Nick, fire away: what is your position and what does it entail exactly?
As program manager, I am among the initiators of DIGIREAL; a 'digital lab' of the joint partners BUas, Fontys, Tilburg University and MindLabs. Since the establishment of this research lab, one and a half years ago, I have been closely involved. My position focuses mainly on the research side of the project. For example, I think about what research could be of interest to the lab and how we can best conduct it. A challenge that I work on every day with much enthusiasm.
What does DIGIREAL actually mean?
The name DIGIREAL is derived from the term 'digital realities'. In fact, in the lab we work on devising and researching solutions to socially relevant issues using digital realities. We focus on three main themes: 'virtual humans', 'digital spaces' (such as the metaverse) and 'digital twins' (data-driven simulation models of reality). What might one think of in such research? Virtual avatars, for example, which hospitals deploy to convey information to patients. Or digital twins of cities, to support municipalities in the spatial classification of areas. We do this in collaboration with leading companies such as Argaleo and Reblika.
Our goal is to become the center of expertise in the field of the three main themes. We are therefore extremely driven to continue to develop our knowledge and to apply our research results in practice. After all, this is how we can actually make a positive contribution to society. We present the topics we focus on and the associated work during monthly online lunch meetings. Once in a while we also organize an expert meeting, in which we explore the depth of a topic.
What other parties are involved in DIGIREAL? And why is it really a project for MindLabs?
BUas, Fontys, Tilburg University and MindLabs are the founders of the research lab. These collaborating parties each have their own expertise and strengths, making them complementary to each other. BUas, for example, has a renowned gaming education that ranks number three worldwide. Tilburg University is a leading knowledge institution in the field of AI research. Fontys has a leading ICT education. And MindLabs has a facilitating role, bringing all parties together in the new collective building.
So instead of competing with each other, the parties join forces and strengthen each other in the field of research and innovation. The goals of DIGIREAL are therefore fully in line with those of MindLabs. After all, knowledge sharing and learning from each other are what the ecosystem is all about. The lab offers a unique opportunity for these institutions to work together and combine their expertise in order to achieve innovations.
What makes you a fit for this kind of work?
My interest in innovation and AI focuses specifically on the impact of technology on society, and how we can ensure that that impact is as inclusive as possible. I have focused on this issue during my research over the past few years. My conclusion? We need to look ahead and make the most of all new technologies. But we should also certainly not forget to look critically at the situation after an implementation, to see who might be left behind. After all, technology and society must be inseparable. I don't want to make "toys for people with a lot of money," but i want to ensure that everyone benefits from new innovations.
When do you expect the first results? Are they already there? And what kind of results are these?
We are involved in many different ongoing projects. One of them is the Iliad project. For this, we contributed to the development of a digital twin of the ocean, which was created to gain insight into how certain parts of the sea can best be arranged. With solar panels or wind mills, for example. Twelve pilots are currently running with Iliad's digital twins.
Another example of a project in which we are involved is VIBE. This project focuses on developing and testing realistic, interactive avatars in order to use them as trainers or mouthpieces in healthcare or education. In the bariatrics (obesity surgery) department at the Spaarne Gasthuis hospital, for example. In the future, an avatar should provide some of the patient education on obesity care. The greatest advantage of this: unlike the average doctor, a virtual person is always available.
What do you mainly enjoy dealing with? And what do you prefer to outsource?
Because of my curious nature, I have always enjoyed learning immensely. I can become completely fascinated by a subject and want to know exactly how something works. But, if something does not interest me I get bored and that is exactly my pitfall. I really have to work on the subjects that interest me. If I don't, it's not good for anyone. That's why coming up with new research projects, carrying them out and thus gaining knowledge is really my thing. Meetings that are not urgent or unimportant, but sometimes you can't escape them, on the other hand, I prefer to outsource those.
You have surely had some highlights during the course of this project. Can you highlight any of them?
The fact that we achieved some financial highlights is of course nice, and puts us in a position of luxury. Yet that is not what makes DIGIREAL a success; in the end, money is just money. For me, the most important thing is that we have built a very close relationship as a team. This makes it nice to work with each other and conduct research together. And that in turn ensures that our research lab grows and we take our work to a higher and higher level.
Last questions: what's next on your to do list? Do you have a full agenda today?
This morning my calendar was filled with appointments with potential collaboration partners. It is now up to me to work out proposals. If we do indeed achieve a collaboration, there are some really cool projects in store for DIGIREAL. So i'm getting to work, quickly!
Want to know more about DIGIREAL? Check out the website here.