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Enter the CAVE

Students and alumni engage with the digital future through AUC’s VR lab

By Elizabeth Lepro

Hesham Ismail ’04, ’07 wanted to document an afternoon riding electric scooters with his wife in downtown Los Angeles, California, but he couldn’t take his hands off the handlebars to reach for his phone. Instead, he said, “Hey Facebook, take a video!” and the Ray-Ban sunglasses he was wearing began to record. 

Smart glasses like the Ray-Ban Stories —  a partnership between the eyewear company and Meta — are becoming a reality, thanks to engineers like Ismail. The AUC grad is an engineering manager on the Developer Infrastructure team of Meta’s Reality Labs. In layman’s terms, his team provides the tools and lays the foundation that helps other engineers develop Ray-Ban Stories, along with Oculus Quest VR headsets and Meta’s Metaverse.

 Ismail has been working alongside technology since he was 8, when he began programming on a basic Sinclair keyboard hooked up to a TV set. At 14, he set his sights on one day working at Microsoft, a goal he would later achieve. In fact, before arriving at Meta, Ismail had already made his way through most of the familiar names at the Silicon Valley popular kids table. His CV includes stints at IBM, Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Apple.  

 In each career move, Ismail has added another layer to his fundamental understanding of computer systems, keeping pace with rapidly evolving technology even as he works to design it. When he received his master’s from AUC in 2007, none of his peers were even discussing the concept of a metaverse.

As technology continues its high-speed progression, engineers, architects, designers and even artists will increasingly work on or in the metaverse, in VR environments, alongside smart devices and with the assistance of data-powered
AI subsets like deep learning and machine learning. 

“The Metaverse is about bridging gaps,” he said. “It’s about the workplace, creativity and, more importantly, bringing people together regardless of where they are geographically.” 

Ismail said his AUC experience helped lay the foundation necessary to build a career he couldn’t have anticipated. “That’s really the key in an education: that it provides you with concepts you can apply in an ever-evolving world,” Ismail said. “I don’t think this would have been possible if I didn’t have an education that allowed me to be not just single-technology-centered but more capable of thinking, ‘How do I apply this knowledge in a changing world?’”

Of course, it helps if students can engage with emerging technologies before graduation. Now they can.

Non-fungible tokens hub with an exhibition, market and space for custom-made NFTs for artists, by student Abdelqader Elaswad

 There is a cave on AUC’s campus where objects disassemble and come back together all on their own, entire football stadiums spring to life and the Bermuda Triangle — somewhat demystified — becomes a social experience.

 Of course, none of it is real — at least not in the traditional sense. CAVE stands for Cave Automatic Virtual Environment. It is part of AUC’s virtual reality lab (officially known as Educational Virtual Environment), a joint project between the mechanical engineering and architecture departments that launched in 2018 and is now available to other academic programs. In the lab, students can get hands-on experience using VR.

For the Mechanics of Materials course taught by Khalil El Khodary, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and one of the lab’s founders, students enter the CAVE five at a time, wearing sunglasses like those that make 3D movies come to life. Inside, a crankshaft from an engine floats in front of them. Students can rotate the crankshaft, splice it, reassemble it and see it in action. “Typically, I would ask my students to try and imagine what’s going on,” said El Khodary. “Thanks to the lab, I say a lot less, ‘Try to imagine’ and a lot more, ‘Here it is.’” 

 Mechanical engineering juniors Eslam Sayed and David Botros were some of the first students to enter the CAVE for El Khodary’s class. “In the VR lab, you can feel your surroundings and see the people around you,” Sayed said. “We can see the 3D models as if they were floating in front of our eyes while still feeling our surroundings and seeing each other, so it is immersive but not isolating. This is a perfect environment for teaching a group of students and allowed Dr. Khalil to easily explain to us what was happening.” 

Metaverse of the Bermuda Triangle, by student Dana Khedr

 El Khodary’s engineering students used VR to engage with objects that exist in the physical universe. 

