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Capturing a new reality

January 6, 2023

Thunderbird School of Global Management brings Hollywood-style technology and digital avatars to classroom

The same technology that once dazzled an audience at Coachella by delivering them an otherwise impossible performance by the late Tupac Shakur via hologram has now made its way into a legitimate academic setting.

It turns out that the 3D presence of a remote professor or instructor has the same effect to engage an audience of students from across the globe at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University.

The $1.1 million volumetric capture lab — also known as a metaverse lab — on ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus is showing what is possible when audiences can react to holograms in augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and on 2D screens.

"Our vision at Thunderbird is to be the most global and digital leadership and management school in the world," says Sanjeev Khagram, director general and dean of Thunderbird and the Foundation Professor of Global Leadership and Global Political Economy. "That means harnessing the 12 key technological transformations of the Fourth Industrial Revolution — AI, IoT, blockchain and especially AR/VR — which have only accelerated since the onset of the pandemic.

"We're shifting the paradigm of in-person and online education from the 'sage on the stage' or someone lecturing from a PowerPoint presentation, and hoping a student, learner, professional can listen for two-and-a-half hours to something that is multi-dimensional, multimedia and engaging."

The volumetric capture lab is so cutting edge and highly technical, that it’s almost hard to describe. It works on many different levels, but here’s an easy way to think of it: It's what Zoom might look like in a “Star Trek” or “Star Wars” movie.

“The lab is a huge investment in terms of time and resources to put together, so the question is how do you leverage this?” says Tomas Bilbao, Thunderbird’s executive director of branding and communications. “We do this by finding cutting-edge ways in which we can enhance the experience for learners around the world. Leveraging all these technologies provides a completely different experience than the traditional in classroom experience for our students, executive clients and lifelong learners.”

Hollywood multimedia studios are starting to build their own volumetric capture labs for large-scale feature films, documentaries, television series, TED Talks, AR apps, VR headsets and future devices that have not been commercialized yet. Paramount Studios recently shot a performance of dancers singing “You’re the One That I Want” from “Grease” for a 3D display and interactive poster. Whenever studios are not shooting, they lease the space to third-party vendors for their endeavors.

While volumetric technology is helping to redefine the entertainment industry, Thunderbird leadership believe it will do the same for education. Thunderbird is also planning for the lab to enable the school to reach an ambitious goal: to educate more than 100 million learners by the start of the next decade.

The Thunderbird in-house studio, which is a 9-foot metal tower with 96 cameras, creates a 360-degree photo or video rendering to make an avatar that can be placed in an AR environment. The process enables students around the world to advance from learning remotely to learning immersively in a three-dimensional space, with the assistance of a computer monitor or VR headsets.

“This is a new pedagogy to do more collaboration in this space. A 3D environment, we've found, is a more meaningful way to teach and reach our students," says Michael Grasso, director of digital initiatives, AV and media for Thunderbird. "The cameras pull terabytes of data down, compresses the image and pieces one together, almost like a puzzle. We then upload into the cloud so the video can be streamed to a phone. We're the first higher education institution in the world to have something like this."

But given the wide variety of disciplines that can be used with the technology, Thunderbird certainly won't be the last. Other subjects could include technology, business, accounting, health care, and music and film production. It could even display an instructor pulling apart a car in a trade class or a teacher explaining human anatomy — all in 3D technology.

Thunderbird art director Esly Diaz has used the technology several times to record himself, including a branding opportunity for the school while he was in Los Angeles at a conference. He was astounded.

“When Dean Khagram sugged the plan to bring a volumetric capture lab to Thunderbird, I thought it was crazy, like something you’d see in the movies. The technology was amazing,” said Diaz, who received a Master of Arts in global affairs and management with a specialization in creative industries from Thunderbird in December.

“It reminded me of the time I saw an app on an iPhone. Everybody kept asking, ‘What’s an app?’ I feel like I’m back at that same time frame. Everybody is now going to be asking, ‘What’s a volumetric scan?’ We’re now at that same point with this technology, and we think it’s going to change education forever.”  

Top photo: Thunderbird art director Esly Diaz stands and moves around in the volumetric capture studio at the Thunderbird School of Global Management on ASU's Downtown Phoenix campus. The studio creates a 360-degree photo or video rendering with 96 cameras to make an avatar that can be placed in an augmented reality environment. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News.

