Professor Tom Furness, the founding director of the Human Interface Technology Laboratory at the University of Washington in Seattle has spent a career working on human interfaces to computers. Considered to be one of the true pioneers in virtual reality and virtual interfaces, Prof. Furness began his career in 1966 developing virtual interfaces for military aircraft. Then in 1989 he founded the Human Interface Technololgy Laboratory at the University of Washington. There he developed new virtual and mixed reality technology and applied these technologies to business, educational, entertainment, and medical applications. The HITLab has become legend. In the short time span of 13 years, the HITLab launched 23 new companies (two fo which are traded on NASDAQ), established a Virtual Worlds Consortium that brought together 50 international companies and graduated 62 students with Ph.D.s and other degrees. The impact on the US and the State of Washington has been enormous. Over 750 new jobs were created with industrial capitalisations approaching $1 billion. The HITLab itself, with seed funding from the State of Washington, converted that investment to about $40M in external funding to the Lab, showing that Universities could become enormous economic engines for the nation. The key to this success is recognising that universities are one of the greatest assets that a country can have and the talent of the faculty, staff and students can be tapped and harnessed to create disruptive and transformational technologies and new industry.
3.1 Elements of the HITLab Model
The success of the HITLab starts with the premise that the treasure of a nation is founded in the imagination of its children. And since universities are the gathering places of these young citizens, the objective is to create an environment or culture in these universities that cultivates imagination and creativity, and channels it to the economic good of the nation.
Over the period of several years the HITLabUS has developed a sucessful paradigm for simultaneous development of human capital and technology that can be transitioned to enhance existing businesses as well as create new industry. The key ingredients of this model are the following:
Visionary Leadership The most important ingredient in any organization will be the quality of its people. Companies and nations are looking for vision, and visionary leaders are rare. Within research universities these leaders need to cultivated and recruited so as to lead students to conceive, develop and advocate projects that are visionary, transformational and lead to new industries.
Magnet to attract best students Good students are the greatest raw resource. Although sometimes naïve, through effective mentoring these young people with their innate imagination and energy can lead to entirely new ideas and concepts.
Risk taking & seed funding A successful research lab must be able to take risks. Often traditional methods of research funding require a conservative approach where the answer must be known before the research is initiated…this is often true of peer-reviewed granting organizations. The best research is the one that thinks first but then takes risks to explore the unknown that lies beyond critical thinking. Often more is learned from failures than successes. Out of 10 efforts, even if one is successful, that success could be transformational.
Multidiciplinary environment One of the contributors to the remarkable success of the HITLabUS has been the multidiciplinary environment that has been created at the University of Washington. The HITLab staff contains faculty and students from electrical, industrial, mechanical, aerospace, bioengineering and computer science and engineering as well as from art, drama, music, psychology, physics, architecture, geography, oceanography, occupational health, nursing, medical school and dental school. This is really the wellspring of a university and is the optimum place to create an environment where cross-pollination can take place. It is this cross between perspectives that stimulates new thoughts and solutions to pervasive problems.
Industrial involvement A bridge between the university and the industry must have two buttresses…one involving the faculty and students on the university side and the second the support and cognizance of the industry on the other. Early in its existence the HITLabUS organized a Virtual Worlds Consortium which represented this second buttress. The Consortium not only provides financial support, but also the guidance as how to work with industry and indentify what are driving problems. Often the consoritum members sponsor specific projects…so ultimately the bridge between the University and the industry provides for traffic going both ways. The University develops human capital and technology that can be transitioned to industry while the industry provides driving problems, technology and financial support to the University Laboratory. Additionally, through the Consortium the industry members are encouraged to sponsor Industrial Fellows that work within the University Laboratory on projects supported by the company.
Compelling problems to work on In addition to the problems provided by the industry, the HITLab through its altruism works on pervasive problems, those that will truly make the world a better place by unlocking intelligence and linking minds. Often technologies developed by industry are driven by ‘creeping featurism’, that is, added more features to existing projects that just make them more complex and less usable, while obsoleting an older model. True sustainable technologies need to solve real problems wherein peoples needs as well and wants are fulfilled, and especially where is there is already a market domain, e.g. low vision aids for an aging population. Students are particularly attracted to enterprises that solve pervasive problems.
Infrastructure To be successful the research laboratory needs to have a strong management and technical team, as well as equipment and facilities that become the crucible where new technologies can be developed. It is preferable that this space be ecumenical, in that it is not owned by any particular department in the University and is in a central location within the university where students from all disciplines can conveniently congregate, between classes and outside of class times.
Discipline of IP protection and transfer It is important to develop an entrepreneural spirit within the culture of the Laboratory (this is somewhat encouraged by the industrial sponsors) along with instruction and discipline as how describe and protect intellectual property. The best technology transfer is via students who take the know-how along with the protected IP to industry.
All stake holders win The organizational stucture of the research enterprise must be organised so that everyone wins. In the end, the nation and world wins by having new technologies that solve problems. But in the process companies need to make profits, students need to have employment and universities need to thrive to continue their human capital development functions. As the goose lays golden eggs, it is not only important to collect the eggs but to also feed the goose.