AR/VR, in particular Steven Feiner, professor of Computer Science who has won several Media Lab awards at the organization’s annual summit and demo showcase. Feiner has developed AR devices for computer-aided surgery and worked with History Professor Pamela Smith, founder of Columbia's The Making and Knowing Project, to use AR as a means for bringing a 16th century manuscript to life. Dean Boyce also touched on opportunities in human health, such as the use of robotics and VR/AR in rehabilitation and the important role new materials will play in translating VR and AR technology to the marketplace.

Other speakers included representatives from partnering organizations: New York City’s Economic Development Council, the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, NYU Tandon School of Engineering, CUNY, and Super Ventures.     

Attendees at the event viewed demos from consortium schools and institutions. Columbia teams featured included:

  • A collaborative exploration of urban data in VR and AR from Professor Steven Feiner’s Computer Graphics and User Interfaces Lab.
  • “echoAR,” a startup building a cloud platform for AR apps from Alon Grinshpoon, a former MS student of Professor Feiner of Columbia’s Computer Science department.
  • StreetsmartsVR, a VR platform for police training and simulations from Oliver Noteware, a Columbia Business School student who participated in NYC Media Lab’s Combine program.
  • Graceful Ray, a startup using lightfield technology for 3D capture from Vladlena Powers, a PhD student in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research.
  • “1000 Cut Journey,” which features new research on using VR for insights into racism directed by Professor Courtney Cogburn of the Columbia School of Social Work, who co-created the work with colleagues at Stanford University.

The city’s goals for RLab will be to support new ventures, increase access and expand the talent pipeline for the VR/AR industry, draw on the wealth of academic expertise in New York City to create the preeminent VR/AR research center in the country, build up the VR/AR community across industry, academia, and institutions; and spur innovation. The lab will operate out of Building 22 in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. When complete, it will house 16,500 square feet of co-working labs, classrooms, and studios. 

Columbia Technology Ventures, the University’s technology transfer office, will be working with closely with the lab to commercialize research. A defining focus of the lab will be job creation and the center will work with CUNY Lehman College’s VR/AR Training Academy to develop a citywide VR/AR talent pipeline.

At the event, Dean Boyce underscored the need for educational institutions to help meet demand for qualified workers in this emerging area.

“We see the importance of building up a talent pipeline for the growing VR and AR industry, a field that we are only just beginning to see the possibilities of.”

A release from NYCEDC cites that the U.S. will lead the way in spending on AR/VR services, up to $215 billion in 2021 from $11.4 billion in 2017.

Related Links

Columbia Engineering Wins Big at the NYC Media Lab Demo Showcase

Columbia Engineering Magazine Spring 2018: The Next Breakthroughs in Augmented Reality

The Robotics and Rehabilitation Lab (ROAR)