Turning Research into Reality
Nov/Dec 2012
Gregory Thomas

Where do ideas come from? It’s an interesting question with lots of different answers. Some ideas might occur spontaneously. Some are the result of research. Many come about after in-depth exploration of a topic. At the university level, ideas are often the result of a team effort.

That’s the idea behind the University of Kansas’ Center for Design Research, which was launched in 2011 to foster interdisciplinary collaboration across KU in the area of smart technology and consumer products. KU students and faculty are looking into some of the most important topics of our time, and they’re presenting their results to companies creating the products we buy.

The goal is interdisciplinary collaboration in the research and development of consumer products and services. But how can developments at the university level transform actual products in the future? It’s a process that takes time, but the CDR is an incubator for the ideas that will travel up the corporate ladder.

One of the jobs of the director of the CDR is to find research projects that engage students and faculty while also providing worthwhile benefits to the sponsoring organization. It’s a process that moves from connecting with a company to developing a research strategy, to submitting a finished presentation. Two areas of focus for the CDR are distracted-driving mitigation and health and wellness, as well as the intersection of these two ideas.

What is the CDR?

Today’s universities understand there is a market for the commercialization of research and there are many benefits to collaboration on sponsored projects. After years of working as a professional graphic designer, my new role after arriving at KU was to chair the design department, with the goal of building the CDR. Coming from the professional world to the world of academia provided the necessary background in how companies look for research. As the center has evolved, we’ve had the opportunity to partner with a number of companies interested in innovation.

The program really began in 2009. A development that solidified the program was the creation of a centerpiece building for the CDR’s mini-campus. After the initial bricks and mortar were in place, it was time to find projects that could be researched and developed there. The CDR had already worked on projects with companies such as Bushnell and Nokia that were designed to provide the sponsors with additional research and development outside their facilities. Companies have learned they can always use more R&D, and they often need it from an outside perspective.

That’s the focus of the CDR. But students are benefitting as well. Employers want to hire people with actual experience, and working on projects such as these for actual companies is giving students a leg up. For us, the ability to bring sponsors in is paramount, because students will have the opportunity to work for a well-known company, and they can put that on their resumes when they graduate.

Additionally, the programs allow us to bring in revenue for the university, and in particular for the various schools participating in the projects. KU is a state school, and as state funding becomes harder to secure, anything we can do to supplement or replace state funding is a good thing. But projects can also be done pro bono, and overall, the quality of the research that can be completed is what drives the project selections.

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In a program such as the CDR, connecting with companies that are interested in pursuing research and development is essential. The CDR tends to go about this in two ways. First, we research the industries we’re interested in by reading magazines and visiting Websites. In many cases, we start from the bottom and send someone an email explaining what we do, and we hope they will write back. Secondly, the center receives referrals from people we’re working with. It’s important to ensure both faculty and students are engaged with the research because they will be working with the subject for 14 weeks during the semester.

Creating a proposal is an important step. Once a project is underway, a big part of what we do is look at existing products in new ways. The CDR is designed to be a true interdisciplinary experience, including mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, computer scientists, anthropologists, architects, and a psychology faculty member. It is operated under the auspices of the university’s School of Architecture, Design, and Planning, and receives funding for research proposal development through the KU Transportation Research Institute. In other words, it’s bringing together KU researchers and departments that otherwise might not collaborate.

Imagining a smarter car

Connected technologies are making the automobile more than a way to get around. The smart car has been an area of particular interest for the CDR. In fact, we have coined a phrase for what we are doing in this area: “autotechture.” After all, what is more architectural than the inside of a car? You’re dealing with lighting, ergonomics, and space considerations. But it’s also about connected technology and how it is not only limited to inside the vehicle, but how it also follows you when you move into your home.

The intersection between the smart car and the smart home is a major focus area for the CDR. Today, they are seen as two independent things, but we can imagine them as one. Connected technology could be used when you’re making a transition from one space to the other. For example, key fobs. Connected fobs can trigger actions in a car, such as unlocking the door. Perhaps this could work for the home as well.

At the university level, the CDR is creating proof-of-concepts. It’s a creative group that is trying to think about automobiles in new ways, but it’s not going out and building a new car. For instance, this semester the CDR has been working on a research project for Bayer HealthCare. In the beginning, it was a blue-sky pitch. The Advanced Design Studies 560 class would create applications for Bayer’s Contour USB blood glucose meter, which is a portable device for managing diabetes. Researchers started thinking about the different ways the device could be used. Because it’s a USB device, perhaps someone could plug it into the dashboard to upload data in the car. Maybe the device could be expanded to monitor other vital signs, such as heart rate or hydration level. The final presentation researchers will submit to Bayer will focus on what the company can do with the product that the company may not have thought of.

But other avenues also exist for the connected car to make a difference in people’s lives. In 2010, a variety of disciplines at KU collaborated to create an adaptable dashboard display targeted at mitigating distracted driving. In essence, the display is a screen the user could tailor at home using a computer. These Adaptive Information Displays—or “smart dashboards”—are designed to minimize distractions and help drivers keep their eyes on the road. Students in various classes worked on the project, ultimately creating a presentation for the Transportation Research Board in Washington, D.C. Because different groups were all thinking about the device and its possible applications, researchers presented not one, but six different viewpoints on how it could be used.

In the future, our vehicles will likely be just one part of a connected system that also involves our homes, and perhaps our bodies as well. This system could help us make a seamless transition from the house to the car to the office. All of our vital signs, personal files, and lighting preferences might follow us from one place to the next. In this scenario, the car will act as a connected hub while also implementing technology that cuts down on distraction. Research conducted at KU’s CDR will ultimately impact what we someday see on the auto show floor.

Gregory Thomas is a professor of design and director of the CDR at the University of Kansas. He can be reached at gthomas@ku.edu

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