Gregory Welch is a Professor and the Florida Hospital Endowed Chair in Healthcare Simulation at the University of Central Florida. A computer scientist and engineer, he has appointments in the College of Nursing, the Department of Computer Science, and in the Institute for Simulation & Training.
Welch earned his B.S. in Electrical Engineering Technology from Purdue University (Highest Distinction), and his M.S. and Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). Previously, he was a research professor at UNC. He also worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and at Northrop-Grumman’s Defense Systems Division.
His research interests include human-computer interaction, human motion tracking, virtual and augmented reality, computer graphics and vision, and training related applications. His awards include the IEEE Virtual Reality Technical Achievement Award in 2018 (VR 2018), and the Long Lasting Impact Paper Award at the 15th IEEE International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality (ISMAR 2016).
The popular concepts of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) arose from our ability to interact with objects and environments that appear to be real, but are not. One of the most powerful aspects of these paradigms is the ability of virtual entities to embody a richness of behavior and appearance that we perceive as compatible with reality, and yet unconstrained by reality. The freedom to be or do almost anything helps to reinforce the notion that such virtual entities are inherently distinct from the real world—as if they were magical. This independent magical status is reinforced by the typical need for the use of “magic glasses” (head-worn displays) and “magic wands” (spatial interaction devices) that are ceremoniously bestowed on a chosen few. For those individuals, the experience is inherently egocentric in nature—the sights and sounds effectively emanate from the magic glasses, not the real world, and unlike the magic we are accustomed to from cinema, the virtual entities are unable to affect the real world.
This separation of real and virtual is also inherent in our related conceptual frameworks, such as Milgram’s Virtuality Continuum, where the real and virtual are explicitly distinguished and mixed. While these frameworks are indeed conceptual, we often feel the need to position our systems and research somewhere in the continuum, further reinforcing the notion that real and virtual are distinct. The very structures of our professional societies, our research communities, our journals, and our conferences tend to solidify the evolutionary separation of the virtual from the real.
However, independent forces are emerging that could reshape our notions of what is real and virtual, and transform our sense of what it means to interact with technology. First, even within the VR/AR communities, as the appearance and behavioral realism of virtual entities improves, virtual experiences will become more real. Second, as domains such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and the Internet of Things (IoT) mature and permeate throughout our lives, experiences with real things will become more virtual. The convergence of these various domains has the potential to transform the egocentric magical nature of VR/AR into more pervasive allocentric magical experiences and interfaces that interact with and can affect the real world. This transformation will blur traditional technological boundaries such that experiences will no longer be distinguished as real or virtual, and our sense for what is natural will evolve to include what we once remember as cinematic magic.