Report: Neha Kale
A group of researchers cluster around a humanoid robot with the mannerisms of a child. Nearby, a scientist swaps Melbourne for medieval Angkor by donning a headset while a designer pores over a ring equipped to simulate sight. If you wander into sensiLab, an interdisciplinary facility that launched in May at Monash University’s Caulfield campus, you would be forgiven for thinking that your favourite science fiction novel had come to life. But for sensiLab director Professor Jon McCormack, the trailblazing space is less interested in fantasy than it is in tackling challenges we face in the real world.
“We wanted to address the changes that were happening around us and the fact that innovation was coming from non-traditional areas by bringing together people from different disciplines,” explains McCormack, adding that the lab hosts over 50 researchers across fields like IT, engineering, medicine, art and design. “SensiLab is oriented around visualisation, interaction design and digital fabrication. There are a lot of exciting things happening in the next year and we’re just at the start.”
SensiLab, which is modelled on hackerspaces and innovation hubs such as the MIT media lab, is interested in how technological acceleration has created low barriers to entry and what this means for problem-solving on a global scale. McCormack says that working with low-cost equipment such as the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset that enables wearers to simultaneously enter immersive spaces, has sparked new possibilities for collaboration and learning.
“Virtual reality technology used to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars but now headsets cost around $350 so the question is no longer about affordability but about what happens when we connect them together,” says McCormack, a winner of the 2012 Eureka Prize. “Our Angkor Project uses data to build an interpretation of an ancient metropolis so you can be anywhere around the globe but in the same virtual space. Scientists across different cities will be able to view complex data collaboratively. It’s a game-changer.”
For McCormack, accessibility – in terms of using technology to create a more inclusive society and collapsing boundaries that exist between disciplines – is a defining theme. At sensiLab, technologies such as 3D printing are the basis for interactive maps for the vision-impaired and engineers and industrial designers join forces to conceive wearables such as the Haptic ring.
“We’ve used 3D printing and some basic electronics to print out a digital version of a map that can help visually impaired people find their way around places – when you touch sections, a voice will tell you the building’s name and various helpful things,” explains McCormack, who says that sensiLab will relocate to a purpose-built facility next year. “It’s inexpensive and could be placed in train stations and shopping centres to help the vision-impaired move around with a greater sense of freedom. Similarly, the Haptic ring generates vibrations to help decipher graphics on tablets and mobile devices. We have designers working on beautiful aesthetics because a lot of stuff associated with disability looks clunky and functional. It’s a fashion device as well.”
McCormack says that sensiLab is equally focused on exploring the ethical issues that technology can bring. For instance, experimenting with the ways in which a humanoid robot can teach children with autism to engage with reading and writing has raised interesting questions about the divide between humans and machines.
“Robots are often associated with slave labour but when robots and humans co-operate to achieve something, they are incredibly precise,” McCormack smiles. “Our robot, which is designed by a French company Aldebaran Robotics, is approachable and friendly and sometimes acts like a petulant child. Down the track, we will see these beings looking after the elderly or providing companionship to people with dementia – so it’s not that unrealistic to consider them halfway human. SensiLab is interested in how things are connected in terms of social impact. It’s not about asking what can we can do or what we can’t do but about what we should be doing.”