UCL Engineering


IM@UCL: The Podcast - Transcript - Episode 4

We’re exploring the transition from manual to self-driving vehicles. This podcast series explores the multi-disciplinary research that will impact us all.
Once a month, join Cassidy Martin on a journey of self-driving discovery. Each episode will feature members of the multidisciplinary research team at IM@UCL that will revolutionise the future of driving.  


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Episode 4: Research Is All Fun And Games

Cassidy  00:03
Hello, and welcome to IM@UCL: The Podcast, a podcast about the research at UCL that will revolutionise the future of driving. My name is Cassidy Martin, and I am your host on this journey of self-driving discovery. 

When you're a kid, you're encouraged to play games, pretend and dance, be silly, have fun. You can use your imagination freely without fear of being judged by an adult for saying or doing something out of the ordinary. But for some reason, as we get older, that sense of play starts to be looked at as a negative thing, childish. And as we age, we become more serious and restricted in our behaviour. 

For this month's episode, I spoke with two academics who are looking at bringing play and games into the very adult and serious world of academia. Our first guest uses dance and play to create inclusive engineering designs, and the next leads student projects that utilise gaming systems to create virtual worlds for simulated driving. 

Let's get started.

Ellie  01:22
I'm Ellie Cosgrave. I am an associate professor of Urban Innovation and Policy at UCL. And I've moved to an urban design firm called Publica to be director of research, and I'm also setting up their community interest company, which is really to look at how we can mobilise urban design expertise for social justice issues.

Cassidy  01:46
Ellie is looking for ways to shake up the engineering world and create infrastructures that are more inclusive.

Ellie  01:53
My research really, historically, has focused on how can we rethink cities, and particularly how do we rethink the ways in which we think about cities and city making and urban design in order to include women's experiences. So at the moment, there are lots of assumptions that we make in engineering practice, about who we are designing for, and who we are not designing for. But often these are kind of implicit, and we don't necessarily know how they affect the inclusivity of our designs. So my work has been historically around gender inclusion and urban design. But I am, of course, interested in how that is an intersectional issue. And that a lot of the ways in which we exclude women also means that we exclude all sorts of groups from like children, elderly, other people who are marginalised in society and therefore have social roles, and also jobs that are not necessarily catered for by our infrastructure systems.

Cassidy  02:54
Her desire for inclusion stems from her own personal experience.

Ellie  02:58
I had a sort of personal desperate need to understand feminism, because I was an engineer, a female engineer in a male dominated environment, and I was experiencing things and feeling things that I didn't necessarily understand. And I needed from a personal experience level to understand them. And so, I did delve deeply into feminist literature and social sciences understandings of the world and it gave me a lot. And to be able to translate that back into engineering design, specifications, and the ways in which we analyse or understand the effectiveness of what we're doing, seems to me like an exciting and interesting challenge. But I acknowledge that not everyone is motivated by the same reasons. I would say that most of us have some personal motivation for wanting to make engineering design and infrastructure more inclusive, and more sustainable or to think about it in a different way. If we have children, I mean, all of us should be concerned about the climate emergency, but it's seriously much easier when you know, for definite, that your children are going to be transformed by climate change, that you're going to want to sort out. If you are or know anyone who is neurodiverse or has a physical disability, we know that there are huge barriers to accessing the life and vibrancy of our cities and our culture in our world because we're not designing the property. If you have been racially abused for simply just being a black person in public space, or targeted more by police, we know we're gonna want to do something. If you are a woman or know a woman, then this is an issue for you. So, what I would like to be doing is helping provide the tools to think about that in a new way.

Cassidy  04:57
And Ellie has already found some new tools for designing and thinking in new ways. Most notably, from a beloved hobby.