Meanwhile, in the course, Digital Representation Tools for Architects, taught by Tamir El-Khouly, assistant professor in the Department of Architecture, students created 3D pavilions based on their idea of architecture in the metaverse. “This open-ended project investigates student skills in digital design applications and their creativity in imagining what has never been designed before,” said El-Khouly. “They have a head start in envisioning what metaverses might benefit us with, what they can achieve in virtual reality and what they cannot achieve in real life.”

“Typically, I would ask my students to try and imagine what’s going on. Thanks to the lab, I say a lot less, ‘Try to imagine’ and a lot more, ‘Here it is.’” 

In a video, freshman Karim Shehab takes El-Khouly on a tour of his virtual football stadium, complete with places for avatars to socialize, transportation pods and a playing field where games can be projected. From an outside perspective, the design looks like amorphous white scaffolding. But with the VR glasses on, the Stadiuverse takes on mega dimensions. In what looks like a deconstructed greenhouse, meta-sports fans can project games onto a bright green playing field and meet to chat in inlets and beneath stairwells. 

Stadiuverse, a football stadium/pavilion in the metaverse, by student Karim Shehab

 The project sparked a potential career interest for Shehab. “In real life, you have to go see a match at a certain place or go to the cinema to watch a big movie,” he said. “You can do all of that by just coding some stuff in the metaverse, in your own building.” As architects, Shehab and his classmates said the experience helped them better visualize the dimensions and use-cases of the spaces they designed. 

 In the Digital Design Studio and Workshop class, taught by Sherif Abdelmohsen, associate professor in the Department of Architecture and the lab’s co-founder along with El Khodary and El-Khouly, students used a head-mounted display and hand controllers to navigate through their designed models, create 3D geometry and modify their design parameters on the fly with real-time instant feedback. “The process of 3D model navigation during the design development phases helped the students detect any fatal mistakes, imagine missing connections or details, and identify room for design improvement,” said Abdelmohsen.

In another architecture class, Advanced Architectural Computing, students were introduced to the notion of virtual realms in the metaverse using a project-based approach. As Abdelmohsen noted, “We asked students to discuss and design virtual extensions of real spaces using concepts of visual programming and interactivity.” 

AUC’s VR lab has enhanced the experience for both faculty members and students, explained Abdelmohsen. “The facilities in the VR lab allow for a better understanding and visualization of architectural space and form, and provide us as instructors with the necessary tools to dive into aspects of scale, proportion, spatial experience, design development and detailing that would probably have been very difficult to represent, convey or explain without this level of immersion,” he said. 

Immersive VR further diminishes the screen between humans and tech, another step in technology’s evolution. First, humans invented tools then used those tools to create more complex tools. Fast-forward 100,000 or so years and we have the iPhone. Now we can begin to enter the iPhone. It’s more than a video game experience, Ismail explained. “The Metaverse is about bridging gaps,” he said. “It’s about the workplace, creativity and, more importantly, bringing people together regardless of where they are geographically.” 

What’s most interesting about the projects the students designed for El-Khouly’s class is their interpretation of the assignment. Some, like Abdelqader Elaswad, saw it as an opportunity to digitize reality. He designed a museum for NFT artworks. Architectural engineering freshman Dana Khedr designed a portal that resembles the Bermuda Triangle, going in a sci-fi-inspired direction. In her project, people transform into aliens once they get into the Bermuda Triangle portal. 

Metahub, the door into the metaverse, by student Tiya Khalil

 Others pushed back against the concept, said El-Khouly. “I think after experiencing the lockdown and online education, students have been through these kinds of constraints and limited way of work,” he said. “They have some realistic grounds for how we can implement such technology to serve our needs. It’s not just about being fascinated by a tool.” 

As architectural engineering freshman Tiya Khalil gave El-Khouly a tour of her interconnected living spaces, she stopped to make a clarification. The rooms can be anything the user wants them to be, “but, all of them are just for decoration because you can’t really live in the metaverse,” she said. “You still have to go back to your own universe to eat, sleep and breathe.” 

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