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James Birt - mixed reality, computer games and e-sports educator | S2E5

April 12, 2022

James Birt - mixed reality, computer games and e-sports educator | S2E5
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In this episode:  Using virtual reality in the classroom. How games taught James important life skills. Innovation and entrepreneurship in education and tensions between formal and informal modes of learning. The pedagogical value of game jams and hackathons. Parallels between e-sports and regular sports. How games helped James when he broke his back. The importance of standards and governance and an argument for formalised education.

About the Guest:  James Birt is an Associate Professor of Computer Games in the Faculty of Society and Design at Bond University, Australia, where he runs the Mixed Reality Research Lab (www.mixedrealityresearch.com). His research spans computer science and visual arts, with an emphasis on applied design and development of extended reality (XR) and games-based experiences for assisting learning and knowledge discovery. James is recognised as an international leader in educational technology, XR and games with an editorial role with Springer Educational Technology Research and Development (ETR&D), a position on the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) working group for AR/VR, an assessor’s role for the International Serious Games Showcase and Challenge (SGSC) and an expert role on the 2022 EDUCAUSE Horizon Report.

[James' LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/dr-james-birt/]

Recorded 8 March 2022

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About the Host: Despite never letting school interfere with his education, Danu has nevertheless acquired two social science degrees and an executive MBA. He toils at the intersection of education, technology and society and has worked at various times in teaching, research, project management, business development and customer service. He has so many interests that he has started to outsource them, and his life plan is rapidly running out of alphabet.  [Danu's LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/danupoyner/]

Music: Kleptotonic Swing by Tri-Tachyon

Website: stillcuriouspodcast.com | Email: stillcuriouspodcast@gmail.com
Instagram: @stillcuriouspod |  Twitter: @stillcuriouspod

Transcript
James Birt:

Computer games was my entire childhood, taught me things, was my educator, everything. It was so funny to see the stigma around games. You would have the graduations, the Dean would say 'and now here are the graduates from the bachelor of computer games' and you could see the sniggering around the audience. And I went, 'why is it that there's this stigma?'

Danu Poyner:

You're listening to the Still Curious Podcast with me, Danu Poyner. My guest today is James Birt who is an associate professor of Computer Games and Film, Screen, and Creative Media at Bond University in Queensland, Australia. James specializes in interactive, mixed reality experiences, sits on the International Organization for Standardization working group for augmented and virtual reality and also managers, bond universities e-sports program. In today's episode, we discuss the tensions and interplay between formal and informal modes of learning, how games taught James important life skills and the value of innovation and entrepreneurship in education.

James Birt:

It's about creating and making. That's the key that creativity, that spark of wanting to do. That's not something that I think can be formalized in teaching that well

Danu Poyner:

James observes. Why many kids who love school in their early years fall out of love with it. Once they get to high school.

James Birt:

If it was a game, we would say there's something wrong with the onboarding, we've got to rebuild the tutorial.

Danu Poyner:

And unpacks the pedagogical value of game jams and hackathons.

James Birt:

You're essentially doing authentic examination. Under real world conditions, doing direct application of knowledge. If you do not know what you're doing, you ain't going to win the game jam.

Danu Poyner:

We talk about how James uses virtual reality in the classroom, the parallels between e-sports and regular sports, how games helped James, when he broke his back, the importance of standards and governance, and ultimately why James believes so strongly in formalized education.

James Birt:

The tech industry saying, we don't need formal education. We can validate their skillset by hosting a hackathon and seeing how they solve the problem, and then bringing them in. Then what ends up happening is that they'll go in and they may not survive within those organizations. I think having legitimacy there is really important.

Danu Poyner:

It's a jam packed, heartfelt and thoughtful episode. I hope you enjoy it. It's James Birt coming up after the music break on today's episode of the Still Curious Podcast. Hi James, welcome to the podcast. How are you?

James Birt:

Brilliant mate, such a wonderful day here in Queensland. So looking outside and seeing the beautiful blue skies after quite an interesting couple of weeks here in the sunshine state, or should I say the not so sunshine state. At the end of the day, we've got to look at the silver lining and I think that's probably a good way of starting off this podcast. Isn't it?

Danu Poyner:

Absolutely. It's nice to be doing this in person. This is the first time I've had an in-person conversation on the podcast. I've got so much to ask you about, so I'm gonna dive in if that's all right.

