University of Michigan to advance extended reality collaborative research

SOURCE: Artem Bryzgalov/Unsplash
Extended Reality (XR) is an umbrella term that encompasses VR, AR and MR.

By U2B Staff 

Read all stories

The University of Michigan (UM) is currently advancing research, teaching and learning activities centring on extended reality (XR) to boost the university’s quality of education and to cultivate interdisciplinary collaboration.

Recently announced by UM Provost Martin Philbert, the university will undergo a three-year funded commitment that will leverage the latest XR technologies to strengthen the quality of the university’s education, cultivate an interdisciplinary academic community and enhance a nationwide network for academic innovation. 

This initiative will be led by the university’s Centre for Academic Innovation

“Our commitment to academic excellence is longstanding,” said Philbert in a media release

“The XR initiative will provide significant opportunities to explore how these new technologies can bolster excellence—in student learning, in new research possibilities and in serving the world more effectively.”


XR, or extended reality is the tech industry’s umbrella term for all forms of computer-generated real and virtual combined environments and human-machine interactions. It encompasses augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and mixed reality (MR). 

The Centre for Academic Innovation will be responsible for establishing and facilitating new XR priorities which involve integrating emerging technology into the university’s in-house and online academic activities as well as bolstering public-private relationships to develop and advance more technologies. 

“XR applied thoughtfully in an educational context has the potential to fundamentally change the way we teach and learn,” said UM associate vice provost for academic innovation James DeVaney, who is also the Centre for Academic Innovation’s founding executive director. 

“We are eager to explore possible breakthrough innovations that enhance teaching and learning across disciplines, foster equity and inclusivity, and increase access and affordability.”

extended reality
Faculty members will explore how XR can enhance education. Source: Billetto Editorial/Unsplash. 

The UM community will also gain a new XR Innovation Fund which will provide access to financial and in-kind support for new innovative projects. 

The centre will work closely with other units and departments across campus to understand the potential for these emerging technologies to enhance learning. DeVaney added that many faculty and academic units are already thinking deeply about these technologies. 

For instance, the UM faculty are currently using extended reality technologies across various disciplines of innovative research to treat and diagnose illnesses, test cars for the future, teach students in the sciences why architectural structures fail, help education students practice teaching before stepping into their first classroom session, and allow students in the Department of Film, Television, and Media to take a look at the work of Orson Welles through a different lens. 

“An important part of this project, which will set it apart from experiments with XR on many other campuses, is our interest in humanities-centred perspectives to shape innovations in teaching and learning at a great liberal arts institution,” said UM vice provost for academic and faculty affairs Sara Blair. 

“How can we use XR tools and platforms to help our students develop historical imagination or to help students consider the value and limits of empathy, and the way we produce knowledge of other lives than our own?”

“We hope that arts and humanities colleagues won’t just participate in this [initiative], but lead in developing deeper understandings of what we can do with XR technologies, as we think critically about our engagements with them.”

“The language of the STEM fields is math. But for many students, math is too abstract and not linked to the physical world,” said UM Engineering associate dean for undergraduate education and professor of materials science and engineering Joanna Milunchick. 

“Using XR in the classroom could bridge that gap in ways that is not currently possible.”

Millunchick is working with augmented reality in her courses to help students better understand crystal structures at the molecular scale. She believes that extended reality technology has the potential to impact student retention in areas of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). 

An interdisciplinary team of faculty from several UM departments, led by the School of Information is now working on an augmented, virtual and mixed reality graduate certification that provides advanced training and research in computer-generated technologies. 


UM vice provost for academic innovation James Hilton added that through the XR initiative, the university will explore additional curricular and co-curricular offerings, research opportunities, and multi-institutional and industry collaborations. 

“XR is exciting because it has the potential to touch all of the disciplines at Michigan,” he said. “While it will initially be physically located in the Duderstadt Center, in order to take advantage of the VR technology and expertise that is already there, the scope of the initiative is campuswide and builds on Michigan’s long-standing commitment to continually ask, ‘What’s next?’—to experiment with leading-edge technology to discover how it may change the ways we learn, create and educate in our third century.”

According to DeVaney, the first objective of newly-appointed director of the XR initiative, Jeremy Nelson is to engage a wide range of stakeholders across and beyond campus.

“We are embarking on the next great shift in how human beings interact with technology and use it to alter the future,” said Nelson.

“The XR Initiative will be an inflection point for the University of Michigan to continue to lead and engage the world to solve the problems that matter most.”