Birmingham beat off competition from Leeds, Worcester, and LondonWritten by Megan Stanley on 11th July 2018
UoB Virtual Reality Research Team Recognised Nationally
Recently, the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (CIEHF) visited the University of Birmingham to commend the research of the Human Interface Technologies (HIT) team
CIEHF is the world's fourth largest body of egronomists, whose visit to UoB was a special visit, recognising the work of the HIT team, who have been part of a diverse range of life-changing projects in a variety of real-world sectors, some of which have even been installed in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QE).
Founded in 2003, this small research team within the department of Electronic, Electrical and Systems Engineering have been punching above their weight for many years, gaining awards such as the West Midlands' healthcare innovation award for the most ‘Innovative Team of the Year’ and numerous awards from other professional bodies.
“Director Professor Bob Stone credits the team’s success to the their strong belief in ‘working with real people, doing real tasks in the real world’.
Recently the team has been shortlisted for a Times Higher Education Awards (Technological Innovation of the Year) for their research into ‘mixed reality’ technologies for emergency response team training. Up against five other research groups, director Professor Bob Stone credits the team’s success to the their strong belief in ‘working with real people, doing real tasks in the real world’.
Some of the team’s past work has been used to train submariners, helicopter rescue personnel and divers, helping them to better understand the nature of their tasks. The HIT team achieves this through cleverly designed simulations and exercises, both with and without virtual reality headsets, breaking the common misconception that virtual reality must be delivered via a headset to be ‘immersive’.
As an internationally recognised team, it is no surprise that their projects have travelled the world too. Their Virtual Wembury project, which sought to bring a virtual naturescape based on a real West Country location into the QE’s Intensive Care Unit, in order to help improve patient recovery, has also found application as a way of ‘escaping’ from desolate realities.
Some of these locations include the Canadian military base on Ellesmere Island, the most northern and permanently inhabited place in the world, and University of Hawaii’s NASA-funded Mars habitation simulation base, which saw six “astronauts” simulating eight months on the barren red planet.
In recent years the team has worked on a wide variety of projects, from defence and healthcare, to heritage and education.
Another of the team’s current project areas is that of ‘serious healthcare games’, which are being used to aid in the rehabilitation of amputees and those recovering from decreased lung function at the QE, helping to strengthen their lungs and muscles through games that are designed to motivate them to try their best with what would otherwise be considered a boring physical exercise.
Another project the team is investing a lot of time into is their Medical Emergency Response Training (MERT) simulator, where they’re mixing virtual reality with real-life objects to help train military medics on how best to respond to emergencies whilst in the confines of military vehicles such as Chinook helicopters, landing craft and hovercraft. Affectionately called the ‘bouncy castle’, the team utilises an inflatable tent, real military props and virtual window views onto high-definition in-flight video sequences filmed using their own drones to help to create a realistic training environment.
They are also working on a number of heritage projects, one of which is to create a virtual Mayflower for children and adults alike to take part in 2020, during the 400th anniversary commemorations of the Mayflower’s iconic voyage from England to the New World in 1620.
As well as research, the team enjoys bringing what they’ve learned and discovered through their projects and research to the classroom, teaching first and final year module students about the importance of human factors and encouraging them to think about human experience when creating good designs.
Through their 4th year course, for example, they have taught students how to evaluate the latest technologies objectively, thinking about the capabilities and limitations of the human end users before marvelling at the new, and often over-hyped, technology.
Students of all years are able to undertake projects with the team, with some famous student projects including a minigun simulator for Royal Navy training, which simulated the ‘kick-down’ effect that caused many first time operators to struggle with the weapon when on board. While this project has gone on to change training for years to come, the student involved went on to work for Rebellion, the video games developer known for games such as Sniper Elite and Alien vs Predator, a game for which he was actually involved in designing the AI governing the enemy behaviours.
In the coming years the team hopes to continue to remain a small but powerful team, known for getting out in the field to gain first-hand knowledge to inform better human-centric designs.
Some of the their future projects include expanding their MERT and virtual command centre with more dynamic and demanding scenarios, and allowing schoolchildren to carry out scientific experiments using the data and video from the proposed Mayflower autonomous ship, which will set sail to Plymouth in Massachusetts, USA in 2020.
The team has also recently partnered with Blue Abyss, an organisation planning to create an advanced UK-based astronaut and aquanaut training facility.
As new requests for guidance, expertise and deliverables arrive in Professor Stone’s inbox, it is safe to say that this will not be the last we’ll be hearing about the HIT team as they continue to produce great work for the world to enjoy.