Interview – Prof. Young Choi and Dr. Thomas Furness, HIT Lab Australia

hit_lab3 In 2008, with not a lot of fanfare, the Human Interface Technology Laboratory Australia (HIT Lab) was created. Part of the University of Tasmania (UTAS), its brief is to be a specialist human interface technology teaching and research centre.

Headed in an interim capacity by Professor Young Ju Choi with significant involvement by veteran virtual reality researcher Tom Furness, HIT Lab has an ambitious brief that could position it as one of Australia’s virtual reality engine rooms. I took the opportunity to catch up with Prof. Young Choi and Dr Furness, who compiled the answers collaboratively, to discuss what’s likely to be a hectic future.

TMJ: Can you give a potted history of how HIT Lab got its Australian iteration?

HIT Lab: Attracting Australia’s first HIT Lab to UTAS Launceston was a case of serendipitous alignment of vision and aspiration with a visit to Tasmania in 2006 by Tom Furness – as a keynote speaker at an international conference in Hobart, organised by Professor Young Choi. By way of background, HIT Lab US at the University of Washington was established by Tom in 1989 followed by HIT Lab NZ in 2002 at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.

In recent years UTAS has been considering strategic directions and initiatives for the Launceston campus. As part of this exercise Professor Choi was investigating opportunities for cutting-edge, world-class technology for a potential world-leadership, niche technology development. The current UTAS Vice-Chancellor, Professor Daryl Le Grew, was previously VC at the University of Canterbury when HIT Lab NZ was established. He encouraged Professor Choi to have a conversation with Professor Furness during the 2006 conference, and the HIT Lab Australia initiative developed from there.

TMJ: Structurally, how closely do each of the HIT Labs liaise?

HIT Lab: HIT Lab Australia and UTAS (and HIT Lab NZ and University of Canterbury) each have a formal Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the University of Washington and HIT Lab US, which establishes, among other things, a framework for collaboration and cooperation in research, teaching and other endeavours.

The Australian and NZ HIT Lab’s are also establishing an MOA to formalise and strengthen their relationship. Professors Furness and Mark Billinghurst (Director of HIT Lab NZ) are also Adjunct Professors of HIT Lab Australia and have contributed to a number of activities including curriculum development and teaching.

TMJ: A key aspect of the research and learning components at HIT Lab is collaboration across many disciplines, from Architecture to Nursing. How do you envisage this will be managed and do you have buy-in from each of the faculties at present?

HIT Lab: From the outset HIT Lab Australia was established as a trans-disciplinary strategic development of UTAS. The location at the Launceston campus was determined on the basis of plans to develop collaboration in teaching and research across many of the Launceston campus academic schools including Architecture and Design, Nursing and Midwifery, the Australian Maritime College, Visual and Performing Arts, Education and the School of Computing and Information Systems.

HIT Lab Australia has an academic planning and development group to identify and plan cross-disciplinary developments in teaching, research and commercial projects. The group includes the heads of a number of academic schools mentioned above.

A pleasing development for the HIT Lab Australia has been the interest shown in undergraduate HIT units in the summer school and first semesters by students from a range of schools. The units have attracted student enrolments from many schools/courses including Architecture and Design, Contemporary Arts, Arts/Social Science, Education, and Business as well as Computing and Information Systems.

TMJ: What are the key research priorities for HIT Lab in the short and medium term?

HIT Lab: An announcement will be made shortly on the inaugural appointment of Director of the HIT Lab Australia. The Director will commence duties later in the year and will be instrumental in establishing research directions, strategy and priorities. Having said that elements of the research strategy will include:

• a focus on creative design, visualisation, simulation and interactive entertainment

• application of cutting-edge visualisation, immersive virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies to underpin collaborative training & education, research & development programs and commercial development by linking key disciplines and centres in the Launceston Campus

• building international collaboration in research through our partnership with the world-renowned HIT Lab US, University of Washington and the HIT Lab NZ, University of Canterbury, as well as in China, Korea and elsewhere

• research and commercial projects that will help to fulfil the objectives for HIT Lab Australia to develop as an economic engine for Tasmania and Australia

TMJ: Are there significant human interface milestones that excite you in the short and medium term?

