Ramit Bag, a University College London Laidlaw Scholar, on using augmented and virtual reality for everyday tasks, the innovative approach of Google and learning how to lead a team.
Research title: Designing an Immersive VR Avatar Animation Software
Currently, there exists no open-source VR avatar animation software for the whole body. Most social VR systems use avatars that stop at the waist level (Meta’s horizon world). Immersive systems such as the Quest utilise three-point tracking (head, and both hands) to generate the upper body of the avatar using inverse kinematics (IK) to calculate the body position of the avatar based on physics. But what about the lower body? How can we simulate the positions and locomotion of the legs with just these 3 points?
My research project aims to design an open-source software that animates both the upper and lower body of avatars in order to create a realistic VR experience. By studying various machine learning algorithms and combining them with IK, I wish to develop agents that are able to behave and traverse the world realistically. This technology is important because it can be implemented within education, sports, and social media.
Students can explore parts of the planet at any time, with their locomotion modelled realistically based on the terrain. Hazardous science experiments can also be conducted safely and multiple times without wasting equipment. Hazardous sports such as rugby may also be played in VR, where the leg motion is determined by the speed the player swings their arms and movement on the head-mounted display whilst jogging on the spot. This will allow for a truly immersive experience, and by playing in virtual reality we can prevent many injuries players receive, that can potentially be career-ending.
Where did your passion for this research originate?
During Covid, all our lessons were moved online. I dreaded every day waking up to zoom calls without the classroom “banter” with all my friends or the missed practicals in my physics class that meant vital knowledge required for the course was left out. What if we could conduct these science practicals in VR? What if we could socialise in a better way than texting and calling?
VR already existed but it was evidently not developed to host classrooms and social gatherings on a large scale. And the main culprit was that 3-point tracking couldn't accurately generate the feet position and locomotion. As a result, we had Meta's horizon world which was floating upper-body avatars. Now that's not very fun, is it?
We have seen the way social interactions are conducted has shifted consistently in the recent century with the advent of phones, the internet and social media. At each step, the technology was initially crude and cumbersome to use with the public. Yet by focusing on user experience, it was fine-tuned to address convenience factors, ultimately blurring the boundary between real and virtual communication. Therefore I am interested in developing a social VR platform that addresses the main issues such as animating avatars using physics-based modelling and how it interacts in various environments.
Real-life leadership lessons
During my research project, multiple PhD students mentioned that the main way they recruited volunteers for their research project was through a mailing list. I decided to build an app to bridge the gap between students and research volunteering opportunities across UCL and eventually all universities. What started out as a personal project soon expanded into a team where members could specialise in specific areas such as front-end development (designing the UI/UX), and back-end development (database management). But working on an app with a team can be extremely challenging: When are the deadlines? How do we generate customers? What should be improved upon? I leant the following lessons:
Don’t try to do everything by yourself - There are people who are more skilled at a specific task than you are. Delegate the task to them and use the free time to focus on your strengths.
Leadership is about people, not just plans - Motiving my friends to believe in the same vision was vital to persuade them to join the project. Good chemistry between teammates can make or break a project.
Set SMART goals and clear deadlines - Using methodologies such as SCUM during the development process and a Trello board to display our goals and deadlines, our development could be organised in a systematic manner.
Top leadership tips
⚡️Lead by example - Serve as a role model to your team and inspire them to follow in your footsteps.
⚡️Be curious - Step out of your comfort zone and explore new ideas.
⚡️Emotional intelligence - Showing genuine empathy and belief in your team will help to build trust.
⚡️Strong willed - Never giving up when the situation becomes difficult or seems to be failing. This crucial period is what truly builds character.
⚡️Know the strengths and weaknesses of your team and yourself - This is crucial to understanding what tasks should be done by yourself and what needs to be delegated to others.
What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?
Being a Laidlaw Scholar has given me the opportunity to develop myself into a future leader that is equipped with the knowledge and mindset of a researcher. We need more scientists who have the interpersonal skills to speak to the public about their research. The satirical movie "Don't look up" pointed out the flaw in allowing politicians and businesses to manage threats instead of scientists. The community of Laidlaw scholars strive to use their knowledge in an ethical and moral way to tackle these world problems. Only when power is given to ethical leaders can we trust our future to be handled in the best interest of society and the environment. Thus this opportunity to grow and develop our knowledge is truly a blessing and I hope to be able to use my research skills combined with leadership to pave the future of humanity.
Which leaders inspire you and why?
Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Co-founders of Google, are my favourite leaders who embody integrity and the belief to be open to futuristic ideas that could change the world. Both had the thirst for knowledge, exemplified by their intrigue to extract meaning from the huge amount of data swarming the Internet during their PhD at Stanford. They are great examples of leaders who combine their research knowledge and leadership skills to create one of the biggest conglomerates in the world.
Their democratic, laissez-faire leadership style is exemplified as they would ask their staff to give short updates on their projects daily, instead of an autocratic style that involves micromanagement. This actively ensured that all engineers were proactive and able to concoct the best solution with their creativity given this freedom. Their vision and healthy work environment inspired many engineers to join Google's mission of organising all the world's information and making it accessible free of charge. The decision against having non-technical people managing engineers was also crucial, as only they could empathise with the effort required to design cutting-edge software. This resulted in engineers receiving manageable deadlines and an accurate assessment of the quality of the software produced.
Briefly describe a scene from the future you are striving to create.
Augmented and Virtual Reality already exists, yet they are not integrated into our daily lives as much as phones and computers. A future where students cannot only learn fundamental concepts in 3D but also interact with the environment in real-time will truly inspire the joy of learning at an early age. Given the rise in work-from-home culture, many staff complain about the lack of socialisation that doesn't occur anymore. Yet by developing animation technology in VR, we can simulate this environment well enough that people can reap all the benefits whilst not physically commuting. Virtual reality shouldn't be used as a replacement for meeting in person, but instead as an enhancement over video calls and messaging which potentially leads to miscommunication.
Ramit is a Laidlaw Undergraduate Leadership and Research Scholar at the University College London. Become a Laidlaw Scholar to conduct a research project of your choice, develop your leadership skills, and join a global community of changemakers from world-leading universities.
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