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Cynthia Breazeal named dean for digital learning at MIT | MIT News

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In a letter to the MIT community today, Vice President for Open Learning Sanjay Sarma announced the appointment of Professor Cynthia Breazeal as dean for digital learning, effective Feb. 1. As dean, she will supervise numerous business units and research initiatives centered on developing and deploying digital technologies for learning. These include MIT xPRO, Bootcamps, Horizon, the Center for Advanced Virtuality, MIT Integrated Learning Initiative, RAISE, and other strategic initiatives. Breazeal has served as senior associate dean for open learning since the fall.

As dean, Breazeal will lead corporate education efforts, helping to grow the existing portfolio of online professional courses, content libraries, and boot camps, while looking more holistically at the needs of companies and professionals to identify areas of convergence and innovation. She will also lead research efforts at MIT Open Learning into teaching, learning, and how new technologies can enhance both, with a special focus on virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and learning science. Breazeal will help infuse these new technologies and pedagogies into all of the teams’ learning offerings.

“Cynthia brings to the deanship a remarkable combination of experience and expertise. She consistently displays an outstanding facility for leadership and collaboration, bringing together people, ideas, and technologies in creative and fruitful ways,” Sarma wrote in his letter to the community. “Cynthia is an ambassador for women in STEM and a trailblazer in interdisciplinary research and community engagement.”

The director of MIT RAISE — a cross-MIT research effort on advancing AI education for K-12 and adult learners — and head of the Personal Robots research group at the MIT Media Lab, Breazeal is a professor of media arts and sciences and a pioneer in human-robot interaction and social robotics. Her research focus includes technical innovation in AI and user experience design combined with understanding the psychology of engagement to design personified AI technologies that promote human flourishing and personal growth. Over the past decade, her work has expanded to include outreach, engagement, and education in the design and use of AI, as well as AI literacy. She has placed particular emphasis on diversity and inclusion for all ages, backgrounds, and comfort levels with technology.

“The work that Open Learning is doing to extend the best of MIT’s teaching, knowledge, and technology to the world is so thrilling to me,” says Breazeal. “I’m excited to work with these teams to grow and expand their respective programs and to develop new, more integrated, potentially thematic solutions for corporations and professionals.”

TC Haldi, senior director of MIT xPRO, says, “There’s an increasing sophistication in the needs of the professional workforce, as technologies and systems grow more complex in every sector. Cynthia has a deep understanding of the intersection between research and industry, and her insights into learning and technology are invaluable.”

Breazeal will also continue to head the Personal Robots research group, whose recent work focuses on the theme of “living with AI” and understanding the long-term impact of social robots that can build relationships and provide personalized support as helpful companions in daily life. Under her continued direction, the RAISE initiative, a joint collaboration between the Media Lab, Open Learning, and the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, is bringing AI resources and education opportunities to teachers and students across the United States and the world through workshops and professional training, hands-on activities, research, and curricula.

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Startups

Holiday Gift Guide For Eco-Minded Travelers

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Traveling offers a greater understanding of the world but can also damage it. Here are some gift ideas for those who prefer to tread lightly. Almost all are from small businesses.

1. Water filtration bottle. Drink filtered water on the go instead of buying plastic water bottles with Hydros 20 oz Water Filter Bottle $20 or if the local water quality is iffy, protect against bacteria, parasites, dirt, and sand with a Lifestraw bottle $40.

2. Shampoo/conditioner bars. Eschew plastic shampoo bottles and airline liquid restrictions with shampoo and conditioner bars from Green Ablutions $12, Ethique $15, HiBar $13.95 or good juju $19.95. All brands have discounts on your first purchase.

3. Solar powered phone charger/lantern. This flat solar-powered phone charger from Luminaid is also a folded-up lantern that pops up into a cube shape for night time. A red light mode ensures your star-gazing won’t be interrupted if you are using it for camping. $60

4. Laundry saver. Do less laundry on the road with Magic BrushOff, designed as a reusable spot lifter/sponge to get rid of deodorant, makeup marks, lint, salt marks, and more from clothing and cloth surfaces. $14.50.

5. Makeup remover. Use this specially-designed washcloth from Make Up Eraser instead of packing and throwing away disposable makeup wipes. $20.

