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Playing it smart
An interview with Lizbeth Goodman, Director of SMARTlab
SMARTlab isn’t like any other organisation you can think of. It has been around, in various guises, for 15 years, based first at the Open University, then at the University of Surrey and then Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design before moving to its current home, the University of East London, two years ago.
The organisation’s full name – SMARTlab Digital Media Institute and Magic Gamelab – gives a hint of its unusual brief. SMARTlab’s logo, says Founder and Director Lizbeth Goodman, is a butterfly, and the choice of symbol represents the way SMARTlab works. The two wings of the butterfly represent two very different areas of activity. “One is an NGO-related charity wing, where we do a lot of our creative community outreach,” says Lizbeth. The other wing, she says, “is the creative industries wing, which is where the gaming technology, the magic multimedia technology and games centre are based.” Work in this wing is often funded by a business corporate social responsibility department or knowledge transfer programme.
The body of the butterfly, meanwhile, represents SMARTlab’s research work, which is carried out both by academic staff and a large pool of PhD students. These are generally people who bring a great deal of life experience to their research, often as teachers in schools and colleges, or as people who have run laboratories or businesses of their own.
SMARTlab teams are genuinely inter-disciplinary (Lizbeth herself has a PhD in feminist theatre), and initial, unstructured discussions between team members are jokingly referred to as “the choreography of creative chaos”. A project team might include architects, computer programmers, doctors and dancers – each approaching the problem from a different perspective, and each talking a slightly different language. The inter-disciplinary teams are usually led by the creative person, says Lizbeth, “because on the whole the artists are the ones who are less worried about saying the things that sound artsy or a little bit flaky or a little bit naïve, and those are the statements that lead to the creative work line. Often we will encourage people, at the beginning of a new project, to ask those questions that often don’t get said out loud.”
The basic ethos of SMARTlab is to choose projects on the basis of the social impact they could make, not on the basis of funding or pre-set guidelines or research objectives, says Lizbeth. “Nearly all our projects aim at what we call our universal design ethos, meaning we aim to create tools and methods and models that affect and reach, that are made with and developed with, disadvantaged or disempowered sectors of society.” These are people who are often ignored in other research programmes: they may have, for example, “quite extreme physical disability, where there is a very high intellect trapped in a body that won’t move.”
One such project, Inter-FACES, is refining eye-tracking technology from MyTobii to enable people with very little voluntary muscle movement to control a computer interface through the use of the eyes. The project has focused on developing the technology for one particular disabled user, James Brosnan, who can now use a computer keyboard to input text that is then converted to speech. The SMARTlab team has added what it calls “human connected predictive text” to the MyTobii technology: James will start a sentence on the keyboard, and Lizbeth will type in words and punctuation to complete the sentence. James can indicate with his eyes which of Lizbeth’s predictions is accurate.
The team also found a way of creating “a deeper emotional register” for James. A monotone computerised voice can’t convey emotions such as anger, happiness, calmness or frustration, so the team mapped different emotions onto musical motifs that would show how James was feeling. Similar motifis were created, Peter and the Wolf style, for people close to James, so that James’s brother knows, when he hears a particular sequence of notes, that James is calling him.
Most organisations would be cautious about spending time on a technology that, initially at least, could only be used by one person: the payback doesn’t justify the investment. But Lizbeth takes the long view. MyTobii donated its eye-tracking system for free, and SMARTlab tested the system and worked out how it could be refined and improved. Eventually, the system could be used by a much bigger group of disabled people.
One of Lizbeth’s favourite projects is SafetyNET, which uses new technologies to help stop violence against women and children. Operating in America, Africa and Europe, SafetyNET provides women and children with online information about domestic violence. In secure, moderated chat rooms, participants communicate with domestic violence specialists, lawyers and mentors. SafetyNET also gives women the opportunity to develop computer skills and to start online businesses: “So much of it has to remain under the radar; we can only ever show the tip of the iceberg of that project. It’s really about empowering communities of women to take control and protect themselves and each other.”
Another favourite is TRUST, a game invented for children with severe physical disabilities. TRUST uses a ‘haptic’ chair (the word refers to the sense of touch), known as the ActiveChair, which has a number of switches and sensors that enable the child sitting in it to play a story-telling game. On a screen in front of them is a virtual world that the child can manipulate by controlling the switches through hand, foot or leg movements. Children unable to move their limbs can operate the system using voice or even breath. It’s possible to network the ActiveChair so that the child can play with children in other countries.
“TRUST started off as a game for a specific hospital installation, and it’s become a research thread,” says Lizbeth. “It involves so many people in different parts of the world, and the output has been so very different, from very simple illustration games to high level technology games, but the aim is always the same: to help kids calm down, connect with themselves, connect with each other and heal while playing a game. The other aim of the TRUST project is to help the sick child or child with a disability be empowered in the centre of a circle and not be the outcast on the edge of the circle.”
That’s a neat summary of what SMARTLab is all about: bringing the disempowered and disenfranchised to the centre of the circle, away from the edge. By bringing together talented people from different backgrounds and professions, SMARTLab creates something new and unique – demonstrating that a combination of imagination and cutting-edge technology really can make a transformative difference to the lives of people at the edge of the circle.