GREENVILLE — Silicon Valley may have a reputation as the center of the tech universe, but some of the brightest minds in virtual reality recently chose downtown Greenville and Clemson University for their annual conference.

Sabarish Babu gestures toward the screen while Larry Hodges looks on and a student demonstrates a Clemson University virtual reality project.

Sabarish Babu gestures toward the screen while Larry Hodges looks on and a student demonstrates a Clemson University virtual reality project.

One of the world’s most prestigious  virtual reality conferences, IEEE VR, brought about 600 of the globe’s foremost experts to the Hyatt Regency Greenville to share ideas about a technology that is changing everything from how gamers blast zombies to how workers train for jobs.

The conference could have gone to Atlanta or Charlotte for its 23rd year, but when Clemson University assistant professor Sabarish Babu had his shot as lead general chair, he fought to bring it to downtown Greenville and Clemson University. Past locations have included Chicago, San Jose, Singapore and three cities in France.

“It’s beautiful,” Babu said of Greenville. “We have Southern charm, Reedy River Falls and a thriving culinary scene. We can show people an atmosphere they will enjoy.”

Robert Jones, vice president for academic affairs and provost at Clemson, welcomed attendees to the conference.

“This august group of researchers from all over the world gathered at a key moment in the development of virtual reality,” he said. “The technology has come of age, becoming accessible to ordinary people. Virtual reality is a powerful tool with a variety of uses, ranging from training pilots to practicing surgery.

“Technological hurdles remain, and the National Academy of Engineering has identified enhancing virtual reality as one of society’s grand challenges.”

Shrinking costs and advances in technology in recent years have helped virtual reality make in-roads into the mass market. Headsets are affordably priced, and many can attach to a smartphone.

The technology has begun to change how news is consumed, games are played, classes are taught and movies are watched. Experts said that continuous technological advances could soon make virtual reality a fixture in homes as common as microwave ovens and laptop computers.

The conference brought together the leading minds from academia and industry. About 40 percent of the attendees came from outside the United States, putting Greenville and Clemson in the international spotlight.

It was attention welcomed by the Babu and conference co-chairman Larry Hodges, a professor in Clemson’s School of Computing who is internationally known for his pioneering work in virtual reality applications.

Eight buses were contracted to bring the attendees to the new Watt Family Innovation Center on Clemson’s main campus. During their visit on Monday night, they had an opportunity to try several virtual reality projects that Clemson researchers have created.

“People know us for our sports, but we are also among the best in academics,” Hodges said. “Bringing one of the largest virtual reality conferences in the world to the Upstate speaks volumes about Clemson’s academic strength.”

Conference attendees included academics, researchers, industry representatives and virtual reality enthusiasts. The agenda included workshops, tutorials, exhibits, panel discussions, a doctoral consortium and paper and poster presentations.

“Clemson University was very well represented at the conference, with Clemson students and researchers from our lab presenting three full research papers that were accepted at the conference,” Babu said. “The acceptance rate of these research contributions at IEEE VR 2016 was a competitive 13 percent.”

The keynote speech was given by Ming C. Lin, who is the John R. & Louise S. Parker Distinguished Professor of Computer Science at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and an honorary Chair Professor (Yangtze Scholar) at Tsinghua University in China.

The capstone presentation was given by Timothy Bickmore, an associate professor in the College of Computer and Information Science at Northeastern University.

Diamond-level exhibitors and supporters included the National Science Foundation, the Clemson University College of Engineering and Science and the Clemson University School of Computing.

“A large group of supporters made the conference possible,” Babu said. “They include organizing committee members, speakers, panelists, chairpersons, exhibitors, volunteers and sponsors. I would like to extend a heartfelt thank-you to all who made this conference a reality.”

Eileen Kraemer, the C. Tycho Howle Director of the School of Computing, said the gathering of so many leading minds underscores the importance of IEEE VR.

 “It’s exciting to share ideas and insights that push the boundaries of  virtual reality,” she said. “I hope the attendees found the discussions thought-provoking and that they were able to gain new perspectives they can use when they return to their labs and offices.”

Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering and Science, said he hoped the conference attendees enjoyed the setting.

“This was an excellent opportunity for the Upstate to showcase two of its greatest assets– downtown Greenville and Clemson University,” he said. “We are excited to show our visitors the Upstate’s high quality of life, Clemson’s world-class facilities and the cutting-edge work our researchers have been doing in virtual reality.”

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