Welcome to the first of many blog posts about my research project as a research engineer at Designability. The 3-year research project will lead to me submitting a doctoral thesis for the award of Doctor of Engineering (EngD) in Digital Entertainment from the University of Bath. In this blog post I will introduce myself and the project, and explain what an EngD actually is. I will also let you know what to expect from this blog over the course of the next few years.
Before I go any further, I would like to introduce myself. My name is Thomas Williams, and I have a strong link with the city and University of Bath. I studied my undergraduate degree, Mathematics and Physics, here, and I did not want to stay away. However, I did take a break (that infamous “gap yah”) in Berlin as an au pair, which was a wonderful experience. Along with meeting many lovely people, learning about a new culture, and improving a second language, the time away allowed me to decide what I wanted to do next. As it turned out, it happened to be going back to university.
So, why did I choose this particular programme? The Digital Entertainment programme sounded like an exciting opportunity to move into the technology sector, but I did not actually choose to pursue a doctoral degree at first; I had applied for the associated master programme in Digital Entertainment, which would have only lasted one year. Shortly after returning to university, I went to ask a question regarding placement opportunities to the project coordinator of the doctoral course in Bath, Sarah Parry. Soon I found myself being offered an interview to join the EngD programme and, as I am sure you can guess, I was accepted to move onto the course within a few weeks. Fantastic! I knew what I would be doing for the next four years.
Now might be a good time to ask an important question, namely...
What’s an EngD, Anyway?
This question (usually asked, “what is an EngD?”) is one I am asked essentially any time I describe my project, and it is a good one! EngDs (pronounced Enge-Dee, with ‘enge’ as in Engineering) are a doctoral qualification that are very similar to PhDs. The main difference is that the student works at a partner company to carry out their research. Students, or research engineers, retain their student status, though, and are technically not employees of the company. The different award is meant to reflect that, over the course of an EngD, research engineers acquire both academic and industrial experience.
The EngD programme at Bath is structured as a 1+3 year degree, made up of a 1-year taught component and a 3-year research project. It is run by the Centre for Digital Entertainment (CDE), an EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training based in Bath and Bournemouth. At Bath, the taught year is the same as the master programme in Digital Entertainment that I mentioned earlier, and so the change I made onto the EngD programme had no bearing on my academic studies for the year. What it meant, though, is that I now belonged to a cohort of students and was able to benefit from the doctoral aspects of the course. Through networking with my peers and students from other universities, I have come to realise how rich and broad the field is, and I am really excited to be a part of it.
During the taught component of the degree, the research engineer finds a company and project that they wish to continue as their research project. The 3-year research component is carried out at their placement company. My industrial partner is Designability, a Bath-based charity who develop assistive technologies for people with physical and cognitive disabilities. They are a multidisciplinary team of experts who aim to transform the lives of people with health problems and disabilities through the creation of life-changing enabling technologies. Their easy-to-use designs are developed by working directly with end-users, carers and health professionals to understand their needs, to find solutions and to test the tools in real life situations. I feel incredibly lucky to be working with the staff at Designability because of their friendly and passionate ethos.
Switching to the EngD programme has thus far been a fantastic experience. It might seem cliché, but the course and the programme ‘just feel right’, and I am very excited to start the next part of the journey in September.
Now that I have introduced myself and explained what an EngD is, we can get to the fun part: the research project. The aim of the research is to explore how augmented reality (AR) could be used to support those with cognitive difficulties with daily living tasks and activities. At first, we will specifically focus on those living with mild to moderate dementia. AR is an up-and-coming technology, but it is still maturing. Despite varied applications of AR, including entertainment and education, its potential as an assistive technology has not yet been explored fully. This exploration is what we aim to carry out with the research project. Furthermore, Designability have a long and strong research history in working with people with dementia and task sequencing (breaking down tasks into individual components), upon which this project will build.
The sorts of questions we will be asking include:
- How can AR technology be used in the support of daily living tasks and activities for those with mild to moderate dementia?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of AR in the support of those tasks?
- Which requirements need to be addressed for a system to be successful? and
- What design features could support the adoption of AR as an assistive technology for people living with dementia?
My supervisory team (see below for more information) and I have been meeting over the past few months to plan the project, and the project plan is really taking shape. As the project is finalised and during its development I will share our progress in this blog. There are lots of things that excite me about this project, and the scope to help make a difference to people's lives by using technology is what appeals to me the most. On top of that, the user-centred approach that Designability take with their products means that I will be working directly with individuals to develop a tool that can really support them in what they want to achieve.
What to Expect
Thank you so much for reading this introduction to my research project, which is set to start in September 2018. I am not yet sure how frequent these blog posts will be, but my feeling is that there will be quarterly updates on the research project, with shorter monthly posts highlighting fun or interesting aspects of the programme interspersing them. The tone I have chosen for this blog post is probably indicative of what will come, but the quarterly updates might take on a more formal voice.
I hope that this introduction to myself, the programme that I am studying, and the project that is being planned for the next three years will leave you wanting to return and read more. Please share with friends, family, colleagues, and anybody who you think would find this project interesting. Please feel free to get in touch if you have any questions. Also, go visit Designability's website to check out the great work that they do and to get an idea of the type of work the research project will follow.
Thank you for joining me on my EngD adventure. Until next time!
My research is funded by the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Digital Entertainment.
To help guide my project and support me in my research the following people make up my supervisory team.
Lead Supervisor: Dr Elies Dekoninck (Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Bath).
Academic Supervisors: Dr Simon Jones and Dr Christof Lutteroth (Department of Computer Science, University of Bath).
Industrial Supervisor: Prof Nigel Harris (Designability, Wolfson Centre, Royal United Hospital, Bath). https://designability.org.uk
I will also be working closely with Hazel Boyd from Designability.