Science Dialogue

2017/4/10 Science dialogue program was conducted.

The program offers JSPS Overseas Fellows the unique opportunities to volunteer to give lectures in English on their research work at Japanese high schools in the vicinity of their host institutes.

The aim of the lectures is to stimulate the young students’ interest in research and deepen their understanding from a global point of view through interacting with Fellows.

■Introduction program

Science Dialogue Lecture at Nara Prefectural Seisho High School on 14 February 2017
Lecturer: Dr. Benjamin OUTRAM

On 14 February, Dr. Benjamin Outram gave a lecture on the “future of virtual reality” to second-year students at Nara Prefectural Seisho High School.

Dr. Benjamin Outram

Dr. Outram kicked off his lecture with an introduction to himself and his country, England. He compared various aspects of the EU with those of Japan, including their geography and land mass. Differing from Japan’s place within the Asian region, he said, the UK’s inclusion in the EU has provided a fairly free environment for British people to move around, live and work within the European region. Now, with the UK’s departure from the EU, it is possible, he said, that this situation may change. Then, Dr. Outram described the landscape and scenery of his home town of Manchester and of the environs around his university there. He told the students about how when he was a university student he enjoyed music and participating in club activities.

During the lecture

Turning to his research, Dr. Outram talked about the work he is doing on liquid crystals. Showing the students various images of crystals, he demonstrated how crystalline structures can be seen in an array of substances, not just in artificial but also natural substances. For example, he showed how seven colors can be seen in the exoskeleton of a beetle.

Talking about crystals

The colors of crystals are created by the lengths and forms of their optical wavelengths. The fact that sound is also transmitted via waves piqued Dr. Outram’s curiosity as to what could happen if sound were visualized. That led him to creating a screen upon which images change in tune to with a musical flow. He demonstrated this system to the students, who watched with keen interest as the images on the screen changed in arrays of complex colors and patterns in response to the sounds of drums, guitars and other music instruments. Dr. Outram said his doing this kind of research had roots in his college days when enjoyed music and dance.

Dr. Outram’s sound-driven images on students’ computer screens

Moving on, he told the students about his research in media technology, which he started after receiving his doctoral degree. Taking a break from his research on liquid crystals, Dr. Outram currently belongs to Embodied Media Lab, a media technology lab at Keio Graduate School of Media Design. He started this discussion by sketching the history of media technology from its beginnings in the printing of books, progressing through the invention of the television up to the advent of the Internet. Interconnecting the globe, he said that the Internet makes the world a much smaller place. He told the students that it’s the role of researchers like himself to envision what will come in the next stages of this technological evolution.

This segued Dr. Outram to the core of his lecture, virtual reality (VR), which is different from the Internet in that it makes you feel like you’re in a place that you’re actually not. He gave the students some examples of this. One was a VR meeting: To be in a completely different place but to feel as if you’re right there in the room with other meeting participants. Another was that of a doctor participating in a surgery from a remote location.

He explained that in VR, a sense of “presence” is paramount, as determined by the person’s feeling of actually being in the VR world. Giving the students an example, he explained: If by turning your head the scene around you changes simultaneously, you will have a real feeling of being in the VR world. Creating a synesthesia by bringing into play a plurality of senses is also needed to establish “presence.” When playing with VR in his lab, Dr. Outram and his colleagues bump into things in the VR world. That led them to creating a suit that vibrates the parts of their body that bump against something in the VR environment. Using not only the senses of sight and hearing but also the sense of touch, they have found that it is possible to create a system that immerses a person even deeper into the VR world. He showed the students a video that be had used in a conference presentation to demonstrate this phenomenon. At the same time, Dr. Outram said that he is working on solving a problem unique to VR, “virtual reality sickness.” People can incur symptoms similar to car sickness when immersed in a virtual environment.

Sound-driven VR images

Turning to the future of virtual reality, Dr. Outram said that it has the potential of connecting information directly with the brain. Advances in artificial intelligence will, he noted, accelerate the work of researchers in this epoch-making field. Even at present, there are, he said, programs obtainable free of charge for creating virtual reality, testifying to how we are already in an era when a person working alone can create virtual reality. He demonstrated such a program for the students.

Lastly, Dr. Outram offered a message of encouragement to the students, saying that, while their school studies are of course very important, in the present day and age it is also important that they study actively on their own using such media as television and the Internet, as doing so may determine their futures. After his lecture, several students gathered around Dr. Outram enthusiastically asking him many questions.

Using an assortment of colorful pictures and videos, Dr. Outram captured the students’ interest throughout the lecture session. He showed the students his own website that displays his inventions and taught them how to use a program for creating their own virtual reality. His personal touch and their interactive participation in the lecture were seen to be very stimulating for the high school students.

Answering students’ questions