I participated in Not-Equal Summer School, a virtual summer school about social justice and digital economy. The summer school ran from the 7th of June to the 11th of June. It was designed to equip participants with tools to understand and support social justice in this digital economy. Participants were grouped into teams according to their research or career interests (i.e. urban environment, health & care, eco workers & labour, public services, and education & technology), to explore existing and emerging technologies and examine how power and social justice evolve with these technologies.
The first day was simply an introduction with a talk about the evolution of social justice in digital economies and machine learning. The key speakers presented some major topics about the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems for social justice such as the relational structure of AI, the AI modelling pipeline, and the influence of AI and Big Data on human rights. A common issue among the talks was around machine learning model predictions’ interpretability, reliability and bias, and the complexity of the data used to train the models as data are usually collected at different stages in the pipeline.
The second day consisted of workshops that explored the use of gestures to express the consequences of power and social injustice in our work places, research and lives. Later, the identified gestures were used to propose designs of new utopian technologies. My team proposed a recruitment technology that considers hope, transparency and fairness as candidates usually face racial, gender and age bias and discrimination. Our gesture was ‘finger crossed’, which signified our hope for a recruitment technology that will be fair and transparent in its recruitment process. The day ended with an interesting webinar about human and collaborative work-practices of data science to improve social justice in AI.
Digital commons was the topic of Day 3. Commoning is the collective and collaborative governance of material resources and shared knowledge. During the day, we were required to define a common in our areas of interest. My team examined commoning of hygiene and health at the community level. We identified key actors in this space as health care professionals, sanitation workers, and residents. We identified key barriers in the implementation of such a common such as the impact of different jobs and responsibilities, different working schedules, and partnerships with external stakeholders e.g. the city council or NHS. We concluded the workshops by presenting ways of ensuring the success of our proposed digital commons, such as, creating rules and procedures to guide the behaviours of the actors, and emphasised that the rules need to be collectively developed. The day ended with a webinar about making data work for social justice.
The themes of the fourth day were systems change & power dynamics, and working culture. We explored the challenges and opportunities in working cultures and power dynamics to support social justice. Key challenges identified were working with senior stakeholders, managing external partners, limited funds and budget, project deadlines, and resource availability. Later, we discussed methods of improving working cultures and power dynamics such as bringing stakeholders together, confidence to speak up, adopt perspectives that do not necessarily come in research, creating allies, and rapid prototyping. We also proposed that institutions introduce power dynamics and working cultures training courses. The day ended with a webinar about using imagination and storytelling for social transformations and social movements. The speakers emphasised the importance of visualising the kind of futures we want or imagine.
The summer school finished with two intensive workshops about ‘design fiction’. That is, research and prototyping design fiction methods for the digital world to envision socially just futures. My team focused on a design fiction for the community, where members of the community could have equal opportunities to care, knowledge, and support with the use of community cobots. The cobots will act upon encrypted information with no personal data, to assist members of the community. We imagined such a cobot will not have access to any personal or individual information, and all members will have equal rights and responses from the cobot. These utopian brainstorming and imagination workshops were a great way to close the summer school. During the last hours of the day, we shared our thoughts about the summer school and each participant was asked to summarise their experience with three words. My words were ‘collaboration’, ‘fairness’ and ‘power’.
It is important to mention that we used Miro throughout the summer school. Miro is a whiteboard and visual collaborative online platform for remote team collaboration. It was my first encounter with the platform but familiarising myself with it was not difficult.
Over three days from 12th-14th July 2021, I attended and participated in the Safe and Trusted Artificial Intelligence (STAI) summer school, hosted by Imperial College and Kings College London. Tutorials were given by leading academics, experts from British Telecom (BT) presented a session on industry applications, and I along with several other PhD students took part in a workshop speculating on AI interventions within the healthcare setting, presenting our work back to the wider group. In the following, I’ll summarise key contributors’ thoughts on what is meant by ‘safe and trusted’ in the context of AI and I’ll outline the themes and applications covered during the school I found to be most relevant to my own work. Two salient lessons for me expanded on contemporary efforts to reconcile accuracy with interpretability in models driving AI systems, and on efforts to systematically gauge human-human/human-machine alignment of values and norms, increasingly seen as critical to societal acceptance or rejection of autonomous systems.
