Hitting the mark

November 2011

 

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From robotics to augmented reality, the HIT Lab NZ is at the cutting edge of technological research.

 

In the old maths building on the Canterbury University campus is the Human Interface Technology Laboratory New Zealand, better known as the HIT Lab NZ, a lab buzzing with emerging technologies and possibilities. Its slogan, “Unlocking the power of human intelligence” feels uncomfortably intellectual at first, but as one learns about the remarkable research projects the lab is churning out, it starts to feel rather apt.

The lab conducts research with new emerging technologies such as human-robot interaction, augmented reality, next-generation video conferencing and immersive visualisation. Interaction design techniques are used to adapt these technologies to the needs of end users and solve real-world problems. Ultimately it strives to improve the user experience with technology.

The lab is state of the art. A vast array of hardware and software, including multi-touch tabletop and screens, are at the disposal of its researchers. Perhaps the most notable facility is VisionSpace, the lab’s virtual reality and visualisation centre enabling end users to view and intuitively interact with 3D virtual data in real time. The centre’s impressive workstation for developing 3D graphics, a tiled-display solution for 3D visualisation and a three-screen immersive stereo projection system was built with support from the Tertiary Education Commission’s Innovation and Development Fund grant. In fact, the HIT Lab NZ is reportedly one of the best-funded centres of its kind. But is it money well spent? If the quality of research is anything to go by, all signs point to “yes” being the answer. It has helped put New Zealand on the map in terms of research into fields such as augmented reality, in which the HIT Lab NZ is one of the leading research centres in the world. This technology involves the seamless overlay of virtual images on the real world, and has potential applications in a variety of fields, including entertainment, education, medicine and manufacturing.

This is where the HIT Lab NZ’s point of difference lies. The lab’s researchers are not solely focused on developing technology, but also in its application, its commercial potential; they are interested in how people relate to it – how it affects their lives.

The research conducted in the area of human-robot interaction is a good example of this. Researchers are exploring hardware and software solutions for robots that enable them to act socially, including models of human behaviour, emotions, anthropomorphism and animacy. But it isn’t just about building robots; the lab is especially interested in the effects the robots have on their users.

While the HIT Lab NZ becomes a second home for many students as they complete their postgraduate degrees – it offers a PhD in human interface technology, and will soon offer  a masters programmes – it also offers internships of between three and six months. Interns can either propose their own line of research or join a project in one of the existing research themes of the lab.

The HIT Lab NZ recently welcomed three new interns from overseas. Rahul Budhiraja, originally from the Middle East, will join the augmented reality research programme, looking specifically at augmented reality tracking systems for Android devices. Meanwhile, Rohit Sharma, from India, will be working on interface design for mobile platforms, and Kazuyuki Fujita, a PhD student at Osaka University in Japan, will be working on the interface of group interaction with large screens.

It’s pleasing to know that New Zealand is keeping abreast of cutting edge technological developments with the likes of the HIT Lab NZ. It seems that “Unlocking the power of human intelligence” sums up the lab quite nicely.