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Researcher Spotlights: Kevin Ponto, Design Studies associate professor

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Researcher Spotlights are Q&As that shine a light on School of Human Ecology faculty members’ unique scholarship and research interests.

Dr. Kevin Ponto is an Audrey Rothermel Bascom Professor and an associate professor of Design Studies. His work includes recreating real-life environments digitally so they can be used in virtual reality or on a screen, as well as improving existing consumer technologies.

Ponto says his long-term goal is to redesign the interface between the physical and virtual worlds. This goal combines methods from the fields of virtual reality, ubiquitous computing, human-computer interaction and design. He actively collaborates with departments across campus, such as art, computer science, communication arts, engineering, nursing and theater.

How did you become interested in this area of study?

I have a computer engineering degree from UW–Madison, and about midway through earning that degree, I was like, “I don’t think I want to do this.” My parents said, “Look, it’s a really good degree to have. Why don’t you finish and then do something fun for grad school?” So, that’s what I did.

I ended up in a graduate program at the University of California, Irvine called Arts, Computation, Engineering. The idea was that you’d take artists and computer scientists and engineers and slam them together and just do weird, wacky stuff, and it was so transformative in the way I think about everything, from learning to research. It was a very humanities-driven approach. After that, I got my PhD at University of California, San Diego in computer science, and there, I was frequently working with art historians. So, I’ve always loved taking an interdisciplinary approach — bringing people from different disciplines together to solve problems.

What’s your motivation for doing this type of work, and how does it impact human well-being?

I like to think about how we can use new technologies to do fun and exciting things and maybe solve problems that they weren’t built to solve. Striving to make the world a better place but doing it in creative ways is one of the things that really motivates me. Being able to work across all these different domains and fields within the school has been the most exciting part of my work.

What’s something you wish was more widely known by the average person?

Thirty years ago, when Disney deployed virtual reality in their amusement parks, their researchers noted the mismatch between people’s expectations of virtual reality and what the technology was actually capable of. These issues still exist today as much as they did back then. Most science fiction depictions of virtual reality demonstrate a system that is effortlessly capable of simulating most aspects of reality. In many ways, we’ve gotten used to having technology that mostly “just works,” and as a consumer we’re spared from needing to understand how it works. Extended reality technologies are still in development. They are rough around the edges, require large amounts of effort to develop for and have many inherent limitations.

What has surprised you about working in your field?

I am always surprised about where opportunities and collaborations open up. When we developed techniques to virtually explore a house for the purposes of studying health in the home, we never envisioned the same techniques being used for crime scene investigation. I never thought of the techniques we used to generate a virtual environment as having applications for theater productions. Because of this, I try to be very open to collaborations as I never know where they will lead.

Are there any common misconceptions about your work?

The one that immediately comes to mind is the idea that the metaverse and virtual reality are the same thing — there’s a lot of overlap between those two ideas, but they’re distinct. I think Facebook renaming itself to Meta really hasn’t helped people understand this.

Virtual reality refers to a three-dimensional, immersive, computer-generated environment — it’s a main component of the metaverse. The metaverse refers specifically to a mutual, shared virtual experience — a kind of virtual domain in which we can all coexist.

What do you see as the most critical question currently facing your field?

I think the question that has been there since the beginning is, “What is the ‘killer app’ for virtual reality?” In other words, what is the thing that virtual reality lets us do that is so much better than alternatives that we can overlook the current shortcomings of the system? For desktop computers, spreadsheets were the application that provided this general use case, but the verdict is still out on what will fill this gap for extended reality technologies.

What else should the Human Ecology community know about you?

I am generally interested in creative uses of technologies for real-world applications. This has manifested itself in many ways over the course of my career and I am always excited for new possible areas of exploration.