21 November 2022 00:44:45 IST

Akshaya Chandrasekaran is Sub-Editor, businessline. She covers education and start-ups for fortnightly supplement bloncampus, and writes features on brands and advertising. You can write to her at akshaya.c@thehindu.co.in and find her on Twitter at @akshayaiyerr

Metaverse beckons engineering colleges

Experiential Technology Centre at IIT Madras where the focus is on haptics, AR, and VR

As the metaverse quietly slips into our reality, many engineering colleges around the country are getting real about the virtual world. Taking big strides, they are setting up infrastructure to support labs and centres of excellence to develop the technology backbone for the metaverse, often described as the next-gen 3D internet, and get students future-ready.

IIT Madras, for instance, is lauded as one of the best efforts for its Experiential Technology Innovation Centre. The centre is built on the rich experience of having run a haptics (virtual touch) lab for the past 16 years, set up by M Mannivannan, a professor of biomedical engineering, Department of Applied Mechanics, IIT Madras. In an attempt to make it more holistic, the centre expanded to include exclusive AR and VR labs in 2020.

The lab redefines the purpose of technology, according to frequent collaborator Dr Venkatraman Sadanand, an IIT Madras engineer-turned-pediatric neurosurgeon. “People used to think that technology is meant to improve life. What this lab is demonstrating is that technology is supposed to improve our experience of life. That means all of our lives and how we live it is defined by experience of it. The focus is on experiencing life through technology,” he says.

As a fount of innovation, it is driving many interesting projects such as developing touchscreen technology to feel the texture of images, iPhone’s haptic touch feedback, and building lensless cameras. It is supported by funding from tech giant Meta and game engine company Unity 3D and has inked pacts with National Council of Science Museums and Tamil Nadu Apex Skill Development Centre for Healthcare. Many PSUs and Central agencies are in the potential funding pipeline as well.

Touchscreen technology to feel the texture of images at IIT Madras

The long-term vision for Prof Manivannan is to build an XR or innovation corridor in India for the world. “The world is moving towards immersion technology. Not just every branch of engineering, but every aspect of life is going to be influenced by it. We are creating awareness and getting students ready to adapt to these technologies,” he says.

A new playbook

Engineering colleges promoting hands-on learning is a big trend that is only going to intensify with emerging technologies, believes Santanu Paul, CEO and MD, TalentSprint, an NSE group company. “There is no such thing as a conceptual swimmer, right? The learning and competence become real only when you start doing it. This becomes especially true with immersive tech. The nature of subjects in engineering is becoming increasingly experiential in nature. Technology is changing. There is a strong requirement for competence in doing rather than conceptual knowledge,” says Paul.

Another facet of experiential technology is that it cuts across different branches of engineering and invites expertise from all disciplines. Anticipating such possibilities, BML Munjal University (BMU) is another such university investing heavily in trans-disciplinary research. The varsity set up Centre for Computational and Complexity Science (C3S) last year to foster research collaborations in cutting-edge areas such as AI and ML, quantum computing, mathematical modelling of complex systems, and so on.

“The founders set up high-quality infrastructure when they started the university. Hero MotoCorp Ltd has donated CSR funds for innovative projects meant for social good. There are nine centers at the moment. And the Centre for Advanced Materials and Devices (CAMD) especially has infrastructure worth ₹25 crore to promote R&D across disciplines,” says Prof Anirban Chakraborti, Dean, School of Engineering and Technology, BMU.

Government agencies such as the Department of Science and Technology (DST), and research partners such as the NGO Sabudh Foundation are some of the major sponsors. Many inventive projects with an eye for social impact is being conducted at the lab. An AI-based app to help farmers with crop monitoring, analysing biodiversity by processing audio signals of birdcalls, and using data science to understand the case of clinical mental depression are some examples.

World of possibilities

While work in many established universities is apace, newer universities like Plaksha in Mohali are also set to launch a metaverse lab, trying to gain a toehold. These developments are necessary to push the technology forward, says Prof Rudra Pratap, Founding Vice-Chancellor of Plaksha University.

“The technology is only beginning to breathe. So, there’s a need for advancement in all frontiers. There’s a need for algorithms to execute these transformation plans, need to make visualisations more realistic, and need for gadgets to become more accessible and less intrusive. The lab will explore how to make that happen,” he said. The university is in talks with various industry stakeholders for sponsored research going forward.

The action in B-schools doesn’t get any less interesting. Many tech-focused, especially AI- and ML-based courses, are being introduced in management education. Kashyap Kompella, who teaches AI for business at BITSoM says the B-school places a strong emphasis on emerging technology.

“There is a need for B-schools to understand how each of these component technologies that help build the metaverse is transforming core processes and business models to take advantage of them. What we do in B-schools is give analytical toolkits to understand this emerging technology that brings many opportunities for businesses,” he says.

When students show experiential capabilities rather than just write exams and get high grades, it is far more appealing to prospective employers, according to Paul. “We have protected engineers from the real world for far too long. No more,” he says.