Research that Matters Transcript: Episode 7, Creative problem solving

Doctor using virtual reality | Research that Matters | Ep 7 | Torrens University | Large

In this episode of Research that Matters, you’ll meet researchers who have embraced inventiveness in their research practice to shake up the normal way of thinking. Find out how creativity and innovation co-exist in their research and how they use gaming, AI and design thinking to tackle some big challenges.

Research that Matters Transcript: Episode 7, Creative problem solving

When past generations talk about how different the world looked ‘in their time,’ it’s hard to imagine what life was like for them. In this episode of Research that Matters, you’ll meet researchers who have embraced inventiveness in their research practice to shake up the normal way of thinking. Find out how creativity and innovation co-exist in their research and how they use gaming, AI and design thinking to tackle some big challenges. 

Host:Clement Paligaru (in bold)
Professor Scott Thompson-Whiteside (STW)
Aslihan Tece Bayrak (ATB)
Fawad Zaidi (FZ)

Full Transcript

In 1957, researcher, Arthur Farnworth, and his colleagues developed a process called SiroSet.  This was a major discovery that influenced fashion innovations and ushered in an era of permanently pleated skirts.  Today's researchers are set to take the fashion industry towards a future that's both green and high tech.  Think biodegradable glitter and fabrics made from seaweed or VR changing rooms and temperature changing fabrics. 

Picture a world without research. 

It would be a world without the race cam making it impossible of viewers to watch sporting events from the drivers’ or players’ perspective.  A world where we would never have developed permaculture and missed out on sustainable and regenerative solutions to agricultural systems.  And a world where we'd never know that guided play has academic benefits for preschool children. 

Research is how we create new knowledge.

STW:  Research matters because we are advancing knowledge.  Not only that we are teaching to a new generation of students, but we're advancing knowledge that hopefully has an impact to the wider society at large.  Research often starts with a question and a curiosity about a topic, so it's really diving deep into that research question and trying to understand if there is a clear answer on the other side.  And often there isn't a clear answer, but you are through the process contributing to new knowledge and advancing knowledge in a meaningful way that hopefully is relevant to other researchers as well.

Research helps us collectively grow.

ATB:  I don't think we could as a society progress if there wasn't any research.  Research plays an important role in the creation of progress for society, in the betterment of society.  What's the use of the question, if we're not going to try answering it, right, and research is necessary for that, necessary for answering questions.

Research enables us to do better and be better.

FZ:  If we do not think more about different aspects of things which are not visible, but they are there, we will never progress the science, the technology, nothing goes further.  As a human being, we have this strength of critical thinking, and we need to use that at the maximum and that can only come through the research.  If you do not investigate thoroughly, if you do not see the outcome of your ideas, you would never be able to understand that how you can make a change in somebody's life, in a positive way.

This is Research that Matters.  I'm Clement Paligaru.  This series explores the work of researchers from Torrens University Australia.  We’ll take you behind the curtain to hear what drives their passion and the impact their work, has on all of us.  In this episode, we explore how research can benefit from creativity and creative thinking.

STW:  I've had an unusual, I think, academic career path in that I've been heavily involved in leadership roles from an early stage of my career.  So I was Vice President of a university in Asia before I even had a PhD.  

Hello, my name is Scott Thompson-Whiteside.  I'm the Executive Dean of the Design and Creative Technology vertical within Torrens University and also Dean of the Media Design School in New Zealand. 

My research interests really started along the journey with my teaching interests, which was in the field of design management.  And I was interested in, I suppose, the education of design students and their understanding of where design fits within the whole sort of business and innovation ecosystem.  We’re often very good at training designers on how to design, but not the broader context of how to manage that design process or where design fits in a business context.