When I read or hear the term ‘Artificial Intelligence’, even in the context of my peers’ research into present-day and familiar technologies such as collaborative robots or conversational agents, despite tangible examples in front of me I still seem to envision a future that leans toward science fiction. AI has always seemed to me to be intrinsically connected to simplistic, polarised visions of utopia or dystopia in which unity with some omnipotent, omniscient technology ultimately liberates or enslaves us. So, when it comes to considering STAI, I perhaps unsurprisingly default to ethical, moral, and philosophical standpoints of what a desirable future might look like. I obsess over a speculative AI’s apparent virtues and vices rather than considering the practical realities of how such futures are currently being realised and what my involvement in the process might mean for both me and the developing AI in question.
STAI began by addressing these big picture speculations as we considered the first theme – ethics of AI. According to AI professor Michael Rovatsos, ethical AI addresses the ‘public debate, impact, and human and social factors’ of technological developments, and the underlying values driving or maintaining interaction’ (2021). In a broad sense there was certainly agreement that ethical AI can and should be thought of as the management of a technology’s impact on contentious issues such as ‘…unemployment, inequality, (a sense of) humanity, racism, security, ‘evil genies’ (unintended consequences), ‘singularity’, ‘robot rights’ and so on (Rovatos, 2021). An early challenge however was to consider ethics as itself an issue to be solved; a matter of finding agreement on processes and definitions as much as specific outcomes and grand narrative. In short, it felt like we were being challenged to consider ethical AI as simply…doing AI ethically! Think ‘ethics by design’, or perhaps in lay terms, pursuing a ‘means justified end’.
To illustrate this, if my guiding principles when creating an AI technology are present in the process as much as the end product, when I think of ‘safe’ AI; I might consider the extent to which my system gives ‘…assurance about its behavioural correctness’; and when I think of ‘trusted’ AI; I might consider the extent of human confidence in my system and its decision making’ (Luck, M. 2021). A distinction between means and end – or between process and goal – appeared subtle but important in these definitions: While ‘assurance’ or ‘confidence’ appear as end goals synonymous with safety and trustworthiness, they are intrinsically linked to processes of accuracy (behavioural correctness) and explicability (of its system and decision-making rationale).
In her tutorial linking explainability to trustworthiness, Dr Oana Cocarascu, lecturer in AI at King’s College London, gives an example of the inclination to exaggerate the trustworthiness in some types of data-driven modelling that ‘…while mathematically correct, are not human readable’ (Cocarascu, O). Morocho-Cayamcela et al. (2019) demonstrate this difficulty in reconciling accuracy with interpretability within the very processes critical to AI, creating a trade-off between fully attaining the two end goals in practice (Figure 1).
My first lesson for ‘doing AI ethically’ is therefore the imperative to demonstrate accuracy and explainability in tandem and without compromise to either. However, it doesn’t follow that this alone will ensure safe and trusted outcomes. A perfectly accurate and interpretable system may lead to confidence in mechanism, but what about confidence in an AI’s apparent agency?
In her tutorial ‘AI, norms and institutions’, Dr Nardine Osman talked about the ‘how’ of achieving STAI by means of harnessing values themselves. She convincingly demonstrated several approaches employing computational logic (e.g. ‘if-then’ rules) in decision making algorithms deployed to complex social systems. The following example shows values of freedom vs safety as contingent on behavioural norms in routine airport interactions expressed as a ‘norm net’ (Fig.2).
Serramia et al. visualise their linear approach to ethical decision making in autonomous systems, positioning conventionally qualitative phenomena – human values (e.g. safety) – as contingent on and supported by societal norms, e.g. of obligation to provide passports/forms (2018). Efforts to break down and operationalize abstract norms and values quantitatively (e.g. weighting by hypothetical preference, observed occurrence) demonstrate how apparent features of human agency such as situational discernment might become more commonplace in negotiating safe and trusted outcomes. My second lesson and main takeaway from STAI’21 was therefore the imperative of sensitising AI, and design of AI, to the nuances of social values – distinguishing between value preferences, end-goals, social norms and so forth.
Lastly and significantly, attending and participating in STAI’21 has given me invaluable exposure to the practicalities of achieving desirable AI outcomes. The focus on ‘doing AI ethically’ has challenged me to pursue safety, trustworthiness, and other desirable qualities in my own work – mechanistically in terms of ensuring explainability of my methods and frameworks; and substantively, in terms of novel approaches to conceptualising values and positioning against social norms.
