Even before the notion of augmented reality became popular, engineering savvy Dr Henry Lau Ying-Kei had spent years researching the creation of virtual worlds.
The virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) expert, who is also Associate Professor and Associate Dean of Engineering (Innovation) at the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Hong Kong, is driven to continue his exploratory journey, knowing that much more await to be developed in the realm of VR and AI. And further scientific insights could open up a whole new world unimagined by humans.
Dr Lau himself is tackling a number of current issues and challenges. Among them is the prevention of cyber sickness caused by using VR devices such as wearing of a head-mounted device that allow people to immerse themselves in virtual environment. “We have published papers on the cause of the dizziness, probably the lack of visual cue of objects, or frame of reference,” he said. As part of the research, he and his team at the Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering is collaborating with the university’s psychology department to improve on human computer interface.
Indeed, the scope of related research is immense, not just in relation to curbing physical or psychological discomfort alone. And often it involves collaboration with multiple disciplines, since both AI and VR are increasingly being deployed in wide-ranging areas, from healthcare, education, transportation to entertainment.
A brainchild of Dr Lau’s team, the imseCAVE VR system has been adopted for the training of nurses, police officers, airline operation staff etc., earning it the Knowledge Exchange Award offered by the Faculty in 2016. Through the projection of realistic images on three walls, it enables people to see and interact with systems and scenarios in a virtual manner, in a full body immersive and high-fidelity 3D experience. It also provides a versatile, flexible and cost-saving platform for industry, business and education sectors for training, skill‐evaluation, and system analysis.
Dr Lau is now working a research on the prevention of cyber sickness.
“By deploying motion tracking system or AI software that captures real-time movements, we can track the progress of learners in training sessions, and obtain their behavioral profile to see if they have followed the standard procedures.”
Various versions of the system won a silver award in the category of Best Digital Entertainment Award (Interaction Design) in the 2015 Hong Kong ICT Award and a Silver Medal in the 47th International Exhibition of Inventions of Geneva in 2019 “We are already using the 6th, 7th generation of the system and have seen the birth of 3 spinoff companies marketing the product,” said Dr Lau, “In our collaboration with the HKU nursing school, we produced the VR content for student training and used the system as a platform to study how nursing students react to the content, what are the technological issues that need to be resolved as well as the psychological effect on the learners.”
“We want to help people have more natural interactions with VR,” he added. “There is much room for research. Many projects only focus on technology thus far, say in creating better display, higher resolution, faster computer, brighter screen etc., but there are other issues like the long-term effect of exposure to VR on our eyes, which means researchers would need to work with eye doctors.”
Contributing to the science of robotics
Worldwide, efforts are underway to optimise systems of automation, such as driverless vehicles or the increasingly prevalent robots. Prior to joining HKU in 1997, Dr Lau was a Senior Systems Engineers at the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) and the AEA Technology PLC., specializing in tele-robotics systems and advanced automation systems for the nuclear industry.
The imseCAVE VR system has been widely adopted for the training of nurses, airline operation staff and construction workers, etc.
While teaching engineering science at Oxford University, Dr Lau and his research group worked on robotics using AI, and new technology such as the now increasingly well-known machine learning system.
The dawn of the world of AI challenges human beings’ own imagination about what could be possible in the physical world. To Dr Lau, continual development on the research front amounts to a kind of creative renaissance.
A natural-born engineer
When he was a child, he stood out for not just his outstanding academic results but also a knack for making objects with his own hands. “I just love machines and fixing problems. In primary schools I like dismantling everything, even a chair.”
“When I was studying in high school in England, my math teacher asked me to do math at university but I said I wanted to go into engineering. He was disappointed.”
Rather than the traditional fields of mechanical or civil engineering, he chose to specialise in industrial engineering (IE). That led to his longstanding exposure to the industrial world.
“IE looks at the holistic aspect of engineering, including design, management, system operation; we call ourselves systems engineers,” he said. He and his counterparts are used to creating models of the distinct work situation in a particular company, doing analysis on it before devising a management plan that would enhance the company’s efficiency, performance or result in saving costs.
Probably because it does not involve going out to construction sites, IE has proven to be most popular with female students compared to the other branches of engineering. “A good portion of students in our discipline are ladies, and our department has one of the highest percentages of female enrolment in the Faculty,” said Dr Lau.
There is no doubt about the value of his field from an economic point of view. “IE is not supposed to create for example the circuit inside a smartphone but rather the whole supply chain, the best phasing, optimization of resources,” he added.
The Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering of the University of Hong Kong has one of the highest percentages of female enrolment in the Faculty of Engineering.
A Calling for the young
The field of AI is even indispensable as more and more companies seek to maximise gains and efficiency through digital means.
Engineers could generate previously unthought of solutions through mining, capturing and integrating data. For example, says Dr Lau, there is the possibility of creating buildings designed for robots, or intelligent robots capable of detecting changes in an environment.
“AI came from trying to look at pattern, statistics, past experience and find the best match of practices. The jobs of conveyance lawyers, doctors, accountants could disappear soon because cloud-based big data can lead to much better diagnosis than that provided by them,” he noted.
Along with all the hype about STEM education in Hong Kong, he hopes more local youngsters can pursue the challenging path as he did, rather than being well-contented with the comfortable modern living. There are indeed pressing issues that require urgent input of thinking and action.
“Our energy source such as fossil fuel is running short, there are also the ongoing issues of air pollution, depleting of drinking water, population increase, etc.”
“Engineers are not pure scientists, but people who like to solve problems, produce innovative solutions; their role is to find workable and practical solutions that help improve people living standard and benefit the society.”