James Birt:

Yep.

Danu Poyner:

So you're an associate professor of computer game and film screen and creative media at bond university, where you specialize in applied design and development of interactive, mixed reality experiences, assisting learning skills, acquisition, and knowledge discovery. You write for national media outlets, including the ABC and The Conversation and The Project. You have a position on the International Organisation for Standardisation working group for AR and VR. And you are involved as an assessor for the International Serious Games Showcase and Challenge. That's a lot. What would you say is the most important thing for someone to understand about what you do?

James Birt:

If one was to look at a singular word, it would be education. And then I would say, secondly, it would be how games and how play and how I guess these things that we did in our childhood could actually have meaning to what we do today in our business life and in our careers. The technology is always there. I've been in technology ever since I was about two or three years old. Dad

Danu Poyner:

father

James Birt:

was a electrical engineer and he brought a computer. I didn't even know what a computer was and he sat this thing in front of me and he said, I think this is something that you should learn. This was about 1982. It was IBM clone. I remember sitting there and the first thing I did with that computer was play a game. That game was alley cat, and then the second game I ever played was, Digger. I was fascinated with everything about games. I started from about the age of five, wanting to create games. My father worked at Telecom, which was the former Telstra. And he was best mates with a systems analyst and programmer who could program in binary and hexadecimal. That's where I started learning. We used to go over on a weekend and he would have a coffee and catch up. And then Ken would take me into the other room and teach me programming. It was always about gaming, but then using that for positive outcomes. Right from the beginning, it was education through games. I learned to type through games. Space quest was one of the first lexicon, parser games that I played. And I would have only been five or six. You had to type, "throw the grenade", and if you didn't type it fast enough, you would die. Here I was, youngster trying to type, and one finger typing wasn't going to cut it because I couldn't type fast enough to be able to pass that part of the game. There was no saved games or anything like that. So you had to start all the way back at the beginning again. I was motivated to learn to type very quickly. Right from the beginning is games taught me something. Would that make space quest a serious game? Well, in some ways one could argue it certainly taught a skill set, which by definition of serious games is one of the outcomes that you want to achieve. Very interesting how entertainment and how gaming can lead to serious outcomes in this case, learning to type learning to spell you had to spell correctly, or it would say don't understand what you're talking about.

Danu Poyner:

Yeah. Fantastic. Thanks for that. You've mentioned a whole lot of things there that I'd like to unpack, but it sounds like you got a real headstart. I had a similar experience. My granddad was a tinkerer in electronics, and I used to get his hand me down PCs in the late eighties and nineties, and started out with games. I've always felt that games have given me certain kinds of life skills. You mentioned education being the core, how conscious were you of this path you were taking? Because one of the things we always talk about on the podcast is people's plan A in life. And most people are not on plan A but it sounds like this has been a plan A for you.

James Birt:

Right from the beginning I had. Affinity with computers, games programming. I would open up the computer and look at the various electronics in there. And cos' dad was a electrical engineer. He could explain to me what capacitors and transistors and microchips and other things were. He was not a programmer, but he could almost unpack what was happening. So rather than just this black box sitting in front of me, right from that early age, I started to understand what was underneath the hood of that black box. That sparked my curiosity around what computers were, and then what software was, and that real difference between hardware and software. It's the black box. Right from that early day, I learned what was in the black box. Then I got hijacked in that, everyone around me said, oh, maybe you should be a doctor. So all through primary school and early high school, my focus was to become a medical doctor. I was going to be a plastic surgeon. Not that I knew anything about it. It was probably related to the money and maybe the profession itself. I did really well with grades up until maybe Year 10. In uni I was a distinction average, in high school I was a B average, and I think it was that. And the way that the university curriculum works, essentially, there was no pathways into medicine in those days. You have to be the top of the top. I realized that I wasn't going to get into medicine. I didn't have the grades, but I knew what my plan B was and that was computer science. When I graduated, from high school, 1997, 6 or seven? All of the universities were closing down their computer science programs and up rose IT. I basically went well, if there's no computer science, I'll go into an IT program. Again, I got my B averages. Funnily enough, the areas I had the most affinity towards was probably more of the communications side around IT and those soft skills of IT. Project management and leadership and, running teams that side. Programming, not as much. I did well with programming in high school, but I