When Computer Science Professor Aditi Majumder first received the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) funding for her startup, Summit Technology Laboratory, she had visions of impacting education. She thought STL’s innovative platform for projection-based, multi-user and sharable augmented reality — grown in the Interactive Graphics & Visualization (iGravi) Lab at UCI — would be great in K-12 classrooms. Then her academic passions collided with the realities of the business world.
“When we went to the business community, we realized that funding is low in education, creating a high barrier to entry,” says Majumder. While some teachers were enthusiastic about the technology, others were skeptical or resistant. “In business, unlike in research, the market is the primary impacting factor,” she explains. Moving out of her comfort zone, she had to be flexible as she focused on finding ways to get the resources she needed and build excitement. “It is critical to figure out who will take this technology to the next level and make it popular for the masses.”
So she was pleasantly surprised when Jason Holland, vice president of community outreach programs at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, contacted STL about setting up something for Brilliance, a free community event at the Julianne and George Argyros Plaza. Majumder offered him the use of three alpha systems built by STL: Design Your Vase, Interactive Veil or Mediaquarium. “He looked at them all, and said he wanted all three,” she says. “ We had our first customer!”
Lighting Up the Night
Brilliance was marketed as “a night of music and light,” and the STL prototypes attracted significant curiosity and attention at the April 21 outdoor event.
People were intrigued by Design Your Vase, a prototype system in which eight phone-sized mobile projectors offer a high-resolution, seamless wrap-around projection on a vase. Users can then use tablet-based software to paint/color the vase, wrap it in textures or personalize it with their own picture. “We wrapped crisp, bright videos around the vase, which drew people in as the vase glowed like an animated treasure,” says Majumder. Not surprisingly, she said the children were more comfortable than the adults with the interactive technology, predicting what the vase could do. “The kids got it. They’d ask, ‘can you put my face on it?’”
The Interactive Veil prototype was also popular with children. Four projectors illuminated a low-cost shower curtain from the back, creating a “poor man’s” 4K display. The camera in the back detected colored laser pointers moving on the screen, which were used by players in the front in an interactive balloon-popping game. “Even a 2-year-old could use it,” says Majumder. “The kids loved it!”
The final prototype was an “aquarium” that holds rich media. Mediaquarium is a wrap-around cylindrical display, lit from inside by six projectors. Anyone can walk up to it and scan one of the many displayed QR codes to upload their own pictures, creating a collage of pictures uploaded by the event attendees.
Segerstrom Center is now interested in partnering with STL to create more permanent experiences and environments, built into the many different spaces inside the building to engage the waiting audience in creative activities.
What’s Next for STL
Brilliance was a learning experience for STL. “We’re in the very early stages,” notes Majumder. Events such as Brilliance provide evidence that STL’s platform can be used in multiple ways. “We’re still searching for appropriate ways to develop our platform to most aptly productize our IP.” Engaging in such partnerships for one-of-a-kind projects, working with art institutions or museums, offers great insights into conducive business models for STL. “The interaction is unlike anything existing on the market,” explains Majumder. The tracking technology exists, and the display technology exists, but STL’s platform merges them with unique software that scales projections to the size and shape of different objects and allows for interaction. “It creates new multiperson experiences without restrictive wearables such as VR glasses, opening up a way for multiple people to have a shared interaction with real 3-D spaces.”
STL submitted its proposal for SBIR Phase 2 funding in February and should hear back in August. “That would help us focus on technology development for two more years, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed,” says Majumder, who is optimistic about STL’s future. After all, she’s already beaten the odds just by being a female tech entrepreneur. “It’s harder for women,” she admits. “Only 2 percent of tech companies are owned by women, but if you have the passion, it’s possible.” And while her true passion lies with education and research at the university, she hopes that her upcoming sabbatical will help her put STL on the right trajectory as she works to build its foundation and expand its roster. “I need to help people see the vision,” she explains.
Brilliance just moved her one step closer to crystalizing that vision and sharing it with others.
— Shani Murray