In Focus - Issue 35 (Spring 2023)

And this is only the beginning for the engineering and emerging technologies’ venture. By the end of this year, it is expected that the avatars populating HKUST’s D virtual classroom will possess the facial features and mannerisms of the students and lecturers they represent, with real-time reactions that echo their human counterparts. The classroom’s look’n’feel will be enhanced and scaled up to accommodate or more users. Within three years, it is planned that HKUST and its recently opened HKUST(GZ) campus in Nansha, Guangzhou, will each be operating a physical classroom, equipped with state-of-the-art sensors and motion-capture cameras for the more technically challenging mixed reality learning environment, as well as sharing use of the virtual reality classroom. These arrangements will enable students from both campuses to meet each other and learn together in real time without actually traveling between the two locations. It will allow HKUST students, guest learners and lecturers from other institutions to attend remotely. Broadening out from classes, there will also be a digital twin up and running for each campus, with the expectation that MetaHKUST will add convenience and greater e ciency to multiple aspects of University life. Examples range from visiting the Finance O ce and accessing advisory services to receiving blockchain-secured diplomas or transcripts in the form of non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Implementing MetaHKUST turns the “Uni ed HKUST, Complementary Campuses” vision behind the two campuses’ operations into a working model. Moreover, it becomes possible to identify the real research challenges of building a large-scale teaching and learning meta environment, according to Prof. Pan HUI, one of the international trailblazers of research and development in augmented and virtual realities and a core mover behind the initiative. As one of the rst higher education institutions to build and explore the challenges of such a scalable endeavor beyond gaming, it also o ers a way for HKUST researchers and educators to play a signi cant part in shaping the overall metaverse, now at its formative stage, “the very, very beginning”, Prof. Hui said. What is the metaverse? The Encyclopedia Britannica de nition is a “proposed network of immersive online worlds” where users interact with each other and consume services and goods through virtual or augmented reality technologies, Simulated experience with D near-eye displays of an immersive virtual world + user interaction. Augmented reality (digital overlaid on the physical) + user interaction. 3 Augmented, virtual, and mixed reality. with the issue of how the di erent worlds and communities will seamlessly interconnect to enable users to move across the platforms (interoperability) yet to be resolved. What these worlds will comprise, their design, and standards are also undetermined on a collective basis. For Zuckerberg followers, the metaverse is a utopian creation where people work, socialize, and play games. Business people see a burgeoning realm of market opportunities expected to reach US$8 billion in , according to a Bloomberg forecast. For Prof. Hui and his research team, it is a fascinating technical and societal quest, with the potential for more accessible education, greater social equality, and better communication across the world, as well as major issues that need to be addressed related to privacy, governance, and data security, among other thorny areas. Prof. Hui, who joined HKUST in as a member of the Computer Science and Engineering at the School of Engineering, is now Chair Professor of Computational Media and Arts, and Director of the Center for Metaverse and Computational Creativity at HKUST’s new Guangzhou campus. At the Clear Water Bay campus, he is Chair Professor of Emerging Interdisciplinary Areas, and long-time Director of HKUST-DT System and Media Laboratory, a joint arrangement with Deutsche Telekom Innovation Laboratories, researching virtual reality and augmented reality systems, social media, big data, and mobile computing. Students attend a lecture remotely in HKUST’s virtual reality classroom using their avatars during a recent trial of MetaHKUST technology. The aim is to scale up to 200-plus users. 13 IN FOCUS