Ellie  05:07
I was a, and am a, dancer in my spare time as a sort of personal passion of mine. And I saw that, okay, this is a sector or way of thinking about the world that deals with bodies moving through space that is trying to produce outcomes on a kind of project basis with these finite resources. But that does have completely different contextual history, different purpose for existing, different creative techniques, and tools. And I wondered whether there's anything we could learn as engineers from design tools and thinking of dance making. This idea, it really did come at a very similar time I started my work on gender. It is a parallel inquiry to me, in the sense that a more inclusive spaces and places and design systems are what we're after. And working with choreographers was for me a way of challenging a status quo about what is good, or what is good, design within engineering systems. So, I have been doing this work alongside colleagues at Theatrum Mundi, which is a research charity and organisation who work a lot with creative industries. And we have paired choreographers with engineers and taken them out to parts of the city to ask three questions. Firstly, like, what do you see here? So, what we were trying to establish there was, what do they look out for? What do they notice as like truth, in a sense, like, what is there from their perspective? We also asked them to like notate that in whatever language or however they notate because we were interested in like the tools. How do you capture what is here, and are there kind of more interesting or different or more useful ways to capture them? What a lot of our engineers did was, which is to create a plan view. So interesting, because they couldn't see a plan view, in a sense, like we weren't hovering above the space, but they drew a kind of system model diagram about how movement was happening in that space – cars, public transport, bikes, people. And then we asked them to describe the possibilities for that space. So, what did they see was even possible here? Like what was like their vision? And like, how could this space be transformed? And then we asked them to describe how they would go about making that happen. And then we took these pairs back into the studio, and we had kind of recorded interview conversations with them. And that was really the starting point for many years of inquiry around to the intersection of dance and engineering. We have had many wonderful engineering researchers at UCL dancing with us, we have such beautiful images about like, what does it mean to be embodied as a designer? What does it mean to have a sense of like a physical sense of space, it's not just like a kind of intellectualised or computerised version of that space, as we actually like, be in it. I've worked with dancers to do urban tours of the city and give kind of other ways of thinking about space, and all sorts. Theatrum Mundi has funded a dancer and resident at Arup, which is an engineering firm, to observe these creatures called engineers and how they work and think. So, it's been a very fruitful few years of research, that really, I have kept separate from the gender work. But not for any reason in particular, other than that, I have like, done different work in them. But I do see them as both ways of challenging traditional engineering thinking, with an optimistic hope that we can do something differently. Yeah.

Cassidy  09:07
Yeah. That's so cool. That's interesting, the idea of physically move through the space or imagine it by physically moving around, as opposed to an engineer that's just thinking about it, theoretically, I love that connection. That's really cool. So speaking of all of this stuff, that we're talking about this, so how are you wanting to apply your research in IM@UCL?

Ellie  09:30
So, for me for my work around gender and the city, I really want to work with women's organisations. These are the rape crisis is and the shelters of the world who really are experts in the biggest needs that are faced by women, but who don't always have the time resource knowledge about how cities and infrastructure systems are made to include them in the conversation because when I do speak to women services, they've always got so much to say about women's needs and how they're under catered for and how they're scrabbling together to make sure that they can provide it, where we could simply build these into transport systems, to social housing. There is just so much more that we can do to include those voices. So that's number one for me. I want to include the women's sector. I want to include technology firms. So, there are some really interesting organisations set up around kind of mapping women's experience in the city, crowdsourcing women's needs. But they're often, the findings of those, are not necessarily incorporated into urban design, like the principles and also they're not always set up to facilitate real dialogue and nuanced conversation and debate, they're often a little bit black and white about what we therefore know about a place or like, not always that inclusive about who is reporting what crime and therefore, how can we work with them and policymakers and women's organisations and community groups, where we can start to kind of collectively understand our experience of the city and start to, to experiment with different ways of being so that would be number one for me.

Cassidy  11:13
And Ellie sees IM@UCL’s PEARL location as the perfect place to conduct her research.

Ellie  11:20
IM@UCL sits within PEARL, which really is a whole space dedicated to the ways in which we can rethink what we do, right? So, this kind of facility is just helping us to kind of strip out any assumptions that we have about what is impossible and enable us to play. I think play is an essential part of innovation and creativity because it takes away our sort of assumed barriers about what we cannot do. And so, there are all sorts of possibilities, within simulation to be able to create worlds that we could not imagine what would that feel like? What would that smell like? How would we feel differently in that world? How might we be able to behave differently? Once these barriers are kind of taken down? The biggest thing that I see for me is like it's a huge, intellectual physical playground where we can create new worlds.

