Perspectives on Impact – Professor Bob Stone

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With the recent high profile media launch of several virtual reality devices by some of the world’s leading technology giants, including Samsung, Facebook and Sony, 2016 has already been branded the ‘year of virtual reality’. For many of these companies the clear target market is gaming and entertainment but the transformative nature of this technology has led to industries ranging from education to medicine, or even defence, also applying this technology to several real world scenarios; in fact, the military is a major funder of virtual reality for applications ranging from training to recruitment. For this current technology push to be successfully embraced it is important that end users and organisations can interact effectively with this hardware, something that requires an equivalent understanding of the human factors involved in the relationship between the user and their working environment.

For Professor Bob Stone, director of the Human Interface Technologies Team here at the University of Birmingham, the importance of understanding these human factors in the development of virtual reality content is what will ultimately ensure user acceptance, credibility, and the transfer of skills from the virtual to the real. Professor Stone is one of the countries leading researchers in the fields of virtual and augmented reality. His research has had an impact on a wide range of different end users, from defence organisations to intensive care patients, and someday maybe even astronauts. Combined with this, his virtual recreations of long lost landscapes and sunken vessels have guaranteed a virtual preservation of historical sites and have fostered strong public engagement by giving people the opportunity to discover more about their local history.

With this wealth of experience in delivering such impact driven research, Professor Stone gave us his views on impact and the challenges for impact in the future in our first impact newsletter…

Can you tell us a little about your Research and the Impact it has made?

Our research is focused primarily on the importance of considering the human factor in the development of future interactive technologies – stressing how vital it is not to be “wowed” by online hype and false claims, but to take early account of the knowledge, skills and abilities of the end users during system design and adoption.  In other words, our research helps to ensure that the choice or design of a particular technology, particularly in the field of Virtual, Augmented and, more recently “Mixed” Reality, leads to a system that is fit for human use. Although we tend to concentrate on developments in the simulation arena, we are also very active in telerobotics, including small unmanned air systems or “drones”. To cite just two examples of the impact of our research, our team was responsible for the design of the remote driving and manipulation simulator for the UK’s CUTLASS bomb disposal robot, 42 of which were distributed to Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Squadrons throughout the country and to Gibraltar and Cyprus.  Our SubSafe “safe submariner” VR trainer was instrumental in driving the MoD’s decision to adopt VR for future submarine training and was influential in similar decisions made by the Canadian and Australian Navies.

How do you find the impact agenda and what do you find most challenging?

Personally speaking, I welcome any development that seeks to reward research that has a demonstrable impact on industry or benefits the lives of the general public.  Coming into academia from the commercial sector 13 years ago, it was my aim to make sure that any research undertaken by my team and students – undergraduates and postgraduates alike – was based on real-world needs identified by one or more stakeholders who could work with us, ultimately helping to pull said research into real-world applications.  Interestingly, this has not been as challenging as I first thought, but the rewards of seeing students and researchers receive positive stakeholder feedback on their efforts – external peer review if you will – are immense.  Furthermore, our impact experiences are also being used to motivate future generations of young people thinking of coming into the University, or in teaching those already studying with us, demonstrating the importance of the courses they pursue and the projects they undertake – in effect helping them to think “beyond the lab”.

What support or information would have helped?

Again, coming originally from a commercial organisation, interacting with stakeholders, both actual and potential is not that difficult, although sometimes can be very time consuming.  However, I believe that University marketing and public relations groups can do much, much more to help publicise research domains that may not be associated with the usual “red brick” areas of excellence, but nevertheless demonstrate to the wider world of industry that our researchers and students can, under the right circumstances and with appropriate internal encouragement and support, make real differences in commercial and public contexts.

What are the challenges for Impact for the future?

I think that the whole definition of what constitutes “impact” needs to be refreshed, as the current definitions, plus the metrics that are used to assess impact, are, in my opinion, quite restrictive. For example, impact metrics tend to ignore those examples and “stories” that may not be world-shattering, but nonetheless may be highly significant for companies large and small, or for the general public – these stories should not be ignored.  Neither should research that, in some small way, helps to introduce or demonstrate a new technology to a small company, or de-risks an organisation’s decision to pursue a new line of investigation (some of our recent student projects have done just this), or encourages members of the public to get involved in future research (we have excellent examples of this in the field of digital heritage).  To me, impact is as important, if not more important in our rapidly changing world than citation scores for academic journals.  Impact is the way forward for Universities to help make significant changes to the country’s future prosperity and to benefit – through engagement – real people doing real tasks in the real world.

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