My research is really looking at the different approaches in which design thinking is taught across design schools and management schools.  It's really investigating the efficacy of design thinking.  Often design thinking is about seeking the problem in the first place and trying to understand the problem in the first place.  Very often in design practise, a client would approach a design consultancy with a view that they have to solve a particular problem or come up with a new product or come up with a new campaign because their products are not selling.  And often a designer will say, well, is that really the problem that you're trying to solve here?  So they do tend to think beyond the boundaries of the initial problem that's presented and reframe the problem in a slightly different way.  So the problem may have presented as A, but in fact, the problem at the heart of the issue is B.  The essence of design is empathy, is trying to think about who they're designing for and the end users of those design solutions.  And those traits of dealing with ambiguity and complexity and having empathy are really at the heart of what design thinking is.

While design can bring us beautiful products and eye-catching interfaces there’s more to it than purely aesthetics design can also play an important role in the innovation agenda.

STW:  If we take interior design, for example, there may be a large sustainability or energy efficiency savings behind the design and there's a lot of research in architecture and interior design, which looks at sustainable practises, the materials they're using the airflow of work environments.  So good design generally is improving society as a whole.  If you think about the design of hospitals or the design of palliative care facilities, there is a great need of sensitivity required.  There's a great need to understand the patients’ perspective as well as the doctors, the nurses, the cleaners, everybody who works in a hospital or palliative care environment, and a good set of designed products or interior spaces would try to accommodate those things. 

So it goes back to that kind of empathetic viewpoint again, but seeing it from a 360 degree perspective.  I've run many classes where we've had design students alongside sociologists and psychologists and engineers in interdisciplinary teams, working alongside industry clients to solve a problem, or to think about a problem which is emerging and how the organisation might solve that problem going forward.

So sometimes they can be quite conceptual projects, an organisation like Coles or Woolworths might be saying to students:  So tell me what the supermarket experience is in the future.  Where is it heading?  Rather than the current two dimensional online ordering process through supermarkets, which is sufficient and good in many ways, but would some prefer a virtual reality experience of walking through a supermarket and picking products into a virtual basket? Possibly.  But it's important for companies like Coles and Woolworths to actually explore those scenarios because in 20 years’ time, that might be the expectation of customers.

Traditionally research has focused on industries that fall outside of the creative realm.  However, we’re now seeing a shift towards creative problem solving, despite some tensions between research and creative practise.

STW:  I think research in creative practise and design is really maturing now to a point where it can contribute much more than some of the more traditional research disciplines.  The research fields are dominated largely by the sciences and the medical and health professions and engineering professions.  Where creative practise is really moving ahead is where the research output is not a journal article, but is actually a creative output.  The universities recognise non-traditional research outputs, but they are still very much a minority.  If you look at the last Excellence in Research Australia, which is an assessment of all Australian universities and their research outputs, over a three or four year period, the last one was done in 2018, there was something like 500,000 research outputs, but only 2% were creative outputs.  And the majority of those were actually creative writing.  Now there's lots of contention around non-traditional research outputs, because the research has to ultimately be founded upon a research question.

Ideally it has to be peer reviewed of some form, it has to be externally verified, but it's a contentious area and quite a complex area because just because you produce a new teapot, for example, doesn't necessarily mean that teapot is contributing to new knowledge.  If you can demonstrate that it's contributed to a new manufacturing process to make that teapot, then yes, you can demonstrate its contribution to new knowledge.  Design is a very fuzzy kind of field.  It's not a precise field.  And this is where there are tensions between research and creative practise because research often is about the systematic nature of solving a research problem in the sciences that might involve a hypothesis and a series of experiments to achieve a particular answer.  Design is very much a non-precise, non-scientific kind of approach to solving problems and that is both good and bad.  It’s good in the sense that it does generate surprises and it does generate creative solutions, but it's also difficult for design to really demonstrate its value to problems and to businesses in general.  I mean the vast majority of businesses around the world still do not use design effectively.

And when it comes to effectiveness, what matters on the research scoreboard is seeing real impact.

STW:  There is an awful lot of research which really is left on the shelf.  And I think working with corporations, working with governments often keeps you grounded and really makes you think about how relevant and how significant your research is.  And I think this debate is going on right now because the Australian government are particularly keen to see more research in universities move along the commercialisation process and actually produce some kind of meaningful, significant outcomes. 

