Teaching the Tech behind Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality

December 2017

From desktop to laptop to mobile devices and wearables, personal computing platforms continue to evolve. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are among the fastest evolving such platforms. VR is an immersive experience that replaces the user's real world with a simulated one. With VR, the user typically wears a headset and/or other wearables that provide simulated interaction through sound, haptics, and graphics. Augmented reality (AR) is not immersive, although it does add elements to the user's reality. An example of AR is the real time translation of traffic signs and restaurant menus while traveling in another country. Applications of VR and AR systems have been gaining in popularity and span entertainment, education, communication, training, behavioral therapy, and basic vision research.

VR and AR provide a host of opportunities for engineers to design new sensors, displays, algorithms, and embedded systems, as well as develop new applications. Stanford students interested in learning about VR and AR systems have been flocking to a new course developed by professor Gordon Wetzstein. The course, EE 267: Virtual Reality, emphasizes aspects of VR systems such as rendering, tracking, haptics, inertial measurement units, depth perception, and presence (or immersion).

EE 267, now in its third year, continues to appeal to undergrad and graduate students both within and outside of the electrical engineering department. The primary course objective is to build a head mounted display (HMD) from scratch and to create a final project of the student's own virtual environment. Past student projects have included innovative combination of 2d and 3d inputs; collection of user data via VR interaction; and developing VR immersive viewing options for medical scans.

"Many final projects are extraordinarily creative and provide novel solutions to current problems," states professor Wetzstein. "The students are enthusiastic to share their work and usually a few interested Silicon Valley companies attend our final presentations."


From a past student – "It became clear within my first week [of my internship] that everything in the EE 267 syllabus is relevant to what I'm doing here at Google and I would have been completely lost if I had not taken your class before starting this internship. There could not have been a better primer for working in VR/AR than your class and I hope that you will continue teaching it for many years!

When I tell my coworkers that I got to take a VR class at Stanford where we built our own HMDs, they are all very jealous and wish they could have had an opportunity like that when they were in grad school."