HIT Lab: The key driver behind the research agenda of the HIT Lab Australia will be the solution of challenging problems that confront the nation and the world. We just don’t want to work on technology because we can – we want to solve real problems. To this end we will start in Tasmania and Australia then branch out to the world, especially the third world. As for short term milestones, we definitely want to develop new and more efficient ways of generating 3D content for education, training, medicine and entertainment applications. This plays well with the interdisciplinary partners in the venture. In the longer term we would like to spin off several companies that build and market interface appliances that solve the problems above.

TMJ: What are your thoughts on human interface products already commercialised?

HIT Lab: We are just at the beginning of a new era of developing interfaces that deeply couple humans to machine – in an attempt to amplify or augment human capability. New products will follow this theme of looking at the deeper physiological and emotional aspects of design interfaces. In the end, we want to build the ‘Nextant’, or the next sextant, that lets us use our mind for navigating in virtual spaces much like the sextant allowed early navigators to use their eyes and the stars to navigate in physical space.

TMJ: What do you see as the key measures of success for a good human interface for virtual worlds?

HIT Lab: In general, good interfaces should be seamless and transparent. That is, they shouldn’t get in the way. Interfaces and the tools that they link to humans are only a means to an end. It is the end, or application, that is most important – what is it supposed to do, versus what is it! The ideal interface would be one that is so intuitive, that the user doesn’t have to learn anything new to operate it, while at the same time performing tasks that were impossible before, or at least with more efficiency than before.

TMJ: Aside from the neurological / physiological aspects of such interfaces, what do you believe are the key psychological and/or sociological challenges of developing human interfaces with virtual worlds?

HIT Lab: Clearly the greatest challenge is understanding consciousness and how that maps to brain function. There is also a lot going on subconsciously where processing takes place in the background before being brought to the surface. Ideally we would build advanced interfaces that serve both levels, e.g. subliminal interfaces.

TMJ: Using nursing as an example, how do you see HIT Lab’s work making an impact in the next five years?

HIT Lab: One of the key issues in nursing is the time and quality of training it takes to produce a well-qualified nurse. As in other clinical practices, the key factor is practice, and opportunities for practicing on real patients is limited. Virtual humans can take the place of real humans in training and thereby provide a more rich, diverse and intensive training experience for nurses. We want to work with the School of Nursing to develop a suite of training devices that can not only be used for task training but also provide visualisation of processes normally not seen, e.g. how contamination spreads by viewing virtual bacteria or how a drug or injection infuses the body, etc.

TMJ: Immersiveness is something heavily sought after in virtual worlds – is that a key goal of HIT Lab’s work or a secondary objective?

HIT Lab: Presence or the sense of ‘being there’ is clearly one of the more powerful attributes of immersive virtual reality. The feeling of being in a place provides vital hooks to memory, or the ability to retain things that are experienced. In general, a person immersed in a virtual world never forgets it. So in answer to the question, yes, this is a key goal. But the key goal is solving real world problems, even if immersion is not necessary.

TMJ: What are HIT Lab’s markers of success – are there objectives required to be met for ongoing funding etc?

HIT Lab: HIT Lab Australia has been established as a strategic initiative of the University of Tasmania with seed funding to establish the staffing profile, teaching and research staff profile, curriculum development and research program. A condition of this funding has been the development of a business plan which was approved by UTAS earlier this year.

The business plan covers the first five years of operation and establishes a number of key targets and milestones including undergraduate, postgraduate and research higher degree enrolments for domestic and international students. There are also targets for course development, research and commercial project outcomes and so on. Progress towards objectives will be monitored progressively.

HIT Lab Australia has the strong support from the UTAS Vice-Chancellor and Senior Executive as well as from senior academics from a number of allied schools and faculties. Interest from enrolled students, prospective students, colleges and schools, business and industry has been tremendously encouraging and point to long term success of this exciting initiative for UTAS and its Launceston campus.

TMJ: How do you view the virtual worlds sphere locally – are there any developments outside of HIT Lab that interest/excite you?