6. Personal lubricant (for vehicles). Gear Hugger’s plant-based lubricant can help keep bike parts, strollers or wheelchairs moving so the recipient can “buy less, fix more and play longer.” $13

7. Cozy hat made of sustainable recycled wool and cotton for your winter travels. Designed in Denmark. Comes in recycled packaging. From Trendhim $39

8. Silk Travel Eye Mask to help get some shut eye on the road. Silk can biodegrade, and uses less water, chemicals, and energy than many other fibers. From Saatva. $60

9. Reusable lunch and snack bags Eschew plastic bags and foil wrap on your day trips with colorful reusable, washable, dishwasher-safe zip up bags $13.50 from Green City Living.

10. Natural Bug Repellant. Murphy’s Naturals DEET-free, plant-based Mosquito Repellent Balm $9.99 or Bite Relief Soothing Balm Stick $5.99 can be thrown in a purse or backpack.

11. See home in a new way – Give the gift of experience with a food, coffee, or street art tour guided by local experts from the Tours By Locals website.

12. Recipient’s Choice: Reduce returns and waste by giving the recipient their choice of travel item from Snappy Gifts website. Items include a solar phone charger and sustainability sourced toiletry organizer.

Note to readers: I received product samples for evaluation but I will pass them along if possible (not the used shampoo bars) and I do not/will not receive any payment from the companies listed.

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eSports

Troubled waters: The NLC is struggling to stay afloat after Riot’s sweeping changes to EMEA

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Before the new year begins, Riot Games revealed an entire treasure chest of changes headed to the European League of Legends scene, including a regional name change, new formats for the LEC, and a new ecosystem for tier two organizations. One league, however, is struggling to tread in these new waters: the NLC.

NLC teams are reportedly struggling to find funding and sponsors for the 2023 season due to the unstable situation in the league, according to independent journalist Brieuc Seeger. Recently, multiple major esports teams have pulled out of the league, including Excel Esports and Dusty Esports. Bifrost has also reportedly parted ways with all of its League staff, according to Seeger.

The league has been running since 2020, and has featured the Academy teams of several major European esports organizations, like Excel Esports, Astralis, and Fnatic. After an unsuccessful year in terms of finances, however, the NLC was forced to downsize its entire operation and become a non-accredited league. As a result, Seeger also said that sponsors are now hesitant to fund the league, especially after the NLC’s prize money and stipends were reduced from 200,000 to 45,000.

Related: LEC is getting a new look in 2023: Riot introduces 3 splits and over 300 games

“We tried our best throughout the year but sadly, we did not hit our partnership goals due to the current market situation,” the NLC said in a statement. “As such, it is no longer financially viable to continue at the level at which we have been operating. Therefore we have to take a step back for 2023 to establish an alternative path to lead the NLC into the future.”

There will be two splits in the year, one pro-am tournament called the Aurora Cup, and there will be eight or 10 teams competing in 2023, depending on the feedback from the teams. If the situation worsens, however, the NLC might need some major help in the coming months if this league wants to survive the new year.



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Why graphic novels are lucrative IP for Web3: From MEFaverse to metaverse

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Marvel’s multi-billion dollar IP enterprise is eating up the film and streaming market — but the metaverse is offering new opportunities and creating a whole new market.

Marvel is valued at nearly $6 billion for films alone, $40 billion for streaming and about $3 billion for consumer products, according to a 2021 Forbes analysis. While the media giant dominates the lion’s share of graphic novel IP in entertainment within film and streaming, the metaverse offers new opportunities for graphic novel IP. The ‘metaverse in entertainment’ market share is expected to increase to $28.92 billion by 2026. 

The entertainment market is essentially expanding with the creation of the metaverse, therefore presenting opportunities to replicate the lucrative success that Marvel has enjoyed. But what made Marvel so popular, and why is the multiverse primed for the metaverse? 

Since the inception of the metaverse as a concept, some of the earliest explorations have included the creation — and adaptation of — graphic novels for this new virtual environment. From Method Man’s comic book MEFaverse, to the adaptation of Dan LuVisi’s iconic Last Man Standing: Killbook of a Bounty Hunter, to Killtopia catering to Japan’s ‘Otaku’ community of manga and animé fans.

