New technologies have the potential to impact and change people's lives for the better. In this interview, we sit down with design engineer and researcher to explore why human-centred approaches and creativity are key to building novel solutions together.
UN: Can you tell us a bit about your research and what inspired you to get into this field?
TW: I joined the BEARS project as a research intern. During my 6-month placement, I worked on the application design, player experience optimisation, and audio resources production. My responsibility is to ensure the technical and content development of the project can be delivered promptly while meeting the research objectives.
Before I entered the field of research and development of techniques for hearing rehabilitation, I have been working on projects closely related to Design for Accessibility. The Web Application Design module on the first year of my undergraduate study broadened my view on information accessibility and ethical design practices. I was inspired by the idea of social inclusion in the virtual spaces like the Internet. I realised that disability could be caused by not only biological factors but also social and cultural influences. Later on, I worked closely with the blind community in China to understand their life, and heard their wishes to improve their quality of life with advanced technologies, such as the screen-reading software and text-to-speech generation. On the summer of 2021, I had an internship in a muti-national corporate focusing on the accessibility features on their mobile devices. During the internship, I joined a workshop with an enterprise initiative to look at workspace inclusivity for the deaf community. I worked with a group of Chinese undergraduate students with hearing loss, and closely experienced the difficulty of teamwork with different groups. I appreciated existing efforts made by designer and engineers to bridge the communication gap.
Therefore, when my supervisor advertised the opportunity to join the BEARS project this year, I applied with gratitude and accepted the offer. I believe my human-centred design background and experiences with a diverse range of people with special needs could help me better empathise with our end-users.
UN: At the Utopia Now launch event you spoke about how you are using technologies like virtual-reality and gaming to support young people with bilateral cochlear implants hear and communicate better. What role did young people play in designing the project? Why did you choose gaming as the technology to do this?
TW: We strive to develop a playful intervention for younger Cochlear Implants despite of many challenges. The BEARS project has taken a participatory design approach in various research and development phases. We believe that identifying and involving stakeholders at all levels would only benefit us with better insights of the challenge, clearer understanding of their needs, and motivational factors which can be critical to the success of the clinical trial. The team conducted a few Patient and Public Involvement (PPI) activities and invited our target beneficiary, families, and language therapist to experiment with the novel interaction and experience in Virtual Reality. We also had a few serious game prototypes which has been adapted into a more complete version for the medical intervention.
The first thing I did, after I gained a better understanding of the scope of the project, was to contact our past PPI participants. Using semi-formal interviews and probing questions, I was able to understand their expectations, needs, and interaction patterns with our latest development of BEARS applications. At a later stage, two teenage volunteers with Cochlear Implants provided comprehensive feedback after a 4-week pilot trial. I should really thank our participants because their contributions were very valuable in shaping certain design decisions, such as deciding the number of challenges and adjusting the difficulty curve of the overall flow. We have helps from younger hearing children that played our game prototypes. From their behaviours we identified the possible sources of frustration. I’d like to emphasise that many of our design processes actively involved young people and personally, I learnt a lot from them. It would be interesting to explore the opportunities to allow them to make certain decisions if we have more resources.
Game is not our choice of technology, but rather our players’ choice to perceive and overcome the challenges we designed for them in a simulated virtual world.
The BEARS project eventually would involves Cochlear Implant users from eight to sixteen years old. The reason for choosing a gamified training procedures is because (1) we have evidence that gamified training could help elderly people with hearing loss to perform better speech perception in adverse listening conditions; (2) the desire to play is a human nature, especially for children, so we hope that framing the interventions as ‘games’ might improve their interest and acceptance; (3) my interview outcomes revealed that young Cochlear Implant users found the hearing tests very boring, so we want to provide something that could offer a fun experience with their active engagement. Game is not our choice of technology, but rather our players’ choice to perceive and overcome the challenges we designed for them in a simulated virtual world. I hope that Cochlear Implant wearers could learn skills that not only help them gain higher test scores, but also motivate them to develop and transfer their unique hearing strategies for more complex real-life situations.
UN: We know you’re a big fan of science fiction! Which stories or performances from Utopia Now stood out to you?
TW: This is a really good question! As I addressed in my speech during the Launch, reading and watching their work brings back my memories and thrilling of reading and watching science fiction when I was younger. I really appreciate how they translated complex and abstract ideas into such vivid scenes and stories. We must acknowledge that each piece of work has a unique voice embedded.
