Hi Arindam, thanks so much for joining us! To get started, please give us an overview of your background?
I have been a computer science student since the early 2000 and have been attached to academia. My work mainly focuses on users and making extended reality systems that help them in specific ways. I started my Ph.D. in 2009 at the University of South Australia (UniSA) to focus on handheld augmented reality and x-ray visualizations in outdoor locations. I graduated in 2013 and have had multiple postdoctoral positions in the US and Australia. My most unique postdoctoral work was with Prof. Mark Billinghurst between 2016-2018 at UniSA, where I started exploring Empathic Computing. A research area uses implicit physiological cues (measured through wearable sensors) to create better awareness and connection between the user(s) and the system. Around this time, I also started promoting and engaging in “XR 4 Good” research. After my time at UniSA, I started as a Lecturer at the University of Queensland and continued researching empathic computing and extended reality. I still hold an honorary position with the University of Queensland.
What inspired you to get into immersive tech? Please tell us a bit about your journey into the VR industry.
My journey into immersive tech was accidental, and I am glad it happened. From 2007-to 2008, I looked for a Ph.D. position in pervasive computing and human-computer interaction. I approached many academics worldwide (mainly in the US, the UK, and Australia). That is when I was connected to my Ph.D. supervisor Prof. Christian Sandor who is now at the University of Paris-Saclay. He told me that he doesn’t have any project on pervasive computing but has an open position for an augmented reality project. At that time, AR was not as popular as it is now. I read more about it and liked the human-centered approach of the project. That’s how I got started working on AR. I tried VR multiple times during my Ph.D. days. My first research exposure to VR was in my postdoctoral position with Prof. Robert Lindeman at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the US (Rob now leads HitLab New Zealand in Christchurch) and later with Prof. Billinghurst at the Empathic Computing Lab at UniSA. My work mainly involves VR, but I continue to work on other immersive technologies such as AR.
What were some of the biggest challenges you experienced while creating this project?
After joining UQ, I started this first project with three students (Bowen Yuan, Aaron Goh, and Gaurav Gupta) who had never worked on any VR project before and did not use an EEG device. So, my first challenge was bringing the students up to speed with the technologies and, more importantly, the research project. They were talented and hardworking students who quickly got everything together and executed the task well.
We faced the second challenge of interfacing the EEG device with the VR application, where facial expressions were detected and used for interaction. The students figured out a solution that we discussed in the research article.
Another big challenge was the COVID pandemic, which significantly restricted our lab access and recruited participants for the user study. We had to stop the study after running it with 18 participants.
Can you tell us more about what you’re currently working on?
One stream of our research measures emotions and cognitive load in real-time and effectively uses this information in VR systems. We are looking into ways to share this information with multiple collaborators to create better awareness between them. Another way of using this information is to adapt the VR interface in real-time based on the user’s emotional and cognitive states.
Another stream of research that we are working on is to measure the feeling of presence in VR in real-time using neurological signals and then use this information to adapt the VR interface to provide a more impactful experience in VR.
We are also developing better interactions and learning interfaces in VR for people with special needs, including autism.
What were some of the most considerable challenges you’ve faced while working in the VR industry? How did you overcome them?
One of the significant challenges that we faced in the early days was the quality of the VR displays being suboptimal for long-term uses. They were bulky, wired, limited field of view, and had lower refresh rates. However, this challenge was overcome with new displays from major companies such as Oculus (Meta) Quest and HTC Vive. Currently, displays are widely used by the general public, aka end-users. With these better displays, graphics cards, and computational power of the computers, we can now create very compelling VR experiences.
Another major challenge we faced that is somewhat related to the earlier challenge I mentioned is to let people use VR for a long time to collect data. Due to the bulkiness of the displays and lower quality, we had to use shorter experiences. However, that problem is reasonably addressed with these better displays, at least for the research-related applications.
For our area of research, the major challenge is that we need to use multiple wearable sensors such as eye trackers, heart rate (ECG), Electrodermal activities (EDA), and Electroencephalography (EEG) to collect data and create VR experiences. We must fit the user/participant with these sensors separately and calibrate them. However, new displays are coming to the market with some of these sensors integrated, such as HP Omnicept.
What’s your vision for the future of VR?
Definitely beyond gaming. VR is powerful, it lets us defy reality and create most any experience. If we can create any world, any reality, then what worlds can best help people with their needs? I think VR could grow and mesh with the physical world in so many ways: increasing access to healthcare, redefining the future of education, pushing the boundaries of art, and so much more. The ability to be co-present and immersed all through a pair of goggles has so many design opportunities.
What parts of the VR industry do you think need to be changed? Why?
My main concern with the VR industry is that we design most VR applications with a one-size-fits-all approach. That needs to change; every user has different emotional, cognitive, and physical abilities. By creating VR interfaces that can monitor the physiological states of the user and adapt to the user’s needs in real-time, we can make VR interfaces more accessible, helpful, and enjoyable to every user. A move in that direction at the commercial level is slowly starting.
What are your thoughts on privacy and ethics?
Privacy and ethics are fundamental aspects to consider when designing an interface connected to the internet; this is not exclusive to VR. Companies need to be very transparent and careful in using the data they collect from users. At the same time, the users need to be aware and cautious in what kind of data they share with the applications (companies) they use.
What advice do you have for people (professionals/ students) looking to enter the XR industry?
Well, I think they should be willing to understand the users and design XR interfaces for the users that will create better user experiences. For a long time, the XR industry has focused on engineering challenges, resulting in current high-quality devices. We are at a stage where these technologies can be widely available to the end-user. We need to focus on the end-user and consider how to serve users with XR technologies better; while doing that, they need to consider a wide variety of users worldwide because XR adoption will increase rapidly.
Who have been your most important mentors? Why? How did you meet them?
The most important person in my career is Prof. Mark Billinghurst. I am fortunate to have him as a mentor and close colleague.
Mark has a wealth of knowledge in XR and HCI (human-computer interaction) that he shares openly and actively with the community. He has won multiple awards and is among the world’s most successful researchers in XR. Having had an opportunity to work closely with him for several years, I have learned (and I continue to learn) a lot from him, not just about XR research but also about leadership, humility, and being a nice human being. He has been accommodating in several ways in my life with his mentorship and constructive feedback. I am grateful for his contributions to my career.
My first interaction with Mark was in 2015 when I was a postdoc at WPI in the US. We collaborated on a review article on AR usability studies. Of course, I knew of him earlier but never had any interaction. Since that collaboration, I have been working directly with him as a part of his research team at the Empathic Computing Lab (at UniSA).
Anything else you’d like to add?
I think the VR/AR industry (currently dubbed the Metaverse) has an exciting future ahead with more business and academic opportunities. With the rise in the adoption of these technologies, we will see more active interests in making them more inclusive, accessible, and safe (both physically and psychologically)..
Bonus: What’s your favorite inspirational quote? What about the quote inspires you?
I have two favorite quotes :
“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” By Alan Kay
I like this quote a lot as a researcher. It motivates me to push my boundaries.
“Try and leave this world a little better than you found it.” By Robert Baden-Powell
This quote is what I believe in as a human being.
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