Arno Hartholt serves as the Director of R&D Integration at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies.
Tell us about your background.
I grew up in in the Netherlands, where I studied at the University of Twente. I’ve always had an interest in how technology could serve to improve daily life, which led me to complete both my bachelor and master degrees in Computer Science. Although my work exposed me to a broad range of interests, the topic that caught my curiosity the most was the study of virtual humans. This would lead me to pursue an internship at the USC ICT, which I was accepted for as an undergraduate. It was a wonderful experience to work with talented researchers. After my time there concluded, I went home to complete my studies and work at a couple of companies. After a while, I made my way back here to the Institute. My work at the moment focuses on the application of virtual humans, serious games, and military simulations, across multiple platforms, including the web, mobile applications, and virtual and augmented reality.
What sparked your interest in AR/VR?
The first experience I had with VR was during my work on a prototype for a western-style, mixed-reality experience, called Gunslinger, which was completed around 2008. It put the player in the middle of a Wild West environment, featuring several virtual humans as your allies and opponent. Headsets were rather bulky and far more expensive a decade ago, so these devices were nowhere near as accessible nor advanced as they are now. Even then, the technology could provide an incredible sense of human presence for the player. Having the ability to look your opponent in the eyes, watch them keep their gaze trained on you as they moved back and forth – all of these details gave such impressive insight into what the future could become. This sense of presence is what the focus of my work has primarily revolved around, and we are continuing to expand its reach into AR, XR, and other applications as well.
Which of your AR/VR accomplishments are you most excited about?
Throughout my work at the ICT, I have been incredibly thankful for the opportunity to develop exciting projects with a team of talented researchers and professionals. One of the projects that stands out has been the BRAVEMIND application, which I have worked on alongside Skip Rizzo to develop over the years. This project focuses on immersive virtual exposure therapy to combat the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly within US veterans who served in the Iraq war. The evidence-based medical and psychological foundation at the heart of this project gives it incredible potential to meet the needs of many people, and I’m excited to see how this technology will continue to develop. It is perhaps one of the greatest examples to date of the three core aspects surrounding our work – technology, research, and benefit to the end user. Being able to leverage our knowledge from a technical standpoint into a psychological and clinical application for humanity’s betterment is by far the most rewarding part of my job.
Is there anything on the horizon of VR & AR that you’re especially looking forward to?
It’s been exciting to see the expansion of sensor integration within wearable technology. The progress we’ve begun to observe within devices such as the HoloLens, Magic Leap, and Reverb Omnicept has been amazing to watch, for example. These pieces do a wonderful job of improving user interaction with virtual characters, providing valuable feedback for researchers to take further. One such project Skip and I work on, together with Sharon Mozgai, is called “VITA”, which stands for “Virtual Interactive Training Agent”. This application assists users with developing confidence and key techniques to successfully participate in job interviews, which includes making eye contact with virtual interviewers, speaking clearly and succinctly, and other skills that are crucial for making a good impression. The feedback gathered from this project provides excellent material to expand our findings into more areas that can be of greater benefit to humanity. Of course, this type of innovation comes with a certain level of responsibility, and protecting the privacy of users is incredibly important. The ethics surrounding this type of development will be something we will need to be particularly mindful of as technology continues to advance.
What advice would you give to those who wish to follow a similar path?
If you want to be successful, work hard at becoming a specialist within a given field, while being able to speak the language of others. The depth of your knowledge will be your biggest asset, along with the ability to communicate your needs across specialties. This will include not only “translating” the work you achieve, but also learning the terms used by other professionals to describe theirs as well. Great work is done by interdisciplinary teams that consist of many different voices and backgrounds. Although my background leans more toward the technical side, the success of my projects relies on the input of healthcare workers, clinical psychologist, artists, game developers, and others to come together and share information that everyone can build on.
It’s also helpful to remember that the ultimate purpose of AR/VR is as a tool, or a vehicle, towards obtaining a larger goal. Finding that goal, or the way in which the greatest benefit to humanity can be achieved, tends to be the biggest part of any project. The answer to this question can only be found through in-depth exploration of humanity’s needs, which will require strong ties with co-workers and other professionals to determine successfully.
Anything you are passionate about aside from AR/VR?
It’s been hard to develop and maintain hobbies over the course of the past year during the pandemic! But whenever I am able, I enjoy heading outdoors for hiking, cycling, and activities that get me out of the house and engaging with nature. As for indoor activities, I began taking up woodworking not long ago as a hands-on creative outlet, which has been incredibly enjoyable. As far as hobbies that are more in line with my field of study, I’ve recently become a big fan of Beat Saber as well!