There are three stories that impressed me very much.
For ‘Inside the future’, Janice showed us that future food would be catered by robots and drones, and future people can travel with air-hoverboard. Yet, future gun crimes would still take place and traumatize our young protagonist. She invited the audience to ponder whether technology is the panacea of social problems or a catalyst of further divides. The answer really depends on our choices in technological advancements.
In Caelan’s work, he portraited 'The Government' as a gigantic institution with unlimited control of personal destinies. The conflict in the plot became thundering as the protagonists realised that the micro-chips embedded on their neck were designed by themselves! The work posts serious questions on the compromise of freedom of expression as the society demands stability and harmony.
Last but not least, I love how Laura performed on the stage with her work 'What A Wonderous World'. She introduced a brave new educational system that would afford (or dictate) life-long learning. Naturally, it prompts me to reflect on the approaches of various educational institutions imposed on the younger generation. The scheme in that wonderous world sounds excellent but also wicked, and this sense of wickedness could be intentional.
Hence, we could argue that science fiction is never just about fictional depiction or unbounded imagination. It could be a distorted, or perfected reflection of the reality. From the lens of young people’s eyes (and I believe I am still eligible to be included in the community of ‘young people’) , humanity would re-discover and re-define the purpose of life. I want to thank our young futurists to open my eyes and filled my souls with this spiritual feast.
UN: What do you think scientists like yourselves can do to help make a better future for young people?
TW: Firstly, I should learn the art of scientific communication and stay self-motivated in public engagement events like Utopia Now. Learning to speak, write, and listen is like mastering an Art, which could be a pursue of a lifetime. I used to be quite defensive and upheld a stiff moral ground when I receive certain feedbacks but as I conducted more research and interviews related to accessibility design, I found that most of the time, people could easily discern good intentions from me regardless of language barriers or difficulties in visual or verbal expressions of ideas.
Secondly, I want to be supportive and encourage people from different ages, backgrounds, and interests to write about their imagined future, and explain their vision or thoughts to their support network. I responded to a question from the audience about how we could develop better scientific understanding, and my answer was to document your thoughts, doubts, and work you’ve done. Over time, you would have produced some data for further evaluation. Then you could think of scaling up to gain more robust understanding of an issue or a problem emerged in the documentation process. I was inspired by a good friend two years ago and I wish to share this with our young friends.
Last but not least, I need to remain sincere to my original aspiration with science, which is to improve the health, living conditions, and quality of life of human beings. Science offers a systemic thinking framework and practice guidelines, contributed by generations of great people. Philosophically speaking, we should acknowledge limitations and boundaries of science, and openness to a diversity of beliefs and value systems is a difficult quest. There are still ideological challenges, conflicted interests, and uncertainties in the world, however, I believe people like me could become a uniting force.
Philosophically speaking, we should acknowledge limitations and boundaries of science, and openness to a diversity of beliefs and value systems is a difficult quest. There are still ideological challenges, conflicted interests, and uncertainties in the world, however, I believe people like me could become a uniting force.
UN: What role can young people play in the future of science?
TW: Young people will be the change-makers. I am borrowing this term from our elective modules offer at Imperial College London. This is not only my belief but rather a consensus. In London, we have many free events and talks about STEM research and education. These could become a good starting point for people who aspire to take the quest of a scientific enquiry. If you like science fiction books, go reading them! If you feel like making your own science fiction world, go writing, drawing, and making it!
Another important role for young people is to have their personal endeavour to solve a real-life problem that concerns them. It can be as small as a project to calculate how much energy was consumed by different home appliances, and be as ambitious as methods to tackle a changing climate. Start with things that is relevant to them and tasks are manageable. Then seek help and find comrades along the way. Many people would encourage kids to ‘step out of their comfort zone’ but for me, I would encourage them to encourage them to explore their comfort zone and play within the boundary as much as possible, as long as that sustains your motivation of learning. Eventually, the time of change would come and during that period, get ready and embrace the new experiences in life.
With curiosity, creativity, empathy, and love for scientific knowledge, we, as the young generation, are shaping the value systems and therefore drive for a more equitable, inclusive, and resilient global community!
Tianxiao Wang is currently a Masters student of Design Engineering in Imperial College London. His research interests include human-centred design research, multi-modal perceptual training, and the philosophy of games.