May 3, 2017

Interview with Björn Thuresson - the manager of the Visualisation Studio VIC at KTH.

He has a background in Cinema Studies, Journalism and Communication Studies and professional experience in the production of film and educational multimedia and in concept development for new media, as well as software development and IT-management.

Hello Björn, Can you tell us more about what you are doing, what is KTH VIC, which type of projects are you working with?

Hello, yes that is a very open ended question. VIC is a lab environment, where we are doing the three things that we are supposed to be doing as a university. We are teaching, doing research and interact with the rest of the society. And our environment here is slightly different than others since we are able to do all the three things very efficiently here. We are agnostic about the type of areas we support. Our technology can be used in many different areas. So as we do all these things, we do a lot of teaching here. Our primary resource is our students and the projects they do in different courses. Most of our student are from the computer science program or the media technology program. They do what is called ‘problem-based learning’ – they define their challenges and explore solutions by building. Failing is a part of the learning process. You learn from them. And then you build a new, slightly different version. So we try to provide access to all relevant hardware and software for them to use as tools to realize their ideas. We have some 200-300 projects that have been realized, and many of them are still alive.


We have a lot of different types of research projects coming here, of course from our area in visualization, but also from biotechnology, math, electrical engineering, architecture, and chemistry. We have a lot of life science projects going on right now, so in that case, when a lot of researchers coming here they either use the technology as a tool for the research (to do statistics on the material for example) or they come here and develop different technologies. We have around 100 companies that we work with, and that is primarily in teaching, giving guest lectures or proposing projects, but we were also doing commissioned education to some of these enterprises. They want some access to our knowledge but also to our students. There’s a lot of interest in seeing what we’re doing.


Björn, can you tell us when and why you started to work with VR?

VR has been around for a very long time now, it been an active field for almost 40 years and some earlier example from the 50’s and 60’s. We benefit mostly from the current generation of VR, especially when it got readily available and when you get easy access to the hardware. It has never been that easy to produce for VR as it is right now. It has been an incredibly intensive development in this generation. Three years ago we started with this new generation of VR because we saw it as a new possibility to get the full immersive experience.

We know that you will participate in VR_Sci Expo during The VR_Sci festival, can you tell us more about the cases you will present to our audience?

 Primarily we are working with interactive experiences so we will participate in a few different ways. We will present five student projects, a portion of those that have been realized in the last six months.  These are typically combined with some other technologies. Many of our students are trying to push the limits and challenge what few conventions there currently are.


Could VR potentially be a tool in the future for doing research in science? And how can it be used in science and research?

I think it has real potential in some different areas. We have done a few projects when it comes to exploring health data and molecule and chemical reactions. I think we have possibilities there with an extra dimension and when you immerse yourself in that process. Currently, the interaction in VR is very rudimentary and not very efficient, in most cases the two primary ways of interacting is either via some game controller or hand controllers (like for HTC Vive or Oculus), but there is nothing in between. Simple things, like adding text, we don’t have a good way of doing that. We have some open questions there when it comes to interaction. In the representation of abstract data and this kind of things, it has a strong potential once we solve the interaction problems and the collaborative aspects. This generation of hardware is very focused on single-person-interaction. One very practical problem with VR is that you are blind and deaf when you are using it, so you cannot use it in traffic or just walking around. There are a lot of areas where it doesn’t make sense to use it as of yet.

We are talking about impact, can you identify any areas or subjects where VR can solve some problems?

Well, first we have the low hanging fruits, and that is for personalization or exploring inhabiting future environments, in architecture it’s been around for some years. You can fully realize a future version, you can manipulate a version of a future environment, and you can also experience that to the fullest. A couple of years ago the working practices of architects were all in CAD now that is moved into full 3D. All they need to do now is an extra step of the of building in VR, which is now a lower threshold than ever.  There is a whole chain there that will be very accessible, and VR will be a very suitable tool in that process.


There are a quite big number of people who love VR and a big number of people who is afraid of it. They are afraid of that the newly designed world in VR could be better than reality, and that people would like to stay in VR because it is just better organized than the reality. If you meet a person with those thoughts, what’s your argument or position about that opinion?

I would be intrigued, really intrigued. I would not try to argue with that person. We have this kind of sacredness that people will stay in VR, they will not go outside, etc. It’s very similar to previous introductions of new media forms. I don’t think it will change that much this time either. On the one hand, I am always positive, I believe that we will always build good things, it can be used for bad things, but for the big part not. We have done so much to the world, so we have already changed the physical aspects around the world to adapt to us. The virtual world is just another version. Instead of doing it to the real world, perhaps VR is a better place for that type of experimentation.