Designing the future

May 11, 2015

Two researchers from Flinders University have a vision to make the world a better place, and are using STEM smarts and industry collaboration to make it a reality.

Mr David Hobbs demonstrates the OrbIT Gaming System and Orby Controller to a young child. Photo courtesy of the South Australian Department of State Development.

Laura Diment and David Hobbs are both former students and now staff at the new Flinders University campus at Tonsley, a world-class facility that brings multiple disciplines of STEM research together with industry. Diment and Hobbs began their Biomedical Engineering studies within the School of Computer Science, Engineering and Mathematics (CSEM), and have each received international acclaim for developing assistive technologies that enable children with disabilities to make the most out of the creative potential of modern software.

Hobbs, currently completing a PhD in rehabilitative engineering, has received significant attention for his work creating an accessible computer gaming system that incorporates a unique orb-shaped controller nicknamed ‘Orby’. The novel trackball controller can be operated without the need for fine motor skills. This makes it accessible for children with cerebral palsy, who are often unable to use mainstream controllers.

The novel trackball controller nicknamed 'Orby'.
The novel trackball controller nicknamed ‘Orby’.

The gaming system and 15 interactive games developed for Orby have been a huge success with the 18 families that trialled the technology, with most reporting increased social closeness for the period Orby was in their homes.

For Hobbs, whose main motivation for studying engineering is the potential to ‘give back’ to society, this is an ideal result. He is now in the processes of commercialising Orby and hopes it will eventually be available to families, though is quick to note the difficulties in finding a balance between the inevitable costs of research and development and creating an affordable end product.

It is clear, however, that Hobbs relishes the challenge; a past recipient of both Fulbright and Churchill scholarships, he is determined to keep building upon assistive capacity of the technology. Trials will soon begin investigating the potential of Orby to help in the recovery of stroke patients.

Making a splash


First-class Honours student, Laura Diment, is also keen to use her STEM skills to help people who need it most. Diment chose to spend her compulsory five-month industry placement during her third year of study at a leading rehabilitation centre in Toronto, Canada – following the footsteps of Hobbs, who mentored her exchange from back in Australia. Here, she began creating Splashboard, an art program that uses Microsoft Kinect’s infrared technology to enable children with cerebral palsy to create musical art on screen. The technology can track movement in three dimensions, allowing children to interact with buttons on screen that trigger colour tools and sound by waving their arms.

Diment, who has since won a number of awards nationally and internationally for her creation, acknowledges the benefits of the opportunity to build industry partnerships early on in her Biomedical Engineering degree. “The future really is about connecting the industry and research earlier on, because they know what’s going to be beneficial in the long run.”

From these solid foundations in research and industry, Diment looks to be building a formidable career. She starts her PhD in Oxford as a John Monash scholar later this year, where her research will focus on creating a future in which developing countries have access to the skills and expertise necessary to design their own assistive technologies, rather than having to rely on Western-developed finished products that are ‘posted across’.

Much the same as Hobbs, Diment is confident in the capacity of STEM careers to create a better world. “We are designing the future,” she says.

With such bold ambitions, it seems only fitting that these two are working in Flinders’ new campus in the Tonsley business hub. The centre is quite literally amplifying the work that STEM disciplines at Flinders are capable of; the Biomedical Engineering discipline now takes up more than double its original size in order to make the most of the opportunities in this new environment. “People can come to us or work alongside us; it’s much more flexible and approachable.” Hobbs is grateful to have had the opportunity to help shape the new campus; “It’s a once in a generational opportunity… now it’s really up to us to maximise what we’ve been given and to do the best job we can.”

Breana Macpherson-Rice

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One thought on “Designing the future”

  1. Great article Craig – somehow we also need to convince politicians, university executives and researchers that co-creative innovative endeavours with an iterative interventionist methodology and evaluation process tied in should qualify for at least the same recognition and in terms of points earned in ERA for instance as the accepted more traditional applied science domains and the so-called ‘blue sky’ discovery-based research

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