As part of the programme with my industry partner Ordnance Survey (OS), each year I attend what they call a Research Workshop. It’s a multi-day trip down to their headquarters in Southampton, where they host all their sponsored PhD and Post-Doc students for a colloquium from their partner universities and programmes, both in the UK and a couple from abroad. The days consist of presentation sessions broken into themes of research, these presentations are given by each of the sponsored researchers to an audience of the other colloquium attendees and OS staff who drop in to relevant and interesting themes or talks over the days. In the breaks between presentation sessions there are poster sessions, each student presenting a poster of their work and able to talk with staff or other attendees there. These posters are also displayed over the course of the event to enable staff to drop by and take a look while they may be unable to attend a full presentation session, note questions and get in touch by email or later on in a break when the researcher is free. In addition there’s often a keynote speaker that kicks off the morning session talking around the general theme for each day.
As an annual event I have been able to attend at different stages of my PhD, and see progression across the visits. My view of the purpose of the event changed over appearances, and so did my confidence in my topic and myself. The conference-style event, presenting a poster, giving a talk, handling a Q&A with OS staff and fellow postgraduate researchers gave me a chance to learn from people going through the same process and some advice from them at their different stages of the postgraduate timeline. Over multiple poster sessions I honed the elevator pitch of my research for that year, and developed an understanding of my blind spots, the recurring questions that obviously I hadn’t anticipated or covered well enough in the poster, while developing my communication skills to multidisciplinary audiences. This was an opportunity to see others’ work that was similar to my field in different ways, and to practice communicating the research I was hoping to do or had done at the time of the workshop.
There is something to be said for not having any supervisors there, a little bit of a shock for me in my first year still settling into the doctoral training program at Nottingham. The student-supervisor relationship is a valuable one when navigating a PhD, but at this event I felt truly independent. At similar style events such as our Horizon CDT retreat I feel like even if they don’t contribute in my presentation, my supervisors are there in the background in the room or on the Teams call and may step in with comments or questions to jolt me along or help, but this wasn’t like that. This was more akin to what I expect conferences to feel like as I prepare to attend one and present later this year. Their contribution is there in the work, but I must be able to present and discuss the research as an independent researcher.
The event and this write-up gave me an exercise in reflecting on what stage I am at in my research. My first time attending, I was in the first year of the course, 5 months or so into my PhD and hadn’t exactly done an explicit research activity or carried out a study to talk about, I was still finding my feet. In that year, I talked mostly about my higher education background, my interests in a wide scope, essentially proposing questions I could explore and using the session to gauge some feedback on areas others thought could be interesting. This included areas to explore or advice on going down those paths, suggested literature or studies. Helpfully at this OS workshop there was an industry perspective on the applications and not just the theory or literature side or presentations.
In the next year, I could see for myself when making my presentation that my scope was narrowing, I was settling into an academic area, research questions were emerging less fuzzy, more defined even if not settled on at that point still. With the audience I was more engaged in discussion of conducted or planned studies and details of these, and looking towards potential research output goals and again the applicability to other sectors and industry.
With one of these trips to Southampton left to attend in my final run to thesis submission I will hopefully be in early write-up stages, and will be able to demonstrate some really interesting findings from this last year and my final study, and engage with those in their first years attending the workshop about their experiences in the PhD journey to that point.
To bring this to a conclusion, I would encourage postgraduate research to look for these colloquiums/consortiums even if not offered by your industry partner as they can help you engage with your research in a different way. These are an opportunity to participate without the same pressure or work of preparing a paper and submitting to a journal or conference, those are different experiences, both highly beneficial. I would also recommend in the way writing this has been for me, to engage with reflective exercises for your journey to recognise, even if for just yourself, the work you have been doing, the changes and narrowing of scope, and your understanding of a field or concepts. I would also encourage industry partners with multiple postgraduates across the country to try and organise events like these to support their development, and help to establish academic and industry networks they may be struggling with confidence or opportunities to build beyond their own centre or institution.
Harriet Cameron (2018 Cohort) and Velvet Spors (2017 Cohort)
Hi, our names are Harriet and Velvet, and we’re PhD students within the Horizon CDT. In September 2019 we ran a full day workshop as part of the Digital Economy Network summer school. The workshop was designed to reach academics from across a broad spectrum of subjects and schools of thought, and bring them together to explore how identity, space, and place (ISP) were present in their research.
