Nami Ogawa (Hirose - Kuzuoka - Narumi Lab.)
After majoring in GSII at The University of Tokyo GSII, in April 2017 Ogawa enrolled in the Doctoral Program (second semester) of the Department of Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies at the Graduate School of Engineering, The University of Tokyo (then: Cyber Interface Lab of Michitaka HIROSE,Tomohiro TANIKAWA,Takuji NARUMI). Then from October 2017, she started working as an intern in the Sensory Representation Research Group at the NTT Communication Science Laboratories Human Information Science Laboratory. Ogawa also spent from January to June in 2018 working as a visiting researcher at the Inria Rennes in France.
Virtual reality (VR) technology can create a sensory illusion that makes you feel like you’re in a different space than you actually are. In fact, it’s not only your sensory perception of the space you’re in that changes – with VR, you can also freely alter your body’s actions. So far though, there has been hardly any clarification of how these changes in our sensory perception and actions through the use of VR affects the way we perceive the world.
This has prompted me to conduct research using VR-based psychological experiments to study the effects on sensory perception and the body’s actions – namely, how the user senses and will act in the virtual space he or she is in - when the appearance of the “self-avatar” used in place of his or herself changes. These experiments have revealed that the avatar’s appearance does have an effect on the user’s sensory perception and actions; I hope these results will be used to draw up design guidelines for the avatars used in VR.
A desire to know, “What is the Self?”
The impetus for this research came when I was an undergraduate student and read the book “Phantoms in the Brain”, which was written by the neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran. It describes, among other episodes, how Ramachandran came up with simple devices using mirrors as a treatment for the “phantom pain”, which occurs when people who have lost their limbs in an accident or had them amputated by surgery feel pain in the areas where they should have lost sensation. I think this is what sparked my interest in knowing “What is the self?”, which has led me to the research I’m doing now. I majored in psychology in my third year of undergraduate studies, and then went on to study sensory psychology. I advanced to a Master’s Program in around 2015, which is also when the VR boom occurred. So I ended up joining the (then) Cyber Interface Lab of Michitaka HIROSE,Tomohiro TANIKAWA,Takuji NARUMI, which was conducting research using VR.
The Master’s Program had a class for holding media art exhibitions, and so in that class I showcased my “Extension Hand” device that can play the piano using a virtual hand with the fingers extended. I wanted to use a body that looked rather unreal, and try to see if people could feel like it was actually their own body.
Cultivating the ground for free and open interdisciplinary research
I’ve realized that I need to do interdisciplinary research in order to dig deeper into my areas of interest. Basically, it requires me to do research from a psychological perspective to explore “How do we perceive reality on a sensory level?”, as well as research from an engineering perspective to investigate “How do we create a virtual reality?” by searching for ways to represent VR.
So in that sense, selecting Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies (AIS) as my major when advancing to the doctoral program was the natural choice for me.
For example, in the AIS characteristic elective subject Leadership Talent Growth Program (I), students can select a tutor who is from a different field and separate to their supervisor, and work with that tutor to prepare a proposal. In my case, I worked with the (then) Associate Professor Katsumi WATANABE who specialized in cognitive science. It was through this collaboration that I was able to obtain the psychological perspectives I wanted to include in my proposal.
Looking back on it now, even when I sat for the entrance exam, I was asked questions from a welfare standpoint by Professor Kenryu NAKAMURA from Assistive Technology; that experience also opened my eyes and broadened my perspective. So I really feel there is much we can learn by approaching research from an interdisciplinary perspective.
Roundabout at a glance, but a direct path in reality
During my time at AIS, I worked as an intern at the NTT Communication Science Laboratories Human Information Science Laboratory so that I could do research with specialists in psychology. I also worked at Inria Rennes in France as a visiting researcher, so that I could experience doing research overseas. So based on my awareness of what I needed to work on at that time, I was able to experience doing research in various environments.
The lab I worked for then was at The University of Tokyo Hongo campus, and so it was quite tough for me to take compulsory courses at the Komaba campus. It was certainly a hectic time of continuing with my research, while also doing other work such as preparing for academic presentations; nevertheless, I feel that I was able to fully pursue my interests and move forward with my research in a free and open interdisciplinary environment.
My research theme for the Master’s Program using the “Extension Hand” was “To what extent can a person feel as if a body that looks and functions differently to their own is like their own body,” while for the Doctoral program it was, “Does a person’s sensory perception of the world change when their body changes?”
The path of my research, which has gone back and forth between psychology and engineering and midway through included a period working outside of the university, might seem rather roundabout at a glance; but for me, I’ve always been on a direct path toward my research goals.
Becoming a bridge to link industry and academia
I’m currently continuing my work as a researcher at an IT company. Actually, when I was looking for employment, there wasn’t any job for a researcher at this company, so I applied for a position in its department that handles VR services. I was asked at the interview about what value I could bring to the company, and I was subsequently hired as its first researcher; as it turned out, the company created a new position for me.
Industry-academia collaborations have been flourishing in recent years, but there are cases where industry and academia are moving in different directions and the collaborative partnership isn’t progressing as planned. I’d like to be a bridge that facilitates smooth industry-academia collaborations by shifting the research platform from academia to industry; and for me, that isn’t a roundabout approach either - it’s a direct path forward.