Sounds like Science Fiction

I appear in this article by Kate Stanton. This article was first published on Pursuit. This post only shows my section. Read the full article to read about Bionic Vision, Intelligent Transport, Robots and Cyborgs and the Bionic Spine.

Some of the technological innovations of 2017 sound more like sci-fi, but according to the brains behind a few of them, the future is still full of surprises

It is the work of science fiction writers to imagine future worlds and expand the scope of what we think is possible. It’s no wonder then that so much of the technology available today was first created in science fiction.

Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon tells the story of three men who use a space gun to shoot themselves to the moon. The crew on Star Trek: The Next Generation used an electronic tablet called a PADD. The Jetsons, the 1960s cartoon family, even had a little robot vacuum cleaner, not unlike today’s Roomba.

“So many ideas have actually come from science fiction,” says Steven Prawer, Professor of Physics at the University of Melbourne and chief technology officer of iBIONICS, a company developing a diamond-based bionic eye.

“Arthur C. Clarke talking about satellites or Jules Verne’s trip the moon — these things have been very influential in imagining what might be,” Professor Prawer says.

“The job of a scientist — my job now — is to turn these ideas into reality.”

Here are five ways researchers are pushing the boundaries of scientific discovery — turning science fiction into science fact.


Kayla Heffernan, a PhD student in the Department of Computing and Information Systems, can unlock her front door with a wave of her hand.

That’s because the microchip inserted into the side of her hand has been programmed to work with the card reader lock she has installed at her house. Another microchip in the webbing between her thumb and forefinger can be scanned with a smartphone to open her website.

Ms Heffernan is studying biohackers, people like her who choose to wear what she calls “insertables” — devices, such as microchips or magnets, implanted inside the body for non-medical purposes. They are using insertable technology to pay for lunch or sense faraway earthquakes.

It almost sounds like a form of telekinesis, like the character ‘Eleven’ in the tele-series Stranger Things, who can control objects with her mind.

But the technology is very basic, she says. It isn’t much different from the MyKi card people use on Melbourne transport, it’s just that rather than carried in your wallet it’s implanted in your hand.

“It’s not as fun or as sexy as it sounds,” she says. “I can open my front door. That’s not really a superpower.”

Ms Heffernan is also studying public discourse about insertable technology, especially misconceptions about the ways microchips can be used, largely because people only understand them in the context of science-fiction films.

She says she regularly reads online criticism from people who see microchips as a sign of some dystopian future, based on the tracking chips they have seen in Total Recall or other films.

“People are just terrified and the reason that they’re terrified is sci-fi,” Ms Heffernan says.

“They don’t understand how the technology works, so they fall back to what they’ve seen in sci-fi. They think the government’s going to microchip us and track us.”

Many biohackers are experimenting with ways that insertable technology can make their lives more interesting or convenient, such as paying for a coffee with a swipe of your thumb.

But Ms Heffernan says the concept has real benefits for people with disabilities or other medical conditions.

“If you have severe arthritis and you cannot physically operate a key to open your door, this could change your life,” she says.

Ghost Buttons — Not as bad as we thought? 

Ghost Buttons — Not as bad as we thought? 

Are ghost buttons really as bad as they've been made out to be? Ghost buttons are often touted as low-affordance, and it’s true of many of the examples we see  — buttons with poor contrast placed over images making them difficult to use and confounds A/B tests. We say we are comparing ghost buttons and ‘normal’ buttons but we are really testing accessible vs inaccessible buttons, high vs low contrast designs, high affordance vs low affordance designs (and it’s not a surprise that ghost buttons lose). What happens when we test an accessible ghost button against an accessible solid button?

Towards insertables: Devices inside the human body

Towards insertables: Devices inside the human body

As technology becomes smaller, the way we carry it has progressed from luggable, to wearable and now towards devices that reside inside the human body, or insertables. We demonstrate this trajectory towards devices inside the human body, and carve out insertables as a specific subset of devices which are voluntary, non-surgical and removable.

Online & Search Behaviours of Blind Users

Online & Search Behaviours of Blind Users

We often make assumptions about blind users, however blind users are not homogenous. They differ as much as sighted users in terms of technical ability and search strategies. Just as not every sighted person is tech savvy, not every blind person knows how to use a screen reader well, or utilizes all the power features. This literature review explains the online and search behaviours of blind individuals

Press the pink button — Designing for colour blind users

Press the pink button — Designing for colour blind users

We use colour as a signifier for people, places and things all the time. Probably more than you realise. About 8% of Australian males and 0.4% of females are colour blind.  Like all people with ‘disabilities’, there are certain things colour blind people can’t do. Design can help make the world more accessible to ensure they can do everything those with ‘normal’ vision can. I explore ways to deign for colour blind users, which often improves the experience for everyone. 

Does the NPS tell us what users really mean?

We’ve trained users with the five or seven point Likert scale survey questions, where the middle point means “neither likely nor unlikely”. Yet on the NPS a 5 does not mean "neither" it means the users is a detractor. Does the NPS tell us what users really mean?

Design is as good (or as flawed) as the people who make it

Design is as good (or as flawed) as the people who make it

gave a talk at UX Australia 2016 in Melbourne (August 25–26) . No one sets out to intentionally design a system that is hard to use for — or worse, excludes or discriminates against —  some users. Designers are trying their best. You’re probably a good person, but a human nonetheless, therefore not perfect. Design can only be as good as the people who make it. Conversely, design is as flawed as the people who make it. 

Drunk Kayla & Uber UX

I had a few after-work drinks last Friday and caught an Uber home — this was always the plan, although I probably had one (or three) too many drinks on an empty stomach and was a little drunk (not part of the original intention). I lost my phone and this is a story of that UX. 

You put what, where? Hobbyist use of insertable devices (Part 2)

The human body has emerged as more than just a canvas for wearable electronic devices. Technological size and cost reductions, along with power and battery improvements, has meant items that were once external have become wearable, and even insertable. 

In part 2 we look at our results - what are participants inserting and what does this mean for the future of HCI & UX?

You put what, where? Hobbyist use of insertable devices (Part 1)

The human body has emerged as more than just a canvas for wearable electronic devices. Technological size and cost reductions, along with power and battery improvements, has meant items that were once external have become wearable, and even insertable.


Part 1 gives background to my research to be presented at the CHI conference in San Jose this week.

Guys as the new ‘um’

Gendered words can be, and are, damaging to some recipients (and effectively the deliverer). You’re probably not even aware of the fact that you’re alineting or demeaning your audience. I, and a lot of other women, have a visceral reaction to the term and it’s important you are aware of the impacts of choosing to using it. Let's talk about "guys". 

Insertables: I’ve got I.T. under my skin

An intro to Insertabeles, as published in ACM interactions. 

Imagine Dylan, a bureaucrat working in a foreign embassy. Dylan approaches a security door, arms overflowing with confidential reports. Dylan leans toward the door’s access sensor and is authenticated. The door is now unlocked and can be easily pushed open with one shoulder, without the need to put down the documents and fumble for his keys or an access pass. Dylan has an insertable device implanted subcutaneously in his hand that interacts with the transponder at the office door.

It may read as science fiction, but it's already a reality.