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But why is graphic novel IP so attractive to directors writing for a digital medium with interactive audiences? And what opportunities are potentially being left on the table? To understand the attraction of graphic novel IP, we only need to look at the formula of success that Marvel and DC have built. 

An ever-expanding world

Marvel’s IP is not one story, but a universe that continues to expand. Recent editions to Marvel’s onscreen world include She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, Ms. Marvel and the upcoming Secret Invasion. The stories that come to life in film and TV are often based on specific heroes within that universe — or, more aptly, the multiverse.

In film, appearance-altering costumes, special FX make-up and visual FX (VFX) enable directors to cast different actors to play the same character in the franchise. The most popular and talented actors, with the strongest following in the target demographic for the box office, can have their turn playing the hero. In fact, actors no longer need to sign long-haul multi-movie contracts with Marvel.

The metaverse offers even more creative diversity. Graphic novel characters can be customizable according to the themes of different concept artists, and the same character can travel through a manga world into one that’s photorealistic. Perhaps a good interpretation is Dr. Strange’s journey through the multiverses, as we see him enter a variety of differently stylized worlds until he eventually finds himself surreally realized as a colorful gelatinous shape. 

One of the key differentiators between a virtual world and a game within the metaverse — or what will be the metaverse — is this interoperability, the way in which an avatar could be used in different virtual worlds. The way avatars are translated stylistically in those different worlds is a key focus for metaverse builders. And it’s something Marvel has been doing well for some time. People love the graphic novel style of Marvel films and how they not only pay homage to the original art form but also amplify the movie experience with state-of-the-art VFX. 

For example, LMS: Killbook of a Bounty Hunter is being translated for the metaverse after amassing a core fanbase. LMS is simultaneously a scrapbook-style graphic novel, a character bible for the anti-hero Gabriel and an introduction to the colorful yet deadly world of ‘New Amerika’. Initially released as a series of artworks, LMS soon gathered a solid fanbase that demanded more of Dan LuVisi’s world. The rights to LMS were bought by Section 9, which approached metaverse-as-a-service company Sequin AR with the idea of creating an LMS metaverse. With a rich world and a pre-existing community, Sequin believed LMS was the perfect property for a metaverse environment. 

The attractiveness of graphic novel IP

Sequin AR’s CEO Rob DeFranco explains why the graphic novel IP was so attractive: “The world that Dan created is vivid, imaginative, and full of pop-culture references with a sharp satirical tone that makes it a model property for the metaverse. There is a big community already in place for LMS. For example, a Comic-Con special edition toy of Gabriel, created by the popular brand Funko, sold out on the first day of the convention. Since the book first launched 10 years ago, there has been a cultural shift in how we interact with the properties we love.” 

Graphic novels rely on captivating imagery, along with compelling stories. The community building the metaverse is a blend of creatives, technologists and storytellers, similar to the teams that produce the Marvel universe. For example, the team behind Method Man’s MEFaverse includes Method Man himself, and renowned graphics artist Jonathan Winbush of Winbush Immersive, with Xsens motion tracking technology helping them translate real-life movement into the digital world. It’s no coincidence that Winbush built his own brand as a creator from his time working at Marvel. 

“The trajectory of the NFT/Web3 space as a whole, in my opinion, only has one direction to go: up,” says Method Man. “I see no reason why it wouldn’t, as brands and individuals realize the unique opportunities and potential this space offers, as well as the utility it provides. That said, my hope is that it can continue to grow while remaining mindful of values such as inclusivity and positivity, which are both pillars of the MEFaverse community.”

The metaverse and the story of good vs. evil 

The metaverse has the potential to be many things, good or bad. Most metaverse evangelists also acknowledge how human influence tends to invade — and sometimes spoil — the utopian promise of future technology.

For example, Aragorn Meulendijks, Chief Metaverse Officer (CMO) from Your Open Metaverse, a distributed metaverse for streaming Web3 content, recently shared his candid thoughts on Elaine Pringle Schwitter’s HeadsTalk Podcast. According to Meulendijks, the mission for those building the metaverse needs to align with the reality of flawed human nature. This sentiment is omnipresent in Marvel; the premise of superhero films is that good and evil always exist in tandem, and even heroes are flawed. 

