Todd Richmond builds ‘the coolest stuff in the world’ at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies
Story By Stephanie Case | Photos by Courtnay Robbins Bragagnolo
Todd Richmond is an analog soul in a digital world. He rides a manual transmission motorcycle to work every day; at night, he plays bass guitar for live audiences, without a note of electronic accompaniment. He abstains from social media, Netflix and other digital distractions. But Richmond spends most of his time in and out of the office hypothesizing about the future of emerging technologies.
As the director of advanced prototypes at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) in Playa Vista, Richmond and his team build and experiment with cutting-edge virtual and augmented realities, artificial intelligence and virtual humans — years before such technology hits the market.
In ICT’s Mixed Reality Lab, newly out-of-date gadgets — from game controllers to primitive VR headsets — are displayed in glass boxes like relics. In the middle of a motion-tracking lab, a pair of virtual reality goggles (a “head-mounted display” in tech speak), is covered in wires and red LEDs and strapped onto a mannequin.
Try it on, and you can take in a 150-degree field of view — more panoramic than the widely hyped, 90-degree Oculus Rift — and made roughly decade earlier. Artists and engineers can construct a simulated world around you. As to what that world is, the possibilities are endless.
“I can be at the top of Mount Everest or I can be at the bottom of the ocean, and I can be fully immersed in it,” Richmond says.
But to Richmond, where the simulated realities can transport you is less important than the why.
“We don’t sell products. We don’t sell games,” he assures. “We try and figure out how we can use all this technology for positive outcomes.”
ICT’s virtual reality scenarios, for example, can be used as an occupational therapy tactic, help someone rehabilitate after a brain injury, or gain bodily awareness after a stroke or amputation. The prototype team is also coding virtual physicians for mobile devices, so people across the world can receive instantaneous medical care.
ICT’s VR can also help people train for rescue jobs in life-or-death environments like nuclear spills and embattled warzones. It can also work the other way, as a healing tool for those who
return from dangerous spaces with PTSD to virtually reconstruct and process moments of trauma.
Richmond leads me to the next room, where a hyper-realistic CGI naval officer snaps to attention as he senses our presence. Around him is a prototype military workspace that ICT designed for the Office of Naval Research. ICT is largely funded by the Department of Defense, which fuels the team’s research into tech that solves very human problems.
“We don’t train you how to shoot a gun better,” says Richmond. Instead, he paints another picture: “You’re deployed in Afghanistan, you’re 23 years old, and you’re responsible for people who are older than you. Then, you get a 32-year-old sergeant coming to you in tears because he got a Dear John letter. What in your life has prepared you for that?”
That’s where virtual humans come in, providing a safe space to practice social scenarios before you’re thrust into the real world. Since they’re AIs, they’re infinitely scalable; everyone can train at once — and virtual doctors can see thousands of patients per day. Plus, when coded right, they have infinite memory and are perfectly consistent.
But, you’re still talking to a robot.
“In digital experiences, invariably, something is lost in translation,” Richmond says. “Something is stripped out. “At the end of the day, two people should be having a conversation. The technology should only be mediating that connection, not becoming a replacement for it.”
But as virtual tech continues to blend with real spaces — especially for commercial means — Richmond is worried.
Back in his office, he grabs his laptop and pulls up “Hyper-Reality,” a short film by Keiichi Matsuda. It depicts a dystopian, corporate world saturated with augmented reality, where constant messages, advertisements and coupons bombard your view. Many humans fill the screen, but few interact with each other, immersed in their artificial environments.
“It’s pretty disturbing, and it’s probably going to happen,” says Richmond.
Yet while he knows a mixed-reality future is inevitable — augmented reality will be as necessary as cell phones and the internet by 2025, he says — Richmond also thinks that people should take responsibility for that future.
“Like everything, it’s yin-yang. Technology is agnostic. You can use it for good, or you can use it for evil,” he says. “The more we understand technology and its implications for humanity, we can avoid the evil and do more of the good.”
At ICT, Richmond feels a lot of good is being done. ELITE SHARP CTT, a training software filled with virtual humans, helps Army officers better respond to sexual assault. VITA, a virtual human prototype that helps young adults on the autism spectrum practice for and ease anxiety in job interviews, could one day scale for teens with disabilities everywhere.
“There are days that I get up and I am ready to quit my job, and either try to make a living as a musician or go back to teaching chemistry,” Richmond says. “But there are other days that I wake up and I think, ‘I work on the coolest stuff in the world.’”
Visit itc.usc.edu for more info.