We ran the workshop as a group of four researchers; Velvet, Harriet, Luke and Hanne, all of whom are currently at various stages of their PhD’s within Horizon, and all of whom have different academic and professional backgrounds. We came together as a group because we recognised that each of us had a strong link with identity, space and place within our work, and were keen on exploring how these concepts both shape, and are shaped by, a wealth of different influences. For instance, Harriet comes from a background in human geography, and explores situated identities in both virtual and physical worlds, and Velvet is interested in human-centred, holistic ways of being with each other as a way of caring for yourself—being explicitly and implicitly connected. Together, we were able to provide a broad basis of theoretical and practical knowledge about identity, space and place, in order to facilitate valuable discussions around the importance of these topics, and their impact on research practices and outcomes.
We split the day into three core sections, each to address a different aspect of ISP. The first part of the day was spent simply getting to grips with these ambiguous and diverse concepts, sharing each other’s understandings and reflecting on our own assumptions. In our first activity, we set everyone free to spend a few minutes running around Jubilee campus, and finding examples of identity, space, and place; sending photos back to us so we could then discuss what everyone had chosen and why. This was a fantastic exercise, because all the photos taken were unique and showed completely different interpretations of not just definitions of identity, space, and place, but also different interpretations of the spaces they interacted with.
The second part of the day was designed to encourage reflection on how ISP affects daily life, and daily routines. We asked each delegate to draw a map of a route they take regularly or had recently taken, and then talked through what each person had created. Each map was highly individualised, in terms of what was represented, how those things were represented, and how the delegates showed their own personalities on their maps. This activity demonstrated not only how ISP impacts every single person on a mundane level, but it also allowed us to begin discussions on how technology shapes and is shaped by ISP at a day-to-day level.
The third part of the day continued to draw on themes of technology in ISP and got everyone thinking about how ISP related technology might be shaping their research, and how technology could be used to capture and explore ISP more overtly. In this section we got everyone to play free games related to ISP in some way and talk through which elements from our earlier discussions were apparent in the games, and which were more hidden. This allowed for some great exploration of how virtual and digital space, place and identity can be experienced, accessed and represented.
The last bit of our write-up contains personal reflections from each of us individually, showcased in a conversational presentation (if you feel like it, please read it out loud in two silly voices!).
Velvet: We ran the workshop not only to get researchers thinking about these complex themes and how they shape and are shaped by our research, but also as a part-experimental pilot and part sense-making activity: It was designed to feel the space out — literally and figuratively — to see if there was potential for a collective way of working and being with each other. Happily, the workshop was a success, and it seems that long term connections were made which will be fostered as a mechanism to continue these crucial discussions and share knowledge between participants.
Harriet: The multitude of voices we were lucky enough to bring together for the workshop, ranging from computer scientists, to engineers, to architects and more, contributed momentously to the positive outcomes we were able to draw from the day. It also demonstrated the value of these kind of events, where researchers with different ideas and perspectives come together, break each other out of their comfort zones, and question the assumptions that are all too easy to forget to question ourselves. It’s sometimes easy to become so involved in your own subject that you can forget the real-world applications and implications of concepts you may have come to take for granted. Hearing from those other perspectives not only re-centred us, but it also gave some fresh ideas and takes on those topics that we had almost forgotten to continue to critically examine. This was best demonstrated for me during our discussions defining space, place and identity early on in the day, when one delegate offered their definition of place as a “region in space, defined by co-ordinates”. This was so interesting, because they took their definition and applied it to cyberspace, comparing co-ordinates as used in the physical world, to URL’s used to navigate the internet. They explained that navigating websites, much like navigating physical places, requires you to narrow down your co-ordinates further and further, until you reach a point where you are capable of finding your exact destination. In the real world, this might be zooming in on your map app, or switching to a local paper map instead of a regional one. Online, this might mean navigating to the area of the website which contained the content you were interested it, by clicking through toolbars and hyperlinks. This offered a fresh perspective on navigating online spaces which I had never consciously considered before and has contributed to my own understanding of cyberspace.
Velvet: But apart from these overarching understandings and fresh impulses, running the workshop also generated insights for own personal research.
