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UNO Awarded $800K Grant For Virtual Tech Lab and Program

UNO computer science student Lisa Gilmore-Montero, a member of UNO’s International Game Developer's Association, demonstrates the use of virtual reality (VR) equipment. Image courtesy of UNO.

NEW ORLEANS — The University of New Orleans has received an $800,000 grant to help fill what industry leaders say is a critical employee shortage and need for additional infrastructure to support extended reality (XR) business development and education.

The grant is sponsored by Louisiana State University via The National Center for Advanced Manufacturing (NCAM) partnership between NASA, the State of Louisiana, LSU, and UNO.

The NCAM research and production center, located at the NASA Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, focuses on applying advanced manufacturing technologies for use in aerospace and related industries.

Virtual reality, augmented reality and artificial intelligence are prominent growth areas that will infiltrate numerous economic sectors, said Matt Tarr, vice president for research and economic development at UNO. However, businesses in metro New Orleans lack the necessary tools to support rapid development of XR technologies, products and business practices, he said.

UNO’s part of the project has two components aimed at addressing the deficiency: a virtual reality maker’s space that they are calling BeyondReality@UNO and a training program called BeyondLearners@UNO, Tarr said.

“A maker space is where a business or other people can go to use tools that they don’t have on their own. They can go to a maker space where they can get access to those tools,” said Tarr, who is the principal investigator for the grant. “We are replicating that concept, but with virtual reality tools.”

Those tools will include a lab equipped with computers, virtual reality hardware, software programs and VR compatible headsets.

That facility is tentatively slated to be housed at the Lindy Boggs International Convention Center at The Beach at UNO, the University’s research and technology park.

“We’re going to be putting in some virtual reality hardware and expertise to allow community use, whether it’s small businesses or middle schools or high schools or clubs,” Tarr said. “All those kinds of groups will have access to those facilities. That addresses the workforce needs because it provides opportunities for training young people.”

The second component, BeyondLearners, is more directly focused on the workforce issue and will create virtual reality activities for students in middle school through college, Tarr said.

Tarr said the program team includes UNO faculty members with expertise in digital arts, computer science, chemistry, virtual reality and artificial intelligence. The team also includes an outreach coordinator responsible for connecting with local school districts.

“It is very much a multi-disciplinary endeavor,” Tarr said.

The BeyondLearners Program will culminate in a summer camp next year, he said.

“We are basically giving them an entrance into these workforce skills, but the idea is not to tell them, ‘If you want to be a game developer or if you want to do virtual reality for making movies, you have to learn X, Y and Z,’” Tarr said. “We’re not going to tell them ‘Oh, go learn this math and go learn this physics.’ Instead, it’s going to be project based.”

The goal is for students to discover the expertise they need while working on their chosen project, Tarr said.

“They will realize that ‘If I want to create this project, then I need some skills in this area.’ Then they will have an opportunity to learn those skills while working on their project,” Tarr said.

Tarr said the University will recruit students from schools that don’t typically offer such technical career pathways.

“So, it’s a two-fold objective: Give students an opportunity to succeed and provide businesses with workers with the skillsets that are needed to drive our future economy.”

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