While there are inevitable flaws, the multiverse can also be employed altruistically. Representation and connection are frequent themes in graphic novels, often speaking to those who don’t feel part of mainstream pop culture. This links back to Winbush’s work on the MEFaverse.

“We wanted to create more ‘metamasks’ or PFPs with different traits to represent our community,” he explained. “Method Man’s motivation in creating the MEFaverse was to show his fans their powers, the unique traits that make them who they are but in the superhero realm. Method Man wanted everyone that was excited about the MEFaverse to have a mask that truly represents them. He wanted his community to be shown their unique powers in a superhero realm.”

The building blocks of film production are being used to build the metaverse

The technology that underpins movie production is driving metaverse creation. For example, motion capture is harnessing and translating movement to avatars, while Unreal Engine is being used to create the worlds themselves.

Charles Borland, founder of real-time studio Voltaku explained: “When I was an actor in a video game called Grand Theft Auto IV, I would spend a lot of time in a mocap suit, and I’d been on a lot of TV and film shoots and saw just how inefficient the Hollywood production process is. I remember thinking, holy cow, when this technology and the economics get to a certain point, all of this gaming technology and real-time technology is going to revolutionize filmmaking and how you make content.” 

Talking about the use of technology in Killtopia, Charles elaborated: “If we’re going to build this in a game engine, like Unreal Engine, then we [had]to do things like set up a camera inside of Unreal. We knew we were going to have an actress and we were going to try and do this in real-time, but one of the things we were looking at was real-time ray tracing, and to push the envelope on that. We couldn’t go into the studio and do full camera tracking, so we wanted to find something inertia-based. Using the Xsens suit, capturing the raw mocap data, enabled us to create the avatars”. 

From an investment standpoint, how Marvel’s magic formula for success translates to the metaverse is clear. But IP in the metaverse goes far beyond a franchise of characters. Fans build on these worlds themselves, becoming creators in their own right. And in order to create, they need to feel invested. And that’s where the technology underpinning interoperability is key.

Blockchain blockbusters

Killtopia’s Charles Borland explains: “To invest in interoperability, stakeholders and project owners need to know that the assets for whom they’re building aren’t going anywhere. Of course, that’s if by ‘decentralized,’ you mean you’re applying blockchain. What’s great about that is it’s immutable and it’s public. So I know if I build around a project, even if it tanks, my pipeline will stay. Because the things I’ve been referencing and looking at are going to stay online in this decentralized file hosting system, which is great.”

This is an example of how the technology used in metaverse creation is improving the entire production pipeline. Accelerating the content production workflow, and safeguarding the assets for future use, is a challenge even Marvel faces. 

Cultural shift between content creators and consumers

Borland highlights the cultural shift in how we interact with the properties we love. COVID-19 drove the rapid acceleration in digital experiences, helping us to forge genuine connections when real-life interaction wasn’t possible. The convergence of these behavioral changes and technology advancements is now paving the way for the future metaverse, with mixed reality live performances — which became more prevalent during the recent pandemic — offering a hint of what we might expect. 

Brett Ineson, founder of Animatrik Film Design, which has hosted mixed reality performances for Justin Bieber, Pentakill with Wave XR and even virtual circuses with Shocap Entertainment, says: “Nailing the look and feel of a world will be paramount to delivering the illusion of reality, and that’s where capture technology will come into play. Motion capture will be essential for creating lifelike animation for characters and creatures in these virtual worlds so that players feel like they are interacting with real beings.”

Technologists and storytellers are helping to unleash the potential of new IP into the metaverse. Right now, the reality is that the metaverse does not exist, but it represents the next step in immersive and engaging entertainment. The more engaged a community is, the more invested it is in the story. Powered motion tracking, performance capture, interoperable avatars, virtual worlds and hip hop artists-turned-super heroes, the metaverse is prime real estate for the next Marvel enterprise. 

Rob DeFranco is CEO of Sequin AR.

Brett Ineson is cofounder of Animatrik Film Studios.

Remco Sikkema is senior marketing communications manager at Movella and Xsens.

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