Harriet: A big part of my own research centres around trying to understand identities of individuals as situated, fluid constructs which are performed as part of social, cultural and political contexts. Part of the value of this workshop for me came in the form of being able to see those different identities demonstrated, not only in the context of students studying all over the UK taking part in a workshop at the University of Nottingham, but also in the ways that those different identities were reflected on during the activities and within the discussions. During the mapping activity for example, we were shown what priorities and performed identities the workshop participants had as part of their daily routine, be that in the form of their favourite shop, their place of worship, their favourite places to study, and so on. No two maps were drawn in the same way, even if they shared certain places or themes, demonstrating the breadth of experiences and the impact of our own identities on the landscape.
Velvet: On a very individual level, this workshop also showed me how people approach similar topics in very different, multifaceted ways. For my own PhD work, this means that I now feel even stronger about bringing people from different areas together and to create a safe, inclusive and open space together, so that synergies and a mingling of ideas can happen. When we first discussed doing this workshop, we were worried – perhaps even slightly apprehensive – about the experimental and open nature we wanted to implement. Most workshops we have attended in research or academic settings tend to be very directed, expert-led and focused on clearly defined goals or outcomes. In most of these workshops, we also bring ourselves in as a researcher or expert – a very different version of ourselves than in private. In a way, our workshop asked for a researcher perspective, but also a very private and personal one. Bringing an authentic version of yourself into an unknown space is difficult and a slightly scary undertaking – especially if you feel strongly about the concepts that are being discussed. Space, place and identity can become very personal very soon, especially since they are ideas and factors that everybody has experienced. Bringing lived experienced into a group requires a collective understanding of what it means to open up and how to approach it respectfully, without letting ideas go unchallenged. Now, having conducted this workshop, I am excited about exploring a variety of facilitation, openness and outlines with space/place/identity and in my own studies – especially how to do the whole process justice.
Harriet: In conclusion, hosting this workshop as part of a series of Digital Economy Network summer school activities was a fantastic opportunity to share and develop expertise and ideas, with a host of others who all brought their own invaluable perspectives to the workshop. On a personal note, it was also a much-appreciated plunge into facilitation and public speaking, in a way where I was able to practice those valuable skills, in a space with other researchers at similar points in their academic journey, whilst also facilitating and encouraging them to do the same.
Velvet: After a personal reflection and getting feedback, we aim to turn “Space/Place/identity” into a series of activities, with other workshops and get-togethers to exchange knowledge, but also to hold space for each other to be. How that’s going to look like in future? We are not entirely sure yet, but this workshop has laid out the groundwork for sure. We aim to facilitate it in an unconventional, experimental way that allows for a non-hierarchal way of organising ourselves. Maybe we are going back to web rings, individual HTML webpages – maybe we are going to use peer-seeded automated networks. Whatever shape it might take, we are excited to work on it collectively!
Finally, we want to shout out to Felicia Black and Monica Cano, whose patience and perseverance made this workshop not only possible, but a success. Thank you, Felicia and Monica!
This Summer School and workshop was hosted by the Kent Interdisciplinary Research Centre in Cyber Security (KirCCS) and School of Computing at the University Kent, the Institute of Applied Economics and Social Value at De Montfort University and International Association for Research in Economic Psychology (IAREP). It took place at Canterbury between 15th to the 17th of July lead by Dr Jason RC Nurse.
As I’m working on accidental insider threat within cybersecurity to examine human factors that trigger this threat, I was keen to attend this event as it would provide an overview of the issues around social engineering and associated forms of crime in the virtual and physical world – broadly sitting within my own research interests. Recent media has highlighted many cases where fraud and cybercrime have resulted from a mixture of social engineering and human vulnerabilities to gain undesirable outcomes including encryption of data to hold at ransom on an organisational and individual level. Whilst there is literature on cyber-psychology linking to malicious insiders and cybercriminals, there is little literature available that takes an interdisciplinary approach to tackle this problem, especially examining this from a psychological, economics, and cybercrime perspective. So the aim of the summer school was to introduce these disciplines and their relevance to be able to better understand this challenge. This was particularly important to me as I believe that all the global challenges being faced by the world today require collective interdisciplinary action to resolve them.
One of the highlights of attending this school was meeting a diverse range of about 40 attendees, which included different career stages within academia, people from industry, diversity in research being pursued and interests as well as diversity in ethnicity, age and academic backgrounds. Whilst most of the projects weren’t similar, it was still cohesive in terms of disciplines and understanding of cybersecurity. This allowed a space where I shared and received ideas and insights about this issue over workshop discussions and group dinners. Presentations were a mixture of academics from various universities including the University of Bristol and the University of Cambridge as well as law enforcement. I hope my notes below are of interest to anyone from psychology, economics, and cybersecurity fields taking an interdisciplinary approach to exploring cybercriminal and victim behaviour and traits, especially those involving malicious or intentional insiders.
