If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you live? The answer for Professor Steven LaValle was Oulu in northern Finland. Steven is a world-famous robotics scientist and pioneer of the groundbreaking virtual reality technology, Oculus Rift. In 2018, he moved from the US to the Faculty of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering at the University of Oulu. Steven first visited Oulu on a day trip in 2007 when he was teaching a summer course nearby and was struck by its beauty. A few years later, he went there on a sabbatical, and his family fell in love with Oulu too. He says, “It’s very clean, nature-oriented, and pollution-free. Yet it’s still a happening-enough, high-tech city. It also has strong traditions in both art and engineering.”
When Steven was offered a professorship at the university, he jumped at the chance to move there permanently with his family. A few years previously, the university had made the bold move of eliminating traditional academic departments and established specialised research centres instead. This centre-based approach, which encourages people from different specialities to work together, was ideal for the type of research he wanted to pursue. “One thing I could do here very nicely was build a world-class, interdisciplinary team,” Steven says. “I successfully recruited experts from pure mathematics, control theory, robotics, virtual reality, computer science, neuroscience, and perceptual psychology so that we can tackle basic scientific challenges that span many traditional disciplines.”
Steven is based at the Centre for Ubiquitous Computing and has just been awarded a prestigious five-year European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant to lay the foundations for a new discipline he calls perception engineering. It focuses on the fundamental principles underlying virtual reality. Steven explains, “Because the object that’s being created by virtual reality technology is a perceptual illusion, it lives in our minds; we thus have to understand neuroscience, psychology, and human perception, in addition to the engineering of the devices, which includes software, sensors, processors, and displays.” A large part of the ERC effort draws from robotics and artificial intelligence. Steven and his colleagues envision building virtual reality experiences for robots to see whether the same mathematical models and analysis techniques can be applied to both the robotic and human experiences. The hope is that concepts from robotics could be used to better understand models used in neuroscience and human perception and vice versa.
Steven praises the excellent hardware infrastructure at the centre, which supports his specialised research. The university ensures that new researchers have all the resources they need to succeed, and he comments that he was provided with a generous start-up package to get his research group up and running. Steven speaks highly about the other strong research being carried out at the university, like the innovative 6G Flagship work on wireless communication. Another positive is that the city of Oulu has a thriving small and medium enterprise ecosystem, which attracts a lot of highly qualified people interested in engineering and technology. While he enjoys the exciting atmosphere it creates, Steven prefers the freedom that comes with working in academia. “It’s really fun to do curiosity-driven research, to ask fundamental questions and hang around with a bunch of smart people who are curious about these things as well. The university is a great environment for that,” he says.
One of Steven’s favourite things in Oulu is the vast network of cycle trails that zigzag from one end of the city to the other and take in the surrounding forests and waterways. Every day, no matter the season, he cycles to work through a picturesque forest to get to the university. He says, “I really like that a lot, for peace of mind, and I get a lot of ideas that way.” Both he and his family benefit from the healthy outdoor lifestyle and the Finnish approach to life. “Integrity, honesty and cooperation are valued. You can see that in the university, and you can see that throughout the community here. Living here, my family is automatically being taught the right values. You can’t put a price on that.”
Steven is a professor of robotics and virtual reality in the Faculty of IT & Electrical Engineering at the University of Oulu. He is a pioneer in virtual reality perception technology and created two patents for Oculus before Facebook acquired the company.