The first time I met Dian Tjonrongoro he was jumping out of his socks with all the excitement of a schoolboy and understandably so.
Dian had just returned from Weta Workshop, the New Zealand special effects company responsible for creating the magic behind films such as the Lord of the Rings, Avatar and Blade Runner 2049. Interestingly he wasn’t there to talk about movies, special effects or their latest projects, he was there to talk education.
This time when I meet Dian I realise that his infectious enthusiasm for all that he does never wanes. Dian is a Professor with Southern Cross University’s School of Business and Tourism, but his real passion is technology. In 2018 he started the Digital Enterprise Lab, a multi-disciplinary facility designed to service the University’s numerous schools and, more broadly, the Gold Coast community. In effect the facility is two specialised labs – the Sensing Lab, where students collate data from a range of sensors for detailed analysis, which can then be used to better understand the world around us; and the Visualisation Lab, which allows students to immerse themselves in virtual and augmented reality.
“There’s so much potential here,” says Dian. “In the Sensing Lab we’re looking at all the small devices in our lives through the interconnectivity of things. Through these sensors we can measure the environment, people, animals – just interconnecting things to produce data we can understand. For instance: how does air temperature and humidity affect your stress levels? Even just how the amount of light can affect someone’s mood. If we can measure those elements we can find out what factors influences a person’s productivity and well-being. In some ways this may seem simplistic, but if we have lots of sensors we can begin to understand how interconnectivity works from the resulting data. This is how we develop AI. Machine learning is just being able to process data and understand how these various factors impact on us.”
The Visualisation Lab is all about understanding people’s preferences. Dian says it all comes down to how we present the information and the way people respond to it. “We’ve been working on a tourism project where we created a virtual tour of the Byron Bay Lighthouse. I’m really curious to see how people relate to, and connect with, the video and 3D content. Will that immersive experience change people’s perception about a place?”
As I start to ponder his question Dian is on a roll, launching into his next thought. “Where it gets really interesting is when you start using sensors and visualisation together. If we could for example, visualise the data for a physiotherapist who’s watching a video of how a patient is moving and how it affects their posture, what impact is that having on a particular muscle group and their overall well-being and long term health? Then if you start to include ultrasound and x-ray data what does that mean for the physio in the way they can draw an overall picture in analysing a patient’s health? For me it’s all about interconnectivity and because of that I think there will be a lot of synergies between these two labs.”
Dian is a big believer in multidisciplinary approaches, where students can engage in project-based work experience. “In a way it’s like low priority, but high burning. I want this to be a prototype project plan where people say: ‘I cannot do this within my own company, but if I go to the university I have access to multidisciplinary teams and the technology – can you do something for me along these lines?’
“We’re already looking at the implications for multiple stakeholders in compatible industries. In the health industry for example, it’s not just going to be the hospital or aged care. What about the allied health providers? What about private practices? How does the community’s health needs impact on the city infrastructure? Alignment of interest is what we need to focus on. If we’re not working with all of the relevant stakeholders then it becomes a siloed approach and that’s not ideal. We’re limiting ourselves to just one industry interest. It’s all about managing change, resources and services.”
A Magic Leap
Unity is the gaming platform the Visualisation Lab uses and this is where Dian’s trip to Weta comes in. Weta has been working closely with Magic Leap who have been using the Unity platform to push the boundaries of augmented reality by bringing extraordinary characters and imaginary worlds to life. After speaking to these digital wizards Dian is really excited about the possibilities for Gold Coast students. “They’re more than happy to work with our students. We’re looking at education partnerships with them, so there are many potential synergies between the ground-breaking work they’re doing, so by giving our students the opportunity to become a part of that they can apply that knowledge to their own projects.”
From Dian’s perspective for a project like the Digital Enterprise Lab to work successfully it has to be hosted by a university. “Not only because we don’t have a political agenda or a vested interest in making money from industry. We are the neutral ground where innovation can happen, we can’t be bought by just one interest. We are about extending knowledge for altruistic reasons, not for profit or gain.
“When you start to get into the area of what I call the complexity of managing intellectual property rights that’s where the trouble starts. Universities are not created for that purpose. Once you go down that path of bringing in IP lawyers and experts it can so easily kill off new projects, it’s a minefield.
“I’m very idealistic of course, but why would our university need to replicate a model that’s already in place with the Gold Coast Innovation Hub for instance? If we really are talking about research and teaching, can we afford to get into who owns the IP to a particular project? It becomes the overriding parameter and a conflict of interest. If we create something that we know can be commercialised and will make millions of dollars what happens when I start thinking about who owns the IP for that? If I then start choosing the students who are to be involved there will be others who miss out. That’s when we start to forget to respect the privileged position we hold as educators. Our goal is to help all of our students to get to the right level of understanding so that they can realise their potential. That is our role. We’re here to nurture ideas.”
This article was originally published on Study Gold Coast as The Digital Enterprise Lab.