This month, the University of Canterbury (UC)’s HIT Lab NZ is celebrating two decades at the forefront of human interface technology research.
Twenty years on, as a place of discovery and innovation, UC’s HIT Lab NZ is going from strength to strength using VR, AR and applied immersive game design to achieve real-world solutions and have a positive impact on industry advancement on New Zealand.
Since its establishment, HIT Lab NZ has grown into a multidisciplinary centre with a strong track record of excellence in using advanced technologies to solve real-world problems.
The original HIT Lab was founded in 1989 at Seattle’s University of Washington (UW) by Professor Tom Furness, a pioneer in virtual reality (VR) technology. Under his leadership, HIT Lab US quickly developed into a highly successful incubator of advanced technological invention and associated entrepreneurship. When a sister-city delegation from Ōtautahi Christchurch travelled to Seattle in 2000, the itinerary included a visit to HIT Lab US. The delegates returned home impressed with what they’d seen, and with a realisation that a similar centre in Christchurch could be a powerful recipe for applied technology innovation and economic growth.
From there, plans for a joint venture – between UC, UW and the Canterbury Development Corporation – fast gained momentum. The deal that launched the venture was formalized in April 2002.
HIT Lab NZ’s first director, Dr Mark Billinghurst, came to the role with impressive credentials. The Eastman Kodak Fellow and graduate of the University of Washington and HIT Lab US was pivotal in leading the venture, raising research funding and connecting student projects with industry. The start-up was also guided and supported by Professor Furness (who remains involved today as HIT Lab’s international director). Within 10 years, HIT Lab NZ was a world recognised leader in advanced human interface research and technology.
Current HIT Lab NZ Director, Professor Rob Lindeman, echoes this saying the centre has long had a reputation as one of the top facilities in the world for VR and augmented reality (AR). With the support of funding from the Tertiary Education Commission NZ, applied immersive gaming has grown to become another significant area of specialist research expertise for the lab.
Since it began, HIT Lab NZ has been heavily involved in supporting postgraduate research, with more than 100 PhD and Masters’ degrees awarded. Every year, the team produces an average of 60 research articles, posters, podcasts and other research outputs. Over the past decade alone, the lab has attracted NZ$14 million in research funding.
“Twenty years in and HIT Lab NZ’s future is looking great,” says Professor Lindeman. “We have all the space we need [the top floor of UC’s John Britten Building], state of the art equipment and a strong academic and professional team – we’re in excellent shape.”
To mark the 20-year milestone, a free online alumni event is being held on Friday, 13 May that will include a panel discussion with Q&A from Professor Furness, Professor Billinghurst and Professor Lindeman, along with a tour of the lab and tech demonstrations. Those interested in attending, particularly HIT Lab NZ alumni, are encouraged to register online.
The recent Beijing Olympics and Paralympics provide a powerful example of how technologies coming from this lab are being applied in practice. New Zealand Winter Olympic and Paralympic athletes used VR tools created by Professor Stephan Lukosch and the HIT Lab NZ team to hone their skills and prepare for challenges they would face in competition at Beijing 2022. Given the restrictions on travel, these VR tools delivered a real competitive advantage. Feedback from the high-performance athletes who used them was absolutely glowing.
In the field of education, Associate Professor Heide Lukosch is leading the lab’s research on applied immersive gaming and VR to create non-traditional teaching and learning tools, for example to better support children with ADHD diagnoses. As well, she is working with UC volcanologist Professor Ben Kennedy on groundbreaking VR volcano preparedness tools.
Another member of the HIT Lab team, Professor Andy Phelps, is leading UC’s exciting Digital Screen Campus initiative to prepare students for careers in the digital screen industry, including in film and gaming, as well as to provide commercial and research opportunities.
Those wishing to support future HIT Lab NZ students can follow this link to make a donation.