Cassidy  12:22
What makes PEARL in Dagenham, UCL’s research laboratory where IM@UCL’s facility is located, the perfect setup for creating new worlds is its unique structure and equipment. It's a massive facility approximately 4000 square metres and 10 metres high. And its size allows researchers to create life sized scenarios under controlled conditions. The equipment within the laboratory includes specialised tiles that allow for reshaping and altering materials on the floor, lighting that can be changed to any colour and intensity, the soundproofing throughout and speakers allow for the most subtle and massively loud sounds to be produced. And there is even a system that can produce whatever smell a researcher wants to produce in their controlled environment. And like Ellie says, it's a playground. And really, it's the ultimate playground for engineers. 

I like that idea of sense of play as well. Because think of academia, like you said very serious, very whatever. And how important that sense of play is. That's like, you know, when we're growing up, when we're little kids, and we pretend to do certain things, that's kind of how we like, learn or start to understand our world. And so like you kind of need that too, for later on in life.

Ellie  13:48
Yeah. Well, to be honest, I don't understand why play isn't taken more seriously. Right? Because that's all we really want to do. I think. I think all we really want to do is play around, be curious about stuff, try things out. I was speaking it was my work Christmas party and someone was talking about how they love the cycle. And he was just saying, honestly, I love just cycling through muddy puddles. That's like the farthest, this is a 30 something year old man, you know? And it's like we don't actually lose the joy of playing. But somehow what happens as we think we have to become professionals that we think we have to come a bit sadder or a bit less excited about the wonders of the world. And that that is a sort of professional way to be. And play we know is offers one of the most like the deepest way that we can learn because it enables us to fail and laugh about it not fail and have to rethink our careers or like who we are doesn't like damage, our sense of self too much. Depends on if you're playing Monopoly, maybe. There is just so much innate value and a lot of ways that we can produce really good spaces for innovation when we play. And silliness is one of the most creative things that we can do, because it requires us to be surprising. It requires us to put things together that maybe don't usually go together because let's see. I think silliness and playfulness and just letting loose a bit. Maybe we don't do it, because it's so powerful. Maybe people are threatened by what will happen if we start playing around in our big labs at universities. But it's, I think that's the future, we have to take it seriously. S it's not a paradox to do serious play. Because we've got serious challenges that we're not going to solve by thinking in the same way and by trying to protect our egos or trying to like look like a certain type of person who's successful. I think if we can develop a cohort of people who are willing to just get excited and turn things upside down, and be curious and be willing to fail in a way that doesn't do damage to themselves, then that is where the solutions are going to come from. Like, why do children play? They play to learn. Why, why do we think that stops, I don't get it.

Cassidy  16:44
As we've established thus far playing can help us learn, but also, watching others play can help us learn too. My next guest understands this all too well. But we'll get to why this is later on. Let's start with introductions.

Will  17:01
My name is Will Newton. And my position at UCL is lecturer brackets teaching. So, it means I'm actually focused on the teaching side of academia rather than the research side. So, my research entails a variety of things. So, my background is heat transfer, but design as well. And so, I teach design at UCL and mechanical engineering.

Cassidy  17:26
So, you said something interesting, like your focus is more on teaching instead of the research part? Is there a reason for that? Is it because of the discipline that your job is more like teaching involved? Or is it that you just were really interested in teaching more than the research part?

Will  17:43
It’s a combination of things, really. So, the job itself was a teaching role, rather than a research heavy role. That doesn't stop you doing, as a lecturer, you're expected to do an amount of teaching, an amount of research, an amount of management or grant gaining. And so, this role was focused more on teaching than anything else. And it was something which I sort of fell into in a way the job became available I applied for and I got it. And I just enjoyed the teaching side of things, as well. And that was just a good combination. It allows me to do a lot of student facing projects. And that's something which excites me because you get to see students sort of grasp new technology, new ideas, and you see them develop too.

