Electronic, Electrical and Systems Engineering PhD (Human Interface Technologies specialism)

The Human Interface Technologies Team, formed in 2003, brings together multidisciplinary researchers within the School who focus on human-centred research issues related to future interactive technologies, including task and usability analysis, human factors integration, ergonomics, design and evaluation of advanced interfaces, user and open learner modelling and artificial intelligence in education.

Areas of expertise

Historically, the team's areas of expertise have evolved from the pioneering efforts of the Pervasive Systems Research Group (http://wear-it.net). From the delivery of educational material via domestic appliances to the distribution of spatial information in forensic archaeology, there are countless human-centred applications waiting to benefit from pervasive computing. Human factors issues are crucial to the success of pervasive computing, helping to ensure that the component technologies – be they portable, wearable or embedded in familiar, everyday objects and equipment – are not only dependable and adaptable to all situations of use, but are also intuitive and non-invasive to the many thousands of potential users. Members of the team have also been instrumental in forming a new UK initiative – Learner Modelling for Reflection (LeMoRe) – together with the Universities of Glasgow and Leeds. The aims of LeMoRe are to advance the theoretical study and the application of approaches to opening the learner model to learners and others involved in the learning process, such as teachers and peers. In doing this, researchers hope to promote an awareness of the potential of this field as a valuable contribution to building hardware and software solutions across a range of learning contexts, such as lifelong learning, training, school and higher education and in the understanding of pedagogical issues in resource-based learning, problem-based learning, instruction and assessment-based learning.

The team also has a particular interest in virtual or synthetic environments, in particular the application of emerging games engine and web-sourced 3D modelling/run-time resources to real-world problems and the exploitation of VR, augmented reality and related technologies to applications in defence, health care, psychology and archaeology.

Research involvements

The team is involved with the international Virtual Heritage Network (www.virtualheritage.net) and the Institute for the Visualization of History (www.vizin.org) and has been involved in such exciting projects as the Cuneiform tablet writing system study (www.cuneiform.net) and the reconstruction of parts of the North Sea basin as they existed (and were populated) over 10,000 years ago. This project combines the very best in VR modelling and run-time practice, using seismic survey data from the oil and gas industry for reference topography, but also introduces artificial life (ALife) – the propagation of fauna based on geographical, geological and meteorological knowledge – driven by microscopic elements (such as pollen) extracted from seabed core samples.

This research has been extended to include the modelling of complex marine ecosystems, as they colonise Europe's first artificial reef, the scuttled Royal Navy Frigate HMS Scylla. Working together with colleagues from the National Marine Aquarium, the Marine Biological Association, the University of Plymouth and Plymouth Marine Limited, a dynamic virtual model of the Scylla is being developed. The relationship with these institutions has also recently been boosted as a result of the HIT Team’s collaboration with the new European Centre for Environment & Human Health. The Team is undertaking a unique research programme addressing the exploitation of virtual rural scenarios to achieve similar positive mental health and well-being effects to those found when exposing individuals to their real-world counterparts. The project, called VRET (Virtual Restorative Environment Therapy), sets out to model forested and coastal regions and to investigate the importance of visual, auditory and olfactory fidelities on a range of subjective and objective (psychophysiological) parameters.

The team is also involved in a large-scale 12-partner Eurpoean FP7 project, leading the work on learner modeling for 21st Century skills, aimed at school-level stakeholders. It has a strong focus on formative assessment and feedback, and supporting teachers’ decision-making in the classroom. 

Academic collaborations

The team is also one of the main academic collaborators within the Ministry of Defence Human Factors Integration Defence Technology Centre (www.hfidtc.com), conducting research in the analysis of command and control tasks, network-centric warfare, situational awareness and synthetic environments (especially as applied to human interface development for unmanned vehicles), and developing new methods of battlefield information distribution between command centres and field personnel equipped with wearable computing technologies. The DTC researchers also coordinate the dissemination of information from the centre as a whole to the national and international defence community.

Serious gaming

The HIT Team has, since 2005, become recognised as an international leader in the human-centred development of serious games, courtesy both of internal research programmes and those associated with the HFI DTC. Serious gaming is a field of endeavour that focuses on the exploitation of high-quality computer games and associated software tools such as those underpinning the 'first person shooter' (FPS) or 'role-playing' (RP) games. These tools which include Unity3D, Quest3D and Blender, enable simulation and serious games developers to design and build their own interactive 3D content, including internal and external emvironments, virtual humans or 'avatars', vehicles and visually rich scenarios.

With nearly 25 years of experience in the interactive 3D or Virtual Reality arena, the HIT Team has been pioneering the development and uptake of serious games technologies in the UK. The Team’s participation within the UK’s Human Factors Integration Defence Technology Centre has also provided a range of excellent opportunities to work closely with stakeholders and end users in the development of methodologies supporting human-centred design for serious games-based part-task trainers. In particular, the Team’s research is helping to avoid the technology push failures evident in the VR “era” of the 1990s by developing and evaluating demonstrators that emphasise the critical importance of exploiting human factors knowledge when specifying issues such as task and context fidelity, learning content, evaluation metrics and interactive technology appropriateness. Examples of the Team’s work to date include part-task trainers for close-range naval weapons procedures, submarine safety systems awareness and periscope skills training, defence mental health therapy support (including recent developments in virtual restorative environments for rehabilitation), explosive ordnance disposal, unmanned air and ground vehicles, specialist surgery and healthcare (including participation in the US Pulse!! virtual healthcare project), and marine archaeology (the Virtual Scylla artificial reef initiative). The Team is also active in the advanced telerobotics arena, conducting human factors research in support of simulated robotic vehicle and manipulator design and operation.

Facilities

The HIT Team has a range of interactive 3D devices available to researchers, although each project typically demands its own unique hardware and software solution, especially if early research is conducted in the field or later experimentation/evaluation has to be carried out with subject matter experts who are not part of the immediate academic team. Over the years, the Team has developed its own hardware solutions, including wearable computing and augmented reality devices, in addition to collaborating with companies developing specific interaction solutions, from haptic feedback devices to novel olfactory/scent delivery techniques.