HIT Lab: The Launceston Campus of UTAS is a great place to begin the HIT Lab since it has not only the Nursing School and Australian Maritime College but also the design element in Architecture and Visual and Performing arts to name a few. The confluence of these disciplines and activities can be enriched by the catalyst and technologies provided by the HIT Lab AU. In the end, we would hope to involve existing local companies as well as develop new start-ups that we spinoff from the HIT Lab and UTAS. Within Australasia, the USA and Europe there are a number of links (beyond the HIT Labs) that we would like to establish involving projects and student exchanges etc.

TMJ: How important is some form of agreement on virtual world interoperability to HIT Lab’s work?

HIT Lab: There will be a time when standards for interface appliances supporting virtual worlds will need to be developed -but not too soon, as these will tend to restrict or constrain the progress of this remarkable technology. This is true especially as new functionality is developed along with growth in supporting technology. For example, we don’t want to be constrained by 8 bit byte standard when in the longer term we will need 128 bits per byte or more to grow the technology. Although standardisation can help interoperability, it can limit the vitality of a technology. Instead of standards, what would be useful is guidelines to give investigators and developers a feeling for best practices and what needs to be considered in the design and human factors engineering of virtual interfaces. Such a foundational understanding would then grow as the science and technology grow. The HIT Lab Australia, along with sister labs in the US and NZ will be the world’s repository for these best practices and guidelines.


A big thanks to Chris Carstens for his help in coordinating the interview responses. Below you can find more detailed biographies:

Professor Young Ju Choi

ychoi2Born in Kwangju, Korea, and Australian by naturalisation, Professor Young Choi was educated at the Australian National University and the University of Adelaide.

Professor Choi has worked as a Computer Science academic in Australian higher education since his initial appointment at the University of Adelaide. Before coming to Tasmania he was Head of Computer Science and Deputy Dean, Faculty of Mathematical Sciences at Flinders University, Adelaide.

He was subsequently appointed as the Foundation Head of School of Computing at the University of Tasmania (UTAS) and served in this role for nearly twenty years. He has published widely in areas including concurrent and distributed computing, multimedia and internet technologies, and eLearning technologies.

He is recognised internationally for his work in international education, especially in China and Korea, including Chair of the Academic Advisory Committee; International Education Network, China; Asia Pacific Digital Multimedia Education Network member; and the ACHEM Computing Curriculum Board, Malaysia.

Professor Choi is currently Interim Director of the Human Interface Technology (HIT) Lab Australia at the University of Tasmania which is linked to the world-renowned HIT Lab US at the University of Washington, Seattle, USA.

Dr. Thomas Furness

furness Prof. Furness is a pioneer in human interface technology and virtual reality. He received the BS degree in Electrical Engineering from Duke University and the Ph.D. in Engineering and Applied Science from the University of Southampton, England. Dr. Furness is currently a professor of Industrial Engineering with adjunct professorships in Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Aeronautics and Astronautics, and Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington. He is the founder of the Human Interface Technology Laboratory (HIT Lab) at UW and founder and international director of the HIT Lab NZ at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, NZ and the HIT Lab Australia at the University of Tasmania, Launceston, Tasmania. He is also an Erskine Fellow and Adjunct Professor at the University of Canterbury and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Tasmania.

Prior to joining the faculty at the University, Prof. Furness served a combined 23 years as an U.S. Air Force officer and civilian at the Armstrong Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, where he developed advanced cockpits and virtual interfaces for the Department of Defense. He is the author of the Super Cockpit program and served as the Chief of Visual Display Systems and Super Cockpit Director until he joined the University of Washington in 1989.

Dr. Furness lectures widely and has appeared in many national and international network and syndicated television science and technology documentaries and news programs. He is the inventor of the personal eyewear display, the virtual retinal display, the HALO display and holds 15 patents in advanced sensor, display and interface technologies. With his colleagues Dr. Furness has started 24 companies, two of which are traded on NASDAQ at a market capitalization of > $ 2 B. In 1998 he received the Discover Award for his invention of the virtual retinal display.

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