Why Robert LiKamWa lives, learns, and teaches in multiple realities

The three-time electrical and computer engineering alumnus and associate professor at Arizona State University attributes his success to developing his communication skills at Rice.

Robert LiKamWa

Rice electrical and computer engineering alumnus Robert LiKamWa '10 '12 '16 lives, learns, and teaches in multiple realities: the physical world inhabited by other humans, and worlds that span both augmented and virtual realities. He attributes a significant part of his success in all those environments to the strong communication skills developed during his time at Rice.

“I joined Rice in 2006 as an electrical and computer engineering major in Will Rice College. I’d always been a bit of a performer and enjoyed connecting with audiences. The senior engineering design classes and graduate courses further instilled the importance of being able to clearly communicate your message with energy and enthusiasm to reach a variety of audiences. At the time, I felt I was doing quite well in my presentations, and instructors like Gary Woods and Tracy Volz helped me further craft my pitches,” he said.

“But then I was really humbled when I began my Ph.D. training with Lin Zhong. He emphasized the importance of clear presentation structure to stitch high-level motivation with intellectual substance. It was through countless iterations of presentation critique with Lin that I found an ability to communicate more deeply with technical and non-technical audiences alike.”

Essentially, Zhong helped LiKamWa learn to share the ‘why’ of his research, from connecting audiences to fundamentals of the problems he wanted to solve, to carrying the audience along for part of his journey. The goal was to draw the audience into truly caring about the results of the work.

Excited by his presentation success under Zhong’s mentoring, LiKamWa sought ways for other Rice engineering graduate students to learn how to better tell their own stories. He worked with Tracy Volz and the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership to expand undergraduate communication training to the graduate student community.

“We organized SCREECH to help grad students develop and practice sharing their research stories. The participants were coached by Tracy and by their peers, and they had to sell their story in only 90 seconds,” said LiKamWa. “The event was a great success and I was excited because I got to learn about all the really cool stuff the other engineering grad students were working on.”

As an Associate Professor at Arizona State University with appointments in both the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering (ECEE) and the School of Arts, Media and Engineering (AME), LiKamWa is responsible for both research and teaching. Where Zhong honed LiKamWa’s research communication skills, Mark Embree inspired LiKamWa’s lecture style.

“Mark Embree was teaching computational and applied mathematics at Rice when I was an undergraduate,” said LiKamWa. “He was such a fantastic teacher that I ended up minoring in CAAM just so I could take all his courses. He taught with panache and had this incredible ability to make us care about applied math. The energy he brought to every lecture really elevated the experience for students and he connected meaning to each principle, demonstrating how it applied in real life situations.

“Now in my role as the teacher, I understand just how important it is to ensure we get our students to care about the material. The passion of the presenter is infectious. If you care about the material you are delivering then the students will care about it, but you also have to connect the material with how it relates to the student’s professional and daily lives or how it helps them make sense of the world.”

In LiKamWa’s courses, the students use what they learn to make sense of multiple worlds. For example, his mobile systems architecture course shows how software and hardware integrate with each other to provide the underpinnings for smartphones. Once students learn the components of the user experience —such as sensors, drivers, and libraries — they begin to peel back the layers to explore common tools used in their daily lives.

On the other side of campus, LiKamWa teaches students how to build different virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) experiences. Inside AME is a department crafted by a diverse blend of faculty members. Here, they are building – and teaching students to build – the kinds of future environments that were once only accessible through science fiction. And of course, science fiction writers are part of a faculty that also includes dancers, engineers, artists, and philosophers.

“Collaborating in interdisciplinary projects like these requires very clear communication,” said LiKamWa. “We have to share our visions and hopes, our aspirations and fears with each other in order to make meaningful strides forward. Collaborating with such talented faculty members in so many fields is a tremendous opportunity, creating a unique tapestry to make something beautiful happen, and giving rise to potential funding and partnerships.”

He said his course on building VR and AR experiences attracts different students, including artists and engineers who work together to create these experiences. The goal of courses in the AME is to train students to operate at the intersection of disciplines in the future.

“A fully virtual, programmable environment – VR – enables us to manipulate spatial fields –the things we hear, see, touch, maybe even smell. In AR, we are layering VR on top of someone’s physical reality, creating an interactive world out of their interactive fabric.

“In one of our setups, participants put on a backpack and a headset, then walk into the space where floors rumble and wind hits their faces. Multiple people go in at once, and the players can grab on to different things as their environment shifts. There are illusions we use to embed worlds within worlds, and we create content and immersive environments in which students can learn. The creation process requires the expertise of many different people, from 3D artists to sound engineers and narrative writers, plus computer scientists and engineers—because technology is what stitches it all together.”

LiKamWa said new opportunities arise as rapidly advancing technologies become more accessible to students. ASU was an early adopter of advancing education through technology, so it is no surprise that they intend to get students interacting more deeply and in the kinds of spatial concepts they may encounter and travel through in their future.

“We are even working with Dreamscape Immersive on a way to teach biology in VR where students can explore alien worlds to learn about disease propagation and scientific reasoning. What I am excited about, and what I have been tasked with, is turning this new pedagogy into a platform where students and faculty can create different experiences together,” said LiKamWa.

His lab, the Meteor Studio, develops mobile experiential technology through embedded optimization research. There, his Ph.D. students are working on a variety of research projects like software and hardware used in visual computing systems.

LiKamWa said, “We are especially interested in resource constrained mobile devices and the human sensory experience as it relates to these devices. Our students are working on understanding and advancing our AR for different mobile systems, and one outcome of their work is connecting use cases for storytelling to help people understand and communicate their data.

“Just as Lin taught me, I teach my graduate students to sell their vision and their work to a larger community. They will have to convey the reason and rationale behind their work, to show the big picture of how everything is connected to creating the futures they are imagining. Clear communication is critical in the developing interdisciplinary arenas where we are painting the future together. “