Discussions included how the definition of cybercrime is hard to settle on as it means many different things for researchers, businesses, and individual users. Technology evolving has meant that many of the devices aren’t seen to be within the remit of cybercrime by the general public, for example, cybercrimes that happen through mobile phones or smart wearable devices are seen to be separate from the same crimes that occur through a desktop or a laptop. A way of looking at cybercrime is by categorising attacks that are ‘computer dependent’ (DoD, ransomware, etc) and those that are ‘computer-enabled’ (online fraud, phishing, etc). This can also be categorised through Crime in Technology, Crime against Technology, and Crime through Technology.
Cybercrime is a big challenge being faced by society and whilst there are numerous different types of cybercrimes, currently, popular ones include social engineering, online harassment, identity-related, hacking, and denial of service (DoS) and/or information. Social engineering and phishing attacks are the biggest attacks that are currently taking place. Cybercriminals are getting better at replicating official documents (less spelling mistakes, logos, branding, etc) and use a mixture of techniques that include misdirection and pressurising recipients to take action. Most classifications of cybercriminals are through using early techniques developed by the FBI’s human behaviour department and include the Dark Triad and OCEAN personality traits. Techniques used to investigate crimes in real life such as ‘method of operation’ (MO) and copycats seem to transfer relevantly well to cybercrime investigations.
Law enforcement believes that in their experience there is a strong link between gender, age, and mental ability and cybercriminals. Children test out their coding skills from lessons in schools to attack websites or online gaming platforms. There also appeared to be a strong link between online gaming habits, mental disorders such as ADHD and hacking. Whilst there are more cybercrimes reported to the police than crimes in the physical world, the task force is still suited for ‘boots on the ground’ than cybercrime. All individual reports of cybercrime are done through Action Fraud and involved cybercrimes that came from someone they knew such as disgruntled ex-partners. Threats included a wide spectrum but the most popular ones included fraud, abuse, blackmail, harassment, and defamation of character.
In psychology, cybercriminals are classified in similar ways to that of criminal profiling in real-world crimes. There is also interest in exploring victim traits since individuals who are a victim to an online attack are likely to be a victim to another attack in the future. When looking at cybercriminal profiling psychological and emotional states are key factors. Various online forums are researched to create a cybercriminal’s profile mainly through the following categorization: language used, attitudes towards work (for example in the case of a malicious insider threat), family characteristics, criminal history, aggressiveness, and social skill problems including integrity and historical background. However, this is challenging as personality traits and characteristics are easier to change online especially for narcissistic personality traits. However there is never a 100% certainty of creating a psychological profile of a cybercriminal, with very little research and involves stereotypical profiles such as ‘white, male, geek, like maths, spends a lot of time alone, plays online games, anti-social traits, etc. Often personality traits associated with ‘openness’ of individuals links to individuals being susceptible online to phishing and other scams.
Most important models of profiling are ‘inductive’ and ‘deductive’ criminal profiling. Inductive is using existing data to identify patterns and deductive is starting from the evidence and building up to the profile (deductive cybercriminal profile model). Deductive method is very popular and is designed by Nykodym et al 2005 but there’s also geographical profiling (Canter and Hammond 2003) that is starting to become more popular as a result of social engineering attacks. Economists are applying ‘willingness to pay’ (WTP) and ‘willingness to accept’ (WTA) models and game theory to ransomware attacks.
Overall, the summer school provided a great platform to create a new network, reaffirmed my understanding of the current approaches being adopted, offered insights to some of the research being conducted, and provided a platform to promote my research.
Back in the summer of 2018 I attended the DEN summer school in Bournemouth. One of the big draws of the summer school for me was the programming in Unity course that was being offered. Having come from a psychology background, I had no programming knowledge but it was becoming clearer and clearer that this was going to be something that held me back during my PhD, especially when it came to prototyping ideas for experiences. The course itself was pretty good, we ran through several different elements of using Unity including the basics of building scenes, game object physics, and exporting our scene onto a smartphone and viewing it with a cardboard header as a VR experience. We also started using Vuforia and making basic AR content. This workshop gave me a good basic understanding of Unity, but more importantly, it showed that what I wanted to learn and eventually make was well within my grasp. This was very important for motivating me to carry on learning how to build Unity experiences, as well as code in general.
