Nicholas Giudice started at the University of Maine in 2008 with a plan to create UMaine’s first virtual reality research facility in his empty Boardman Hall lab. Today that lab has a name — the Virtual Environment and Multimodal Interaction (VEMI) Laboratory. But by most standards, it is still relatively empty, except for storage cabinets, neon-colored tape on the carpeted floor, computers and some specialized equipment that allows the user to walk around the space while immersed in computer-simulated worlds called virtual reality.
What fills the room is the hum and spirit of the nearly two dozen students, faculty and staff who help transform Giudice’s research in spatial informatics and cognitive neuroscience into what could soon be everyday applications for navigating indoor and outdoor environments using technology accessible to people both with and without sight.
To support their research, Giudice and his students have developed the state’s first fully immersive virtual reality installation. The system utilizes a head-mounted display with a wide field of view and a high-resolution stereo display that allows users to see and hear a computer-generated 3D environment as if they were actually in the physical space.
Unlike the real world, anything can be changed in virtual reality, Giudice says. If you want a building’s walls to turn blue or become transparent, or to see how it would look in downtown Orono, it is easy in VR.
In the four years since he joined the UMaine faculty, Giudice’s research has led to more than 60 combined journal publications and conference presentations, and he has been a part of 13 awarded grants, proposals and contracts totaling around $2 million from a variety of sources, notably the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation (NSF). The funding has allowed Giudice to acquire crucial software and hardware, and is currently supporting five graduate student research projects and a crew of undergraduates working on research and development initiatives.
These research efforts are guided by two UMaine Ph.D. students: VEMI Lab manager Rick Corey, who worked alongside Giudice to start the lab and who leads the R&D team, and lab research coordinator Bill Whalen.
“I feel very strongly about doing theoretically driven research, but also having a translational component to my work based on knowledge of human perception and cognition to create intuitive and usable technologies,” says Giudice, an assistant professor in UMaine’s School of Computing and Information Science. “A lot of times products get stuck in the engineering trap, motivated by good intentions and intuition, but with the solutions neither based on how humans actually learn and process information nor addressing real challenges of the intended end user. My research allows me to play on both sides of the fence, combining basic science about human spatial cognition with human factors engineering.”
For Giudice, applied research has an urgency, and not only because of his own experience with visual impairment. In a state such as Maine, with the oldest median population in the country, improved adaptive technology could be crucial in helping people maintain their independence and quality of life. The technology currently being studied in the lab would be incredibly helpful as a way to simply navigate a complex interior space, similar to GPS systems in cars.
“There is all kinds of research on visual or hearing aids for elders,” says Giudice, “but hardly any work studying how technology could aid navigation, which is one of the most important things we do in our daily life, but also one of the biggest challenges for older folks.”