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University-Industry Engagement Advisor

Oakland U makes potential industry partners ‘an offer they couldn’t refuse’

By David Schwartz
Published: May 4th, 2021

A detailed article on the industry partnerships that support Oakland University’s new Augmented Reality Center appears in the April issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. For subscription information, click here. 

Convincing a roster of collaborators including General Motors, Siemens, MAHLE Industries, ABB Inc., AM General, Continental, Hirotec America, KUKA Robotics, Magna International, Rave Computer and the U.S. Military Ground Vehicle Systems to become founding industry partners to fund an ambitious Augmented Reality Center (ARC) may seem like a tall mountain to climb, but Khalid Mirza, PhD, ARC Founding Director, puts it in the simplest of terms: “We made them an offer they couldn’t refuse — by presenting a business case,” he asserts.

Of course, it wasn’t quite as simple as that. In fact, he relates, it began three years ago as his students started to try to address virtual reality in their projects when Mirza was serving as a director of the Chrysler Lab and Industrial Robotics Lab at Oakland University’s School of Engineering and Computer Science. Interest was growing among industry sponsors, who saw VR as an emerging technology. “Then, there was more interest in how we might use gaming technology in the world of industry,” he adds. “We started talking with Epic Games, as a lone lead [sponsor for the ARC]. They proposed to us that if the university could get industry interested in adapting augmented reality, we could ‘plant’ something here.” Something clearly was “planted,” and Epic is also providing financial support through its Epic MegaGrants Program, a $100-million initiative.

Louay M. Chamra, PhD, dean of the School of Engineering and Computer Science, adds that the other key element in the successful launch of ARC was the inclusion of the College of Creative Studies in Detroit — and its focus on art and industrial design — to the partnership. “You should not underestimate this collaboration,” he asserts. “It’s very important when you bring engineering and industry together to [include] design, to be sure all students emphasize the power of industry education and then collaborating on augmented reality.”

The U.S., notes Mirza, is far behind Europe in this space. “We thought this was an opportunity for our university to take the lead,” he shares.

“We went through several iterations in fine-tuning our idea and [determining] what role we could play,” says Mirza. “How can we have industry closely collaborate with our faculty and students, and how can we help industry?” he shares. “If we understand their needs and implement those in the center and have our students and faculty work on that, and develop a training program … everyone benefits. We create the workforce needed in industry and satisfy their immediate needs to solve their problems and have them come up to speed in immersive technology.”

Immersive technology, he continues, was essential to the vision of the center. “There is so much technology, engineering, hardware and software, but it only makes sense to the user if there is a visual appeal,” he states. “How you deliver the information, how it is presented, makes a whole world of difference. We very early on identified that the key was not just the engineer, but the engineer plus creative. We were able to present that vision to the college, and they were on board right away.”

That support made the “sell” to industry that much easier — as, did, he adds ironically, the advent of COVID-19.

“During COVID, we tried to gauge the interest of industry, and we thought it would slow down because they’d be looking inward, but at the same time it presented us the opportunity to ask them to think a little ahead. What if restrictions stay around longer? How would they interface with clients? Having something in your toolbox like virtual reality or augmented reality you can present in 3D to remote clients; that made sense to them and they jumped on it.”

In addition, says Chamra, the majority of these companies have a long history with Oakland’s engineering program, hiring many students for both full-time work and internships. “Also, a majority of them sponsor senior design projects — capstones. They like our students, and there’s always a balance between theory and hands-on learning. Industry here is very progressive and always looking to the future workforce.”

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Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week

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