Once the summer was over, my supervisors and I sat down and started discussing short-term goals to get me learning everything I’d need to learn in order to build interactive AR experiences myself. The first of these goals was to learn Python and C# in order to understand the logic of coding and be able to write my own Unity scripts to control different elements of the software. My supervisor ran me through all the basics in Unity that I might need for the specific things I was going to make, a welcome refresher after the summer school course, and I was sent off to learn my languages. Personally, I found Python quite easy to learn. The logic of the language made sense to me and the online resource I had been recommended taught it in a very hands on a practical way, with many small assignments to try out new coding knowledge and to keep old knowledge fresh and reinforced in your memory. Also, the course was broken up into bite size chunks and I found doing a lesson a day over the course of a month a very productive way of learning this language.
C# scripting was a little harder for me to grasp. I don’t know whether it was the difference between it and Python throwing me off or knowing that having to learn this was going to be more important for my PhD, but it took a lot more to try and figure out what I was doing with it. Learning this was done through some of the Unity provided tutorials, as well as other user generated tutorials on YouTube. I was also learning how to use Unity to specifically make the first short term goal project I had been assigned; making videos plays in Unity. The Unity video player isn’t completely user friendly and it took a lot of trial and error and searching Unity message boards and community sites to find out how to get it to work in the way I wanted it to. Having got it to work I moved on to controlling it a bit more and building an experience where the audience can press keys to trigger the playing of different video clips. I crafted a game object for each video clip we had and had them generated and destroyed whenever we needed that video playing, depending on the input of the audience. What I ended up with was a functional interactive film about a man trying to find his heart medication, where the audience could decide whether he moved left, right, or had a heart attack at various points in the film. When I showed my supervisors they liked it but found how I had made the film incredibly inefficient, so they tasked me with remaking it so that different videos played on the same game object and not on different ones. This next step proved challenging but eventually I managed to write a functioning Unity script which changed the state of the game object and, once a game object was of a certain state, it would play different videos with different audience responses. It would then change its stage again to allow the experience to progress. This experience pleased my supervisors, but they didn’t like how making decisions at the wrong times messed the game up, so I had to add delays into the script that stopped audiences making decisions at the wrong points in the experience. Fortunately, this wasn’t to difficult to do, although trying to use time as a function while coding with the video player in mind did prove confusing.
I was also asked to build a restaurant scene and fill it with moving virtual characters, but this was very similar to the summer school exercises and the Unity developer tutorials so this didn’t prove too tricky. Characters were downloaded from Adobe Maximo, so came with animation cycles attached and a few YouTube tutorials later I had people looking around and being furious at virtual restaurant tables.
Finally, I was asked to build an AR tester experience. I had to place a virtual character, like those from the restaurant scene, into a real world environment and have them occluded by a real world object, specifically sitting behind and hidden by a real world table. This is something that is surprisingly hard to find official Unity information for. There is lots of help for tracking markers and placing AR content in the real world but not so much for having that content blocked by real objects. I eventually found a YouTube tutorial which addressed a similar problem in a way which allowed me to figure out how to solve my own. They showed how there was a depth occluder material that you could use to create invisible game objects that would block the audience’s vision of the virtual content. Creating a cube the size of a table top and placing it over the lap of my sitting virtual character, then using a placemat as a tracking marker in the real world to position the avatar behind a real table allowed the virtual character to appear as if they were sitting in the real world. The illusion was particularly impressive when the character moved and there arms would disappear and reappear below and above the line of the back of the table. See attached photo for a snapshot of the experience.
If I had any advice to any other researchers looking to get into creating XR experiences, or even just learning to code, it is there’s no time like the present to start learning. There are plenty of great resources online for free that go through everything you’ll need to know step by step, while also allowing you to navigate through lessons to learn the specific things that you need for whatever project you might be working on. Though getting an understanding of the basics is fundamental you can pick or choose what of the more specific stuff to learn to suit your needs fairly easily. Also, just like any skill, you’ll need to keep practising. Find some little challenges to work towards, like I had set out for me. There were a few times I’d not focus on coding for a few weeks and then notice that I had forgotten something I definitely knew before and had to go back over previous lessons or code that I had written to find it. Don’t fall for this like I did, keep it up at a steady pace and you’ll be writing code in no time.