By: Greg Bruce
This is the future of live sport: you’re high in the stands at Eden Park watching Kendra Cocksedge feed a scrum for the Black Ferns and you can see, underneath or above or alongside her, any one or more of the following things: the number of tackles she’s made and missed, the distance she’s run, a map of exactly where on the field she’s spent the most time, how fast she’s covered that distance, how much time she’s spent with the ball – essentially all the things you’d see at home – and more – but directly in your field of vision.
You can do this because you’re looking through eyewear that senses where you are in the stadium and where you’re looking, retrieves the relevant data about what you’re looking at and transmits it directly to your field of vision.
And your eyewear can do all that because a huge amount of software is embedded in it. That software is developed by a bunch of people working at the cutting edge of a field known as augmented reality (AR).
AR is not new – its breakout moment was probably 2016’s pointless time-waster and scourge of humanity Pokemon Go – but it is new enough that most of us don’t yet have any idea how dramatically it might change the way we experience the world.
At the cutting-edge of AR is University of Otago scientist Stefanie Zollmann. Last month, at a fancy awards dinner at Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria, she and four received $25,000 as part of the annual L’oreal-Unesco For Women in Science Fellowships, an award recognising early career female scientists who are leaders in their field and who have the potential to change the face of science.
The ability to see digital information directly on top of the real world is so rich in possibilities. Sport is a natural area for Zollmann because, before taking up her position at Otago, she was a developer for Dunedin-based Information Associates which, among other things, developed the ball-tracking software that revolutionised cricket, making possible the umpiring review system, now used throughout the world.
But that’s just the beginning. The ability to see, just by looking at the world around you, additional information about where you are – street names and where you might go, what you might do on the way, the names of buildings and what’s in them, the ability to look at a natural landscape and see the various routes you might take through it, their distance, the length of time it might take to cover them.
“It’s amazing how much information is available,” Zollmann says, “but it’s sometimes a bit hard to make use of this and what we try with augmented reality is basically to look into developing an interface, how to explore this information in a more natural, more integrated way.”
All is not necessarily well in the world right now. Perhaps the most important question for genuinely smart people working at the cutting edge of technology is not how it’s going to change the world but how it’s going to make it better.
“It’s a very challenging question,” Zollmann says. “If you’d asked me two or three years ago I would have said people are getting connected worldwide and are able to share ideas, and knowledge is getting combined. We can talk about all this information, everyone can download information, research papers, everyone can read studies and get a deeper understanding of what’s happening, how things are working. People are getting much smarter, combining knowledge.”
But all that began to change when it became clear, via the Cambridge Analytica scandal, revelations of interference in the US election and the generalised dissemination of massive amounts of fake information and news through social media, that the internet had become far from the source for good we once assumed it would be.
What we need now, Zollmann says, is some way to rein this in so freedom of information again becomes the tool for betterment it once promised to be.
Balancing freedom and responsibility
“I think there’s just this really amazing opportunity. Humans can combine so much knowledge. I think it’s a really important time. We have to take care that this is not going in the wrong direction, that this amazing piece of combined knowledge shouldn’t be influenced or changed by single people or organisations.
“As humans, we need to look into how we can avoid this. There are researchers and others looking into this but I think the public needs to be more involved. I know it’s tough because there’s so much happening and it’s hard to just keep up with your daily lives but I think we really need to look into how we can avoid this amazing chance turning into something bad.”
The L’oreal-Unesco For Women in Science Fellowship website states that the $25,000 award may be used, “for equipment, employment of a research assistant/technical support, conference/research training attendance or support in the form of childcare”.
Together with her partner and fellow scientist Tobias Langlotz and their 1-year-old baby Frida, Zollmann has done a lot recent travel to universities around the world, which are not necessarily well-equipped for dealing with babies. Zollmann has had difficulty finding change tables, parents’ rooms are sometimes locked and even when institutions are supportive, people sometimes assume she is the travelling housewife to her partner, the scientist.
‘I was intimidated’
“I’m not sure if this is the same for everyone but certainly for me in the beginning I had the feeling everyone knows much more than me. I’m not sure if this is something you can generalise, but sometimes other students and some male students were just, like, ‘Yeah, I’m doing this and that and I’m really great at it’ and sometimes I was getting intimidated by it and I was thinking, ‘Maybe I should just not study this; I have no idea what I’m doing here’.
“But then at a certain point I figured out nobody had any idea what they were doing. Everyone was just trying, and some people maybe like to talk more about their great achievements. They just want to give the appearance that they’re smart and awesome and have no problems, but I think, in the end, everyone is struggling at a certain point.”
Today, only 28 per cent of scientists are women. The L’Oreal Unesco For Women in Science programme aims to bring attention to this persistent imbalance and to do something about putting it right.
“For me, when I was studying, there was a very low ratio of women,” Zollmann says. “It was always a bit hard because you had to look very hard for role models. I wanted a career but I also wanted a family and a nice life but I couldn’t see too many other women where this was working.”
Speaking publicly about what she’s doing, then, is important: “Talking about being a female scientist, showing that we are here and people think this is a normal career path. We were at the girls in science forum yesterday. There were 500 girls, and we were able to talk to them about our careers, saying, ‘It’s not all straightforward, not everyone knows after high school exactly what they’re doing, and you don’t need to be a total nerd.'”