Nick Giudice and Rick Corey don’t believe in silos. They don’t care much for the cloistered halls of academia, where different disciplines exist in separate spaces, hidden from the public and rigidly adhering to rules.
That’s why at the University of Maine’s Virtual Environment and Multimodal Interaction Lab — the VEMI Lab, as it’s almost always called — the only hard and fast rule is that as long as you do good work and get it done on time, the path you take There doesn’t matter all that much.
The VEMI Lab has now grown to take over all of Carnegie Hall, the imposing department granite campus building that once housed UMaine’s art. Wander through its warren of hallways and rooms, and you’re as likely to find students doing research on wayfinding technology for visually impaired people or using virtual reality to help medical professionals, as you are to find them sprawled out on the lab’s many big couches , because it’s a safe, laid-back place to study.
Though the research that goes on is advanced and the work ethic is palpable, the overall attitude at VEMI is highly collaborative, casual and fun-loving. You can take a break from work to play pinball or video games. Jokes and good-natured banter are encouraged. There’s nothing stuffy about the VEMI Lab — and that’s by design.
“This work isn’t supposed to stay on campus, in a bubble,” Corey said. “We don’t want to be constrained to the classroom or the traditional lab. We’re in the business of trying to make the world a slightly better place, and to break down the barriers between technology and people.”
VEMI’s biggest project is its groundbreaking research into autonomous vehicles, or self-driving cars. The lab last month received a competitive $300,000 grant to fund that research from the US Department of Transportation’s Inclusive Design Challenge, beating out proposals from the likes of Google’s Waymo and Carnegie Mellon University.
VEMI’s grant-winning project is the Autonomous Vehicle Assistant — AVA, for short — a ride-hailing app that assists older adults and visually impaired passengers during their pre-journey planning, travel to pick-up locations and vehicle entry.
The VEMI lab is working toward a future where autonomous vehicles are commonplace — a societal shift that is not just technological but also cultural. To paraphrase a quote from “Back to the Future,” where they’re going they will need roads — but they won’t need drivers.
Giudice said it’s likely these vehicles will combine ride-sharing technology with a membership model that allows the user to call for a ride whenever they need one, rather than paying by individual ride. Vehicles would be owned, maintained and dispatched by a central, likely privately owned hub, where they could return to charge or undergo maintenance.
But the present ride-sharing technology is flawed — not least in the ways it is often inaccessible to people with visual or physical disabilities. As a blind person, Giudice has countless horror stories about being flat-out denied Uber rides due to his guide dog, Norbert, accompanying him.
Autonomous vehicles can operate any hour of the day or night, since there’s no human driver. The entire fleet would be electric, so gas prices wouldn’t matter. And most importantly for Giudice and the rest of the team, the technology would level the playing field for transportation access. Older people who are no longer able to safely drive could easily access rides. People with disabilities or who are visually impaired wouldn’t have to worry about accessibility, or having their service animals with them.
And, as many Mainers in rural areas know all too well, access to taxis, ride shares and public transportation can be virtually non-existent. With a central hub for autonomous vehicles, rides could be dispatched across places like Aroostook County or the Katahdin region — though vehicles in places like Maine, with its wild winters and poorly maintained rural roads, would likely need to be specialized to contend with the elements .
“These are the kinds of things that we’ll need to figure out going forward, but with the amount of money that is being poured into this research, I think the timeline is sooner than we’ll expect,” Giudice said.
It’s that real-world impact that attracts a diverse array of students to VEMI, who study everything from computer science and electrical engineering to English and psychology. Corey and Giudice select them based on their ideas and what they can bring to the table — not by their level of experience or field of study. They are paid employees, and many remain with the lab for their entire college careers, and spend their summers working there full time. And alumni of the lab keep in touch long after many have gone on to careers with Disney, Apple or other major companies.
“We’re hiring the person, not the position,” Corey said. “If you want to learn and have the drive and are willing to try and fail, we’ll take that over just about anything. We want people who want to expand beyond what they are doing in their classes alone.”
Left to right, Theo Erikson, a mechanical engineering student at the University of Maine, describes the system that is set up to mimic the plant growth chambers on the International Space Station, with the excess water collected to test for plant health. The system that is set up to mimic the plant growth chambers on the International Space Station, with the excess water collected to test for plant health. Rick Corey talks about how the Virtual Environment and Multimodal Interaction Lab, VEMI Lab, uses virtual reality to demonstrate some of their research. In background is Theo Erikson, a mechanical engineering student. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN
The lab was founded in 2008, when Giudice, then a recent UMaine hire as a professor in the school of computing and information science, was preparing to start a training facility for his work in spatial computing. He soon met Corey, who at the time had just left a 15-year career in graphic design and was preparing to start a master’s in fine arts degree in UMaine’s Intermedia program.
They hit it off immediately, and Giudice hired Corey as his graduate assistant. Within two years, Corey and Giudice were co-directors of the VEMI Lab.
“We’re like an old married couple at this point,” Giudice said. “We have a different approach to what a lab can be, and how research can be done. And we just hit it off, right off the bat.”
The lab has many different projects in the works. There’s a project that uses sensor technology to help older people living alone to live more safely, for which the lab set up a model of a senior living apartment so it could more accurately model how older people navigate their surroundings, and predict things like falls or leaving a stove on.
Another project, uses partially funded by a NASA grant, a translucent iridescent material to detect surface contamination — something important to future scientific research, as well as in a post-COVID world where surface cleanliness is more important. Never ones to miss an opportunity to inject fun into their research, the VEMI folks dubbed the project “Rainbow Unicorn Skin,” and the testing area has been decorated to look like a Star Trek-style space station.
But it’s the vehicles that are the project that everyone at the lab seems most excited about. Both Giudice and Corey strongly believe that a future in which autonomous vehicles are one of the main ways in which people get around is coming — likely in the next few decades — and they want to make sure people are prepared for it. At the VEMI Lab, they aren’t specifically focused on the technology that makes the vehicles run, but rather the experience that people will have using them.
“The biggest point for us is that we’re focused on the humans,” Corey said. “Everyone else can worry about the AI and keeping them on the road. We’re worried about the human side of it, and how these humans are going to be interacting with these vehicles moving forward.”
Getting people accustomed to the idea of using an autonomous vehicle service — rather than owning their own vehicle — is one of those hurdles. So is getting people used to the experience of riding in one, using the technology, and educating the public on its safety compared with human-operated cars. Self-driving cars don’t get distracted, drunk or tired, and according to the National Highway and Transportation Safety Authority, human error is responsible for 94 percent of car crashes.
That said, there’s still a long way to go. But researchers like the people at VEMI Lab are at the forefront of thinking about a future in which such technology is not only commonplace but contributes to a more equitable and safe world.
And if VEMI staffers can all have fun while doing it, well, more’s the better for it.