Cassidy  18:27
Yeah, and you said something about that you usually work in heat flow? So, what's an example? I just picture, I don't know, I guess I picture oil on a car or something. But I know nothing about that.

Will  18:39
Yeah. So I mean, heat transfer affects a variety of things. I mean, it affects every part of your life at all times. You know, right behind you, there’s a radiator there and that is heating up the room. The sun comes around every day and heats up a number of things, which right through to the ice, that's melting on the polar caps. They're the sort of things that you experienced day to day, but you're right, you know, an engine has oil, it has air, it has water – all these physical phenomena are interacting with one another, to hopefully get the most out of that engine if you like. So, heat transfer is kind of everywhere, which is kind of cool, I think. Pardon the pun. But yeah, I mean, at the moment I've got, I've got students working on developing computational models for the energy usage of a building. So, there's a big drive towards reducing carbon at every aspect of our lives. And heating our houses with natural gas boilers will be phased out over the years so there's a big move at the moment to trying and add subsidies actually to try and get ground source heat pumps and air source heat pumps. But are these actually the most efficient ways of heating our houses is an interesting question which there's a variety of different answers on. So anyway, yeah, I've got a couple of students looking at stuff like that. And I’ve sort of got students looking into sort of engines and, you know, how do we make them more efficient, too? So, there's a variety of different things.

Cassidy  20:16
Do you have any industries that you can name that you've worked with recently?

Will  20:21
Yeah. So, one of my student projects that I'm doing with Helge is a project with MAL.

Cassidy  20:29
MAL stands for Massive Analytic Limited.

Will  20:34
And they look at data. And so yeah, they're one of these new forward-thinking companies that are really centred in on data and trying to mine that data to come up with new insight into processes. And so, this is a project we started a couple of years ago, specifically to look at driving and AI and trying to come up with a new data set to train AI, and therefore autonomous vehicles. That project was such a success that one of the students on the project got employed by the company. And now we're on our third iteration or second iteration. At the moment, we've got a project looking into similar stuff, but we're trying to link it up with a driving simulator as well. And so that sort of project I mean, not only do we do that with Massive Analytic, we also did something similar with an F1 Team. I can't say who, but we looked into, not so much autonomy, but data driven decision making, let's say. And so that side of stuff, there's been a number of automotive companies and non-automotive companies looking into creating datasets that they can train models off, or train, you know, AI algorithms from. And then I guess the next stage will be the cool stage, which is getting actual people into a driving simulator, and confirming some of these models and helping create a larger dataset that we can work off. And that's great.

Cassidy  22:09
And the way they'll be training autonomous car models will be different than how big tech companies have gone about it in the past.

Will  22:16
The stuff that we're looking at, is it's kind of front end almost. So, if we think about the ultimate goal is to have autonomous vehicles on the roads. But before we can do that, we need to make sure they're safe. And to do that, we need to run lots and lots and lots of calculations. And to do that, we need data. And so, we kind of need, we’re right at the beginning of this journey, almost, we're approaching it in a different way to say Google, and Apple and all these big tech companies. And we're using driving platforms, gaming platforms like Unity, to develop games, where we can then link in with a driving simulator. And we can get our own data set that we can train our algorithms off. You know, the big companies like Tesla and Google and, and so on, they've been doing this for a number of years. So, we're way behind them but we're approaching it in a different manner. And so, we can hopefully add something to the scientific community over the long run.

Cassidy  23:20
Yeah, so it's interesting, you said using games in order to be taking data sets from games? That's interesting.

Will  23:27
Yeah. So, there's a gaming platform called Unity. And you can develop some roads, and actually other vehicles as well. So, it's just like you're playing a game, there's loads of vehicles all around you. And then you've got your vehicle. And you can either have it, so you’re driving it, or you can have it so it's driven autonomously. And so, to begin with, what we do is just developing that platform is a long, lengthy process. And you can add in loads of cool stuff like reckless drivers, and all just everyone following the rules, and so on, and so forth. But yeah, so initially, just to get a bit of data, we develop this platform, and then we can actually put the car in there and see how it performs. And does it avoid crashes? If it wants to try and change from one lane to another does it do so safely and avoid hitting anything? And the crazy thing is, this all sounds really rudimentary, but it's highly complicated. You know, you think of something like just changing when you're driving yourself just going from one lane to another on the motorway. You do it quite effortlessly, and yet to develop that in in the simulation world is it's a it's a fairly lengthy process.

