Solving Problems with Augmented Reality

Studying a PhD is an opportunity to dive into a particular research area that you’re interested and passionate about. Through conducting your own research, you determine the direction of your work and hold the potential to make important discoveries within that field. 

Alex Thompson is currently a PhD student within the School of ICT and the AR and Design Lead at the IDEA Lab. Alex shares her journey at Griffith from undergraduate to postgraduate studies, and her current research on how we can use augmented reality to solve real-world problems 

What inspired you to study your PhD and what was your process getting there?  

When I got to Griffith to start my undergrad study, I was enrolled in the dual Bachelor of Engineering/Bachelor of ICT degree. I was about a year in when I realised that might not be the perfect degree for me, so I switched to a Bachelor of Engineering majoring in Software Engineering. In my first semester of the new degree, I took a course on user interface design and I was hooked. Rather than switching degrees again, I decided to stay where I was, with great friends and supportive staff, and chose as many electives as I could that focussed more on Human Computer Interaction (HCI).  


During that time, I connected with Dr Leigh Ellen Potter, the head of the IDEA Lab, who suggested I could continue studying HCI by enrolling in a PhD. I was really enjoying working as a junior UI/UX designer at the time, and the idea of doing a PhD seemed insane – only really smart people get PhDs, and I didn’t think I’d make the cut. However, Leigh Ellen explained that a PhD was really just an apprenticeship in research; all about hard work and learning how to investigate things.  


It was definitely tough deciding to give up my job in industry to continue studying, but I knew a PhD was going to open more doors for me in the future. So here I am.

What is your PhD research on?  

My PhD research broadly explores the potential for end users to design augmented reality solutions to solve their problems. In its simplest form, AR technology digitally overlays additional information onto the real environment or object you are looking at. AR is still an emerging technology, but can be really useful in situations where people need real-time information that is directly related to the context they are working in.  


What I’m investigating is the design process for these AR solutions, in particular how people who may not fully understand the capabilities of AR communicate their needs and capture their ideas for AR solutions. The main experiments I run are participatory design sessions, in which a group of end users of a potential AR solution come together to brainstorm and design an AR technology to address a challenge they face. Thanks to COVID, running these hands-on design sessions in person became a bit difficult, so I’ve reframed my research to also explore the difference between running these design sessions in person, and running them remotely via a video call.  

The IDEA Lab, based in Griffith’s new N79 building at the Nathan Campus, combines academic research with design and development skills to create innovation applications for VR and AR. 
How did you become involved with the IDEA lab?

As an undergrad, I got in touch with the lecturers of the courses I enjoyed to ask if they could recommend some next steps for me. By reaching out, I actually got the opportunity to help out with some work for the lab before it became “The IDEA Lab”. It started off as a group of researchers and students, led by Dr Leigh Ellen Potter, who were interested in exploring how emerging technologies could be used to really help make people’s lives better, rather than just being fun or cool.  

Since starting my PhD within the lab, I’ve had opportunities to combine industry experience and playing with cool tech – we focus on projects that combine a lot of different areas of interest, so every day is something new.”

What sort of projects have you worked on at the IDEA Lab?

Since joining the IDEA Lab, I’ve had the opportunity to work on several really cool projects that not only use emerging technology, but also help improve people’s experience of everyday tasks. 

Earlier on in my time with the lab, I helped with some of the design and user experience work for the VR cycling simulator we developed for the QAS before the GC Commonwealth Games. I had to design an interface where cyclists could use the limited features of an actual bike (steering and pedalling) to select a variety of training activities and other settings – it was a bit of a challenge.  


More recently, the lab has connected with the Hopkins Centre and their HabITec space, and I had the opportunity to work closely with the team on their Home to Hospital project as a technological consultant. The project explores the opportunities for technologies such as AR and LiDAR to assist occupational therapists in their roles prescribing home modifications for patients with significant spinal injuries. It was a great opportunity to speak directly with OTs and patients to better understand their needs and the difficulties of implementing home modifications in these circumstances. My role was to advocate for the OTs’ needs in technological discussions, as well as bridge the gap between blue sky solutions and the capability of current technologies.  

Since then I’ve primarily been working on projects for a global company that wanted to reinvigorate their IT training scheme by incorporating VR and gamification. I’ve mostly worked on creating designs and streamlining the user experience, which has involved balancing the detail of technical information with need to keep the program fun and engaging.  

On our most recent project, I’ve been given the opportunity to be the project manager, which means I’m responsible for looking after the requirements and project deliverables, as well as communicating directly with the client.  

What are your plans beyond your PhD?

Once I finish my PhD, I hope to go back to industry to work in user research and empowerment. Technology is a continually growing industry, but more and more sectors are taking on the technology challenge themselves. In these cases, it can be easy to forget prioritising the needs of end users, and the value that their input can provide to a product. Based on my experience with the IDEA Lab, I hope to take on roles where I can serve as an advocate and ‘translator’ between end users and subject matter experts, and the development teams that can deliver technological solutions to improve their lives.  


Learn more about pursuing research at Griffith University. 

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