I think research has so many traditions and so many norms, as a young university, we have the opportunity to reframe that slightly.  And many of the design staff at Torrens are not research active in the sense that they've not had that PhD training, but are very good practitioners.  How could their practise be reframed in a robust way, which meets the definition of research, but actually produces outcomes which are meaningful and which do have an impact on society or an organisation.  So I think we do have an opportunity to lead staff, to think more carefully about the outcome of their research, whether that's a physical artefact or a new device or a new interface, or a new game.

And Professor Thompson-Whiteside is in fact, leading a team that is exploring the possibilities of gaming.  So how can games influence new research directions?

ATB:  With games research, you can create, simulate similar problems that you're facing in the real world within a game environment.  And secondly, I also say that games are going to save the world and the reason why I think so is because the skillset games bring together, offer versatility, adaptation, resilience, perseverance, and I think those are core skills that we need in order to change the course of the situation today.

Hi, I am Aslihan Tece Barak, mostly known as Tece, and I am working as a senior lecturer at the Games Department of Media Design School in Auckland.  I've been in New Zealand for 10 years and originally from Turkey. 

Well, I must say that I live on a boat.  Therefore, the sound may have some residues of like outside world.  

Game development is a cauldron of science.  It puts so many things together and it's only limited with your imagination.  It's that multidisciplinary area in which you make something happen and it sparks additional things that's connected to it.  It's like making one pixel move on the screen may seem very little, but it's about the potential with which people can do further.

Tece’s journey into games research could be described as somewhat foretold.

ATB:  There's a saying in Turkey, when a child is born, when they cut the cord, they ask the family what to do with the cord and the family generally buries the cord somewhere.  And my dad makes fun of me saying that he buried my cord by the wall of a school.  And here's why I'm telling this mainly - that curiosity, I think is why I started reading early.  That curiosity is why I try out a lot of different things.  That curiosity is I watch the life outside to deduce, to pick clues maybe.  And I think the same thing is valid with the idea of looking at the intersection between technology and human condition.  

And technology is something that has been, for a while, central to our life and how we interact with it, I think is defining for how our society is going to evolve in the coming years, decades.

A fondness for technology and games goes back to Tece's childhood in Turkey.  Much like the children she grew up with, she was introduced to games via Tetris.  After a stint in the defence industry and realising that she didn't want to apply games to military areas, Tece's current research looks at creating effective games-based exercise for people with chronic diseases.

ATB:  My current PhD research is looking at how we can define games as systems of rehabilitation and how can we come up with a design strategy?  And I'm mainly looking at Parkinson's disease for now because we have to start from somewhere and we can't really tackle all of them at one go.  I also see the current project as a tool that would transform caregiving or rehabilitation in a way.  I am no means the first person who suggested this, but what's different in what I'm suggesting is particularly using the game environment to enclose not only aerobic exercise, because aerobic exercise has been proven to have positive contributions to the rehabilitation of Parkinson's disease, but also include some cognitive exercises that would help alleviating some of the symptoms that people with Parkinson's disease face as the disease progresses. 

And if I'm to paint a picture, imagine that you have just landed on a new planet.  And I would like to imagine everyone somewhat enjoys Star Trek, right?  Imagine that you are travelling and reaching to the frontier, and you're trying to find a new kind of space or interact with new species.  As you landed on this planet, you have to roam around on the planet in your Rover in order to find new species and catalogue them.  So you are on this planet in this Rover and the player is wearing a virtual reality headset.  In order for the Rover to move around, it needs energy and for you to create energy, you need to pedal.  So the idea here is making people pedal a stationary exercise bike, and through that pedalling to simulate creation of some energy, meanwhile, their heart rate rises.  Therefore, it's essentially an aerobic exercise, which is based on solid research performed by some exercise science specialist.