Cassidy  24:49
So when you're talking about utilising this and testing it and so forth, as far as like using the facility the IM@UCL facility, would you be like putting that on the screen that they have their with the car or how would you be utilising it?

Will  25:08
Yeah. So, there's a number of things you could do here. And this is what's really cool about it is, once you've developed the Unity programme, the simulator, you can link that with the simulator at PEARL. But then you get an actual person sat in a car, driving it. And then you can see how they react to certain things. And there's a whole separate thing, which I'm hoping we touch on, but we're not sure if we will get a time. And we definitely do not have the expertise to do. But luckily, being part of this platform, there are people that we can speak to, and they may be able to get a dataset out of it. Which is, we can start to look at how the humans interact with this platform, or with this simulator. So, they'll be driving along and what we're interested in is how they change the steering or how quickly they accelerate or how quickly they react to certain things. And we'll get data from that that we’ll be able to feed into our AI algorithms. But the other researchers involved in the project, or not involved in our student project, they'll be able to see the human side of things. So how the human reacts, where their eyes are looking, what brain activity, and all those cool things. Which, as I say, we, in our little group, don't have any in Mac Eng. That's not what we're interested in. But as part of the bigger project, there is that cool stuff going on as well.

Cassidy  26:33
So, their unique approach will involve creating driving simulator games that participants will play while researchers collect data on their choices and reactions. This would be a difficult task to carry out normally. But thanks to IM@UCL’s driving simulator and research team members who can help with things like monitoring brain behaviour, this unique approach is possible. 

I guess, like that's one of the big benefits about being part of a project like this is it is so interdisciplinary, and people have all these different skills that they can bring and help each other with with each project they're working on.

Will  27:13
Yeah, it's awesome. I can't wait to see how far they get with their project this year. But the things that I'm most excited about, probably the stuff in the future. When we start to realise how capable this facility actually is, and the limitations of it. And so, we'll try and push the facility as far as we can to try and get the most impact from it. There's a really cool team involved looking at a variety of things. And so yeah, I'm just excited to see what comes out of that. And what comes out of the collaboration of these, you know, got a wide variety of expertise. So, I think the future is kind of like the unknown is the most exciting part of it. We don't even realise what it is going to be but I'm sure it'll be, yeah, it'll be great.

Cassidy  28:02
Since recording this podcast, Will has left UCL and moved on to a new role as Senior Lecturer in Mechanical Engineering at Swansea University. But before leaving, he co-supervised a student project by Michael Dodman, Chuanshang Yin, and Kuorun Liu that utilised the IM@UCLs’ facility and won second prize for the TRA Visions 2022 Young Researchers competition. If you would like to learn more about the TRA, which stands for Transport Research Awards, you can visit their website at www.travisions.eu. That's TRA Visions, like I am seeing visions of you visiting this website in the future, .eu. 

Thank you for listening to IM@UCL: The Podcast. If you would like to learn more about the research at IM@UCL, you can check out their website at www.ucl-intelligent-dash-mobility.com and/or subscribe wherever you are listening to this podcast so you can be notified when new episodes come out. This episode was produced and hosted by myself, Cassidy Martin with music from Blue Dot Sessions. It was brought to you by IM@UCL, which is part of UCL PEARL in Dagenham, and supported by UCL Minds, bringing together UCL knowledge, insight and expertise through events, digital content, and activities that are open to everyone. A special thank you to Ellie and Will this month for sharing their time, knowledge and insight. I hope you enjoyed listening to this podcast and feel like you learned something new, like I have with everyone I've interviewed in this series. Take care, and I'll see you again next month. Same time, same place. Cheers!

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