Published 9/6/18 on University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies

A passion for both film and technology led Iciar Andreu(link is external) to the University of Maryland, where she graduated in May with a dual degree in film studies and computer science.

The 22-year-old native of Spain first considered UMD because of its strong computer science program.

“Computer science was always a good option for me because it’s something I’m good at and its applications are very broad,” she says.

Studying film as a second major was a simple choice for Andreu—movies piqued her interest from an early age.

Her family’s move from Madrid to the suburbs of Washington, D.C. at age 14 only increased her appreciation for the big screen.

“It was a big change,” she recalls. “It actually helped with my love of movies, because if you don’t see them translated the acting is better.”

Andreu’s best use of her film-meets-computer skillset came during a 12-month stint at the Maryland Blended Reality Center(link is external) (MBRC), where computer scientists are partnering with others to develop visual computing technologies for healthcare and high-impact training programs.

Working throughout her senior year and the summer after graduation, Andreu contributed to MBRC projects that explored virtual reality (VR) for implicit bias training and transformed how an opera performance can be experienced.

“We hired her as a student worker because of her film background combined with strong skills in computer science, which is not that common,” says Barbara Brawn-Cinani(link is external), the associate director of MBRC, who oversees the center’s day-to-day activities.

Andreu’s talents were quickly put to good use, says Brawn-Cinani. She assisted a team(link is external) that partnered with UMD sociologists and Prince George’s County Police Department to develop a series of VR training videos to help police officers recognize implicit bias.

Implicit bias is an unconscious attitude toward a social group, and has recently become increasingly significant to law enforcement due to a greater public awareness and outcry over police-involved shootings.

“The goal of this type of training isn’t to point fingers, but help officers become more self-aware that they have may have an implicit bias,” says Amitabh Varshney(link is external), professor of computer science and dean of the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences. “Lately, we have seen a lot of divide in society, and we’re hoping this will help heal that.”

Varshney is co-director of the MBRC, a position in which he actively establishes partnerships that use the power of VR and other immersive media tools to improve healthcare and education, as well as enhance the visual and performing arts.

For her role in the implicit bias project, Andreu filmed three separate scenarios of a police officer’s interaction with actors of varied races and genders, resulting in series of virtual simulations that represent what officers may encounter while on duty. One scene had an officer stop a car, then come to the window to ask for license and registration. Another was stopping someone on the street who was holding an item in their pocket that could be a phone or weapon. In the third scenario, an officer stops someone who may be on drugs or have a disability that is causing them to act irrationally.

Andreu says that one of the biggest challenges was keeping the 360-camera steady while filming from the officer’s point of view. She gives the example of moving the camera up to the car window during a traffic stop.

“The problem with VR is that if the camera is shaky, you can get dizzy really fast looking through the headset,” she says. “We bought stabilizers and tried different things involving both hardware and software.”

Andreu filmed all of the scenes, edited them, and then stitched all of the audio and video together. Other MBRC staff helped design software interfaces that monitor officers’ reactions including eye movement, heart rate, stress levels in their voice, and whether they reach for a weapon.

All 1,800 officers on Prince George’s County police force are undergoing training through Andreu’s modules.

“The scope of the project is really amazing. That’s a very big contribution for a young researcher,” says Brawn-Cinani. “The level of work she produced was at the graduate or postdoc level.”

Andreu also used her skills as a videographer and film editor to capture performances by the Maryland Opera Studio, a graduate-level program at UMD that trains people for careers with professional opera companies worldwide.

The VR opera project involved filming portions of dress rehearsals for two famous operas—Dialogues of the Carmelites and La Clemenza di Tito—with multiple 360 cameras. Using innovative technology developed by MBRC staff, viewers wearing VR headsets can transport themselves to different vantage points on stage to experience the beauty and emotion of an opera performance from new angles.

“Opera is the most complex performing art that exists because there’s the orchestra that’s playing in the pit, the singers on stage, the principle singers chorus, and then there’s sets and costumes,” says Craig Kier(link is external), director of the Maryland Opera Studio. “We bring all of these things together. To capture it in a way that is more than by photos—in a way that is actually enhancing your experience as either a singer on stage or as someone that is witnessing it—is remarkable.”

One technological hurdle, says Andreu, was filming and stitching together 360-degree video that was taken on a large stage with varied lighting and sound.

“You get these bright lights coming [from] above and the rest is dark. It’s very difficult to have a middle ground with that,” she explains.

Sida Li(link is external), a research programmer in MBRC who collaborated with Andreu on several projects, emphasized how helpful it was for her to have a background in both film and computer science.

“It made the communication between her and us very easy because all of these videos she produced were going into our software pipeline,” he says.

Andreu’s work with MBRC has not gone unnoticed. Her team presented their implicit bias work at an event for state legislators in Annapolis highlighting ongoing research funded by the University of Maryland Strategic Partnership: MPowering the State(link is external), which provided significant resources to launch MBRC.

For the opera VR project—in addition to their work being highlighted in a video clip(link is external) and in the university’s Terp alumni magazine—the MBRC team joined singers from the Maryland Opera Studio for a unique performance before the University System of Maryland Board of Regents.

The opera singers performed several numbers followed by the MBRC team presenting the same performance in virtual reality.

Andreu says she especially enjoyed explaining the MBRC technology to board members, most of whom had not yet experienced VR, and were therefore caught off guard by the lifelike visual immersion.

“Since the camera is right at the edge of the stage, they feel like if they take a step back they’re going to fall into the orchestra pit,” she says.

According to Andreu, one of the current challenges in the field of VR is that there are not yet strong programs for editing video, so she created one herself.

“Jokingly, I called it Bravo,” she says, which in Spanish means “good job” after a performance.

When she wasn’t in class or at MBRC, Andreu could be found at a Terrapins game filming, editing and directing video for the Big Ten Network. As a student worker, she helped capture soccer, lacrosse, wrestling, basketball, field hockey and volleyball games.

Andreu started graduate school this fall at the University of Pennsylvania, pursuing a master’s degree in computer graphics and game technology.

Ultimately, she wants to produce special effects for movies, and this program will give her the skills to excel in that field.

Andreu encourages students who are interested in VR to try out the technology in various capacities.

“Be open to all the possibilities and know that it can fit your interests,” she says, referencing how she worked on both performance art and sociology projects.

Andreu points out that there are different roles to experiment with as well—from directing VR films to designing backgrounds to overcoming 3-D audio challenges.

“There is a lot of interest in immersive technologies by [people and organizations] that can provide significant funding, so there is a huge opportunity here,” she says.