Research says that adherence is a huge problem in exercise rehabilitation. When people believe that exercise rehabilitation helps them to get better, yes, they do participate, but there still is some adherence issues mainly regarding motivation. And let's face it, it's not easy to deal with a disease day to day, which also changes.  So imagine that every single day you feel slightly different, a little bit better, a little bit worse, but it still doesn't change the fact that you have to go to that same exercise activity at least two days a week.  And it's the same repetition, which sounds boring, doesn't it?  Merging games and exercise rehabilitation is finding a way to remove that boredom and offer an additional layer of motivation.  And on top of that, and this is my main hypothesis suggesting that perhaps the game elements that we provide can offer some cognitive exercises as well, so it's just upping the benefits in a way.

At the heart of this research, you'll find compassionate design.  In addition, close collaboration with patients and practitioners is vital to its success.

ATB:  This study has connections to, not only patients, but also practitioners.  My early conversations started with people from Parkinson's Organisation, New Zealand, and I had lots of meetings with occupational therapists who would run boxing sessions, exercise sessions with people with Parkinson's across Auckland in New Zealand.  The second part of that was me connecting with the exercise science lab in Auckland as well.  That also broached the second perspective about how exercise is perceived within the rehabilitation space and what we can do really in that area.  

With a disease like Parkinson's disease, in which the prognosis takes a very different shape across the board, it's actually very hard to come up with a solid strategy, that would a hundred percent work for everyone.  So one thing that was strongly advised to me while we were applying for the ethics application, was to ensure that we limit our target demographic, especially for the user studies, to a small enough group who would ensure their safety and security.  And that also is why we have also chosen a stationary exercise bike.  The procedure that I have is an iterative design process, which involves evolving the product through a lot of play testing.  

With anything, how people perceive it is one of the most important things.  I think we all know it from the placebo effect very well already, right?  So unless people think that something has potential to work, it just is never going to work.  Really.  So part of this process is really understanding people's perception, how we can create something that would be perceived as useful for them as well.  The current user study, I have includes, on par healthy elders group and people with Parkinson’s disease because I'm also curious to see how it stands for people who don't have any chronic diseases, because when it comes to an aerobic exercise, its benefits are not even debatable. So it's like by default, good for us, anyway.  

People with chronic diseases may have some restrictions in their abilities to move, to perform, to respond.  And in the example of Parkinson's disease, since it's a neurodegenerative disease, it may create some issues around motor skills, fine motor skills, some tremors, some shaking, some issues about timely response inhibition, like freezing.  And the whole idea here is somewhat thinking that the game is aware of this and it's going to respond accordingly.  I call this compassionate game design.  So the game knows what to do because it is compassionate.  And that's the whole idea.

This idea of compassionate game design also breaks down barriers and makes therapy accessible.  It's a reality that's been percolating in Tece's mind in the context of her own body ageing.

ATB:  If you think about just the people in our family, just one family.  Imagine that a family of five with grandparents and how often they would need to visit a doctor, and if they had a condition that would require rehabilitation, how often they would need to go there.  I think that immediately starts painting a picture in which the scale grows incredibly from that one household to a little town, to a city, to a country.  So the numbers are incredible.  And then you think about distances, for example, for someone living in one of the rural areas of New Zealand, in order for them to receive a rehabilitation from a rehabilitation centre, in Auckland, they would need to travel several hours perhaps.  The idea here is we only have so many practitioners who can look after the people in need, but we have a lot of people.  Clearly, we can't replicate the people who are going to provide the service.  So what can we do?  And I think this is what sits in the heart of the digital transformation throughout digital health.  When I get old, I want to spend all my time anchored by an island on my boat, in a warm climate, but what would happen if I needed rehabilitation continuously and consistently, will I be able to live on a boat?  What if there was a solution that would bring the exercise rehabilitation to me, to my boat, wherever I am around the world?

It's very likely that games are going to be at the forefront of solving our problems around healthy ageing and transforming our healthcare systems, while Tece’s research scans the here and now, it's looking directly into the future.

ATB:  The way that I look at it within the context of my research is mainly looking at the future rather than today.  I know it sounds silly when I say that, obviously I'm not neglecting the current population who still is in need of solutions for those issues.  But the people who are around the age of 50 right now, they have a higher rate of utility.  So their technology acceptance is higher.  So if we repeat the conversation around technology acceptance for people who are around their 80s today, it's going to be very different in 10 years’ time.  The people who are playing World of Warcraft today, many of them, let's assume have been playing since the first day.  And if you assume that they were age of 18 then, now they're like around age of, let's say 35.  So within 20 years, they're going to be in the bracket for elders, so the capabilities of our elders are changing.

