DSI Receives Grant from Sloan Foundation to Shape the Future of Virtual Reality

Testing out an Augmented Reality headset at the 2023 DSI Data and the Metaverse workshop.

As the world of virtual reality (VR) continues to expand, untapped possibilities await exploration, bringing with them numerous unanswered questions. The Data Sciences Institute (DSI) has been awarded a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to delve into the realm of VR technology and its profound implications for human interaction and communication. This award builds upon the foundation laid by the DSI Data and the Metaverse workshop held earlier this year at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) spearheaded by Prof. Bree McEwan, DSI Associate Director UTM. 

This grant serves as a beacon of support and recognition for DSI’s commitment to pushing the boundaries of knowledge and innovation in the data sciences. This award stands as a testament to its potential to drive groundbreaking research and foster collaboration across disciplines to support a thought-provoking exploration into the domain of social interactions within mediated environments, encompassing the multifaceted world of VR, augmented reality (AR), extended reality (XR), and mixed realities (MR). 

Co-led by Profs. McEwan and Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn, Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia, the grant will provide critical support for the Questioning Reality: Explorations of Virtual Reality and Our Social Future conference in 2024 that will bring together leading scholars, industry professionals, and enthusiasts to collaboratively shape the future research landscape of VR.   

Moreover, the grant will serve as a catalyst for generating a Debates in Digital Media edition focused on Virtual Reality and its associated data and will fund five mini-grant research projects. These projects are designed to propel the field forward through innovative research endeavors. 

“We’re entering a critical phase of discovery that will not only enhance our understanding of technology’s impact but also drive the responsible development of immersive experiences,” says Professor Ahn.  

There is a lot more flexibility in the metaverse than in the real world, Ahn continues. “In the metaverse, people can change their identity or their perspectives. They can really play with that dimension of both time and space by traveling to the past or to the future. We are interested in generating a body of knowledge that is very new examining how people use emerging technology,” says Professor Ahn. 

Professor Bree McEwan emphasizes, “We’re laying the groundwork for the future of virtual reality research, where the synergy between scholars and industry experts shapes the very essence of the future of immersive communication. With DSI’s leadership and the Sloan Foundation’s support, we’re creating a platform for researchers, designers, and industry experts to come together and drive the discourse on social interaction within virtual reality.”  

This grant intends to ignite fresh perspectives and innovative ideas by initiating conversations right at the beginning of the research cycle. In doing so, DSI aims to pave the way for a dynamic exchange of insights that will decisively shape the trajectory of VR and augmented reality (AR). 

The timing of this research is particularly significant, as the growing presence of VR and AR in society raises practical and ethical challenges. Experts in social interaction research and human communication will collaborate to explore the seamless integration of these technologies into our lives, while considering privacy, identity formation, social presence, and safety. 

The Sloan Foundation, a not-for-profit, mission-driven grantmaking institution, is instrumental in making this possible “VR and AR technologies have the potential to reshape how we interact as individuals, groups, and as a society,” says Joshua M. Greenberg, program director at Sloan. “What’s needed now is to further develop a research agenda and to ensure that academic researchers have the technical access to study these changes.  We’re excited to support DSI’s efforts to help bring the research community together on that shared journey.” 

DSI seeks to fuel pioneering research endeavors that delve into the intricate dynamics of human interaction within mediated immersive environments, fostering collaboration across disciplines and between academia and industry and organization.

By Sara Elhawash, DSI

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