In the popular Marvel superhero movies, tech genius and Iron Man alter ego Tony Stark can be seen working on a space age holographic computer, manipulating three-dimensional images and moving free-floating desktop screens around with his hands.
The futuristic display is meant to be somewhat unbelievable. Tony Stark is a superhero tech genius, after all. I mean, who else could be innovative enough to dabble with something like that?
Turns out, there’s a collective of students at the University of Southern Maine right on the fictional billionaire’s heels.
On the top floor of the science building on USM’s Portland campus — Stark Tower? — there are students in wrap-around visors putting nearly life-sized holograms on table tops and blasting each other in what could best be described as the next generation of laser tag.
The school’s so-called Ci2 Studio — standing for Creative Intelligence + Innovation + Collaboration — is among the first in the country to be awarded a developer’s license for Microsoft’s new HoloLens device.
“The technology is … Tony Stark. It’s Iron Man. It’s really cool, cutting edge stuff, and it’s something no one else in the state has,” said Ci2 Director Raphael DiLuzio. “We’ve been working with augmented reality.”
DiLuzio and his team let BDN Portland Editor Dan MacLeod and me come up and try out the gear that’s putting USM in the same conversation as the MITs and Stanfords of the world.
“With augmented reality, you could do anything you could do with a computer, but in the real space, with holograms, with projected screens,” he said. “Supposing you’re a doctor or you’re a professor showing molecules, you could have giant molecules in the classroom. The students could see these and interact and work with them, all kinds of things like that. The uses go from gaming to simulation.”
DiLuzio described a car mechanic who could use the hologram technology to paw through virtual engine parts without getting his or her hands dirty, or a medical student dissecting a virtual cadaver.
“The students have been developing at a wild pace,” he said.
This is just one corner of what entrepreneur adviser Al Lukas called a “playground” of emerging technology, hidden in the heart of Portland.
Across the room, other students programmed a more immersive virtual reality game in which players blasted menacing giant chickens with laser guns. One who goes by the online screen name Bubbles del Fuego has become something of a celebrity in video gaming, breaking records by speeding through popular games like “Fallout 4” and helping developers find and fix glitches.
Another student is experimenting with terahertz imaging, which is being developed as less destructive, but more acute than X-ray.
“It’s like an incubator space for students who have ideas and need equipment,” said Lukas, a local educator and founder of Intelligent Controls, a Saco-based maker of environmental monitors for underground storage containers.
Some of the work is so ahead-of-its-time that the students can’t legally talk openly about much of their work, because private companies are signing them up under secretive non-disclosure agreements to help on proprietary projects.
“The more [technology like the HoloLens] we have, the more companies say, ‘We want you to program with our stuff,’ which attracts more students, and it snowballs from there,” DiLuzio said.
The Ci2 director said the three-year-old lab has grown from about a dozen students a semester just last year to now about 30.
“I always wanted to get into game developing,” said Michael Mann, a 30-year-old nontraditional student who served in the Navy before going back to school. “I had zero experience in it, but I ran into Raphael, and now here I am.”