It's true that with each generation we've become more technologically savvy, but the power of gameplay programming lies in creativity.  Tece sees it as a form of art.

ATB:  We do have the saying in the department game programming is creative and game art is technical and I think this goes back to creativity is not about just art.  So with gameplay programming, what a programmer essentially creating is perhaps a behaviour and movement, a depiction, and it completely differs, which I think kind of resembles the idea of art, doesn't it?  You may be using the same chisel.  You may be using the same palette.  You may be using the same colours.  You may be applying the same technique, but the result is different.

But games are just one form of creative technology that can open up all sorts of new and exciting possibilities in healthcare.  In the not-too-distant future, your doctor could be treating you with virtual reality.

FZ:  When the virtual reality came in, it was a big leap in the technology and that's where I wanted to know how good that can be beyond entertainment, because I always wanted to see if technology could be good and give a good impact to the society.  So this is where my research came in and I started thinking about how it can be impactful and useful for people in society.  Then I realised, okay, if it's helping some kind of dizziness for people who are regular users of virtual reality, what if I can use the same technology in health sciences and see that if this can be really useful for people in health sciences.   

Hello, this is Fawad Zaidi, and I am a senior learning facilitator at Torrens University. 

This is where I was more interested to know about how I can find the way to design something in virtual reality, to connect it to people who are having this sort of dizziness and from there, how it can be helpful in the long run.

The dizziness that Fawad is talking about is called PPPD.

FZ: So it's PPPD and it's a kind of dizziness which stands for persistent postural perceptual dizziness.  It's basically a kind of a dizziness that is non-spinning vertigo.  Very much close to if you have a kind of a disbalance in your inner ear, you feel kind of a swaying and unsteadiness and a dizziness.  So this happens if you are standing or you're sitting, or you are around a complex environment, or you are certainly focusing on something.

Researchers have already worked really hard to reduce the symptom of dizziness when you actually use the virtual reality headsets.  And that can only be possible if you follow certain design principles.  You can always control the kind of sickness that people might have.  For example, frame rates, the visual environment, a feeling of being fixed on the ground, having a feeling that they have a headset on them.

They're not actually in the open environment and asking people, what is the level of severity they usually have, even if they do not have any symptoms.  So there has been studies on cyber sickness and how to reduce these kind of symptoms.  We have seen through the research and PPPD that these people are scared of going out.  They are scared of falling down or feeling dizzy in the streets or in the crowd.  We have three different therapies, which are quite common in this sort of dizziness.  One is with the medication, one is with cognitive behavioural therapy, and one is the vestibular therapy.

Fawad’s research project looks at helping people who are suffering through this kind of debilitating dizziness through VR and vestibular therapies.  His focus is on co-design.

FZ:  In the vestibular therapies, they can use the VR scenes with the visual cues from a very simple environment to a more complex environment.  The good thing about virtual reality is that you can control the complexity of the environment.  Let's say if we’re in a complex environment, they can go slowly into the complex environment.  Why?  Because we can actually customise the environments and in this way, they can slowly absorb the environment.  If they feel like it’s too much for them, we can even stop and say, okay, this is the level of complexity they can go for.  So with their regular training, with the habituation, knowing how far they can go and how they can improve on their dizziness symptoms, we can make it conducive for people.  And this is where my research has taken a very good and a very big leap. 

It has never been clearly stated how do you start building up the scenes. What were the ways they communicated with an expert and what they have done in the ways they designed the strategy is to build up a final virtuality environment.  So my interest is to involve the users also in the design strategy to take their feedback.  So based on that, they would feel like they were a part of this and they can see that, okay, this is what I always wanted to have.  This is what I wanted to use.  And this is how I can use a certain environment to help me understand that, what I couldn't understand in the real world,  I can understand that in the virtual reality, and this gives them a good confidence.