An homage to the mentorship and work of ASU Regents Professor Nancy Grimm

Mentees co-author review on Grimm's contributions to field of hydrology, aridland ecosystems

January 6, 2023

Work from Regents Professor and Senior Global Futures Scientist Nancy Grimm was highlighted in a review article as part of the Journal of Hydrology's "Special Issue on Women in Hydrology — Celebrating the contributions of mentors, researchers and leaders." The review, titled "Learning from arid and urban aquatic ecosystems to inform more sustainable and resilient futures," is not only a compilation of Grimm's work but also an homage to her mentorship throughout the years, as the authors of the article are Grimm's mentees.

Grimm has built a successful and fruitful life in academia, thus inspiring young researchers, particularly women, to achieve their dreams. Michele Clark, one of her mentees, shares some of Grimm's accomplishments: "She was the founding director of one of the first urban long-term ecological research (LTER) stations in Phoenix (CAP-LTER). She later went on to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences, served as an NSF program director, a staff scientist and lead author for the National Climate Assessment, and is currently an editor of AGU's Earth's Future."  Nancy Grimm and ESSA (Earth Systems Science for the Anthropocene) scholars smile against a blue sky background while on a hike. Nancy Grimm on a hike with ESSA (Earth Systems Science for the Anthropocene) scholars (left to right: Melissa Nelson, Ame Min-Venditti, Nancy Grimm, Yiamar Rivera-Matos, Michele Clark). Photo courtesy Michele Clark

Moreover, "she has been a particular inspiration to women in science," Clark said. 

The review was conceptualized and led by a team of four women who were all Nancy's mentees: Lauren McPhillips, Marta Berbes-Blazquez, Rebecca Hale and Tamara Harms. They collaborated with other researchers in the fields of social sciences, engineering and ecology to detail and finalize the review. The review honors Grimm's exceptional work in the field of hydrology and aridland ecosystems.

"The fact that so many people wanted to help write this tribute to her is another testament to her impact as a mentor," said Lauren McPhillips, co-author of the review and postdoc advised by Grimm.

The recently published review details Grimm's investigations in aridland hydrology and ecology. Furthermore, it describes the applications of such insights on urban ecosystems and the interactions between engineering, social and behavioral sciences, and geography.

McPhillips described that "hydrology of arid systems has been understudied for a long time, and Nancy has brought some novel insight on how these systems function — and these observations have been leveraged to understand the similarly unique hydrologic regime, and potential for resilience, in urban systems," she said. 

"Nancy really was an early leader of the field of urban ecology too. Water in cities was really the domain of engineers for a long time. Not only did Nancy spur her own research starting to understand the unique ecohydrology of cities, but she also brought together faculty and students from across many different domains to start understanding cities as ecosystems, and thinking about how to leverage these insights to look towards a more sustainable and resilient future," McPhillips said. "In many ways, she has been a bridge, facilitating connections between scientists and practitioners from many different backgrounds, spurring truly inter- and transdisciplinary work." 

Grimm's achievements have gone far beyond urban ecology, and her mentorship has shaped the careers of early scientists. For instance, McPhillips shares one of the most valuable lessons learned by working with Grimm: "Think big, don't be afraid to push boundaries and do what needs to be done to do what's important and what will make a difference."

Marta Berbes-Blazquez, a co-author of the review, considers Grimm a role model, saying, "I think that Nancy is a role model for many of us in that she approaches research from a genuine place of curiosity and learning. There is humility to that that is the hallmark of a true scholar. She always emphasizes the need to come up with good questions and I take that to heart. I think her innate curiosity and willingness to learn have taken her to interesting places that straddle different disciplinary boundaries," Berbes-Blazquez said.  

"(Nancy) cares and considers students as complex people with diverse interests and goals beyond the academy. Nancy is transparent about her career, family life, work interests and personal interests and encourages students to see the bigger picture around their contribution to the field. She's also super musically talented, a devoted grandma, a great dog mom and a wonderful cook … and that just names a few of her extra talents," Clark said.

Nancy Grimm is affiliated with the School of Life Sciences and is a senior global futures scientist with the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory.

Anaissa Ruiz-Tejada

Graduate Science Writer, School of Life Sciences