So if we’re strapped to one of these VR headsets, the big question is what are you going to see?  What are we going to experience?  Okay, let’s enter that zone.

FZ:  Just imagine that I asked you to wear a virtual reality goggle and in the scene you have an empty room, just an empty room.  And before that you show the person on the monitor, this is what you're going to see on the virtual reality goggles.  I do not want the users to get a big surprise when they have the goggles on.  So then I would just want you to see where exactly you feel your comfort and at what point you feel dizziness.  Another room, we have a similar size, perhaps a similar colour of walls, but I'll put some objects in it and ask you, okay, how do you feel about it?  And as I just mentioned earlier, a person can control that.  Yes, we can and we are working on it as well, that way we can introduce smart bots, like chatbots asking you, how do you feel about it?  And you said, yeah, it's good.  I can actually enjoy the environment of the room.  Then I say, okay, very good.  Let's enter to the third room.  You're just going straight in from one room to another. 

The third room, has a little bit more of a complex texture on the walls.  Maybe a little bit of movement in certain objects.  So this is how we can increase the complexity.  And at some point, the patient can say okay, that's too much.  Now I feel slightly a bit dizzy or I'm feeling that I might get dizzy.  So then we can stop the training.  And then we can note down where exactly the person felt it.  And at least from there, we know that this is the point at which the severity of complexity of environment can trigger the dizziness.  So this can help a person to understand where they stand and from where they need to improve.

This baseline is not the same as conventional therapy, which often puts everyone in the same bucket.  Instead, VR enables personalisation.

FZ:  Either it could be for the visual cues, or it could be colours, or it could be a confidence of going through the environment from indoor to outdoors.  So this baseline will give us different baselines for different patients.  We just can't make it standard for one person.  The advantage of virtual reality, as compared to the conventional ones, if you go to a conventional room, they have a standard set of things for their training.  Whether you like it, you don't like it, or maybe this is something that you believe can improve or not.  They have it, and it's an expensive thing.   With virtual reality we have so much flexibility and we have this control on changing the scenes and the environment that suits a particular patient.  It's comparatively easier because you don't have to change something physically.  You just have to program it out and understand what is useful for a certain patient.

And the certain patient can feel that, yeah, this is what I love to use even at home.  This is where virtual reality has the advantage on other conventional therapies.  And that's where I got my interest in research in this area.  For example, if you cannot do something that you used to do before, let's say if an 80-year-old can't do, they can just wear the goggles and we can always design something really simple for them to interact with.  And it will give them a kind of an engagement because that's the beauty of virtual reality, you make things possible for them by bringing them into a 3D environment and that's what you can do for people of all ages. Just tell them is doable and give them a thing that they want and they will always accept that

Without co-design Fawad says there'll always be a gap in development.

FZ:  Because this kind of an approach is in its early stages, so for me, it's important at this point is to develop different strategies.  That becomes a kind of a norm for practise, for people in health sciences, and in technology to sit together and come up with a virtual environment.  But the most important part in my research is to define those design strategies.  So I really want to have that design strategy to be improved.  That a person who is in virtual reality, they should understand maximum from their capability, what PPPD is.  And the PPPD experts should understand from their capability, what virtual reality is, and then sit together and design it. 

So based on that, we want PPPD patients, when they use it for their regular training that can improve their symptoms - in health science terms, improving symptoms mean alleviating the severity and whatever was the trigger can be either eliminated or reduced. 

My research is basically to get more work done on the design strategies to make sure that no stone is left unturned.  And after that, to bring the patients in and to go through the experiments under the supervision of the experts.

In the next episode of Research that Matters:

Dr Zelinna Pablo: So apart from minimising risks, the supply chain actually saved a lot of time.  They saved a lot of money, and I think it's important to share findings like this because there's still a common mindset that you often have to choose between savings and safety.

Research that Matters was produced by Written & Recorded.  This is a Torrens University Australia podcast, and I'm Clement Paligaru.  To hear more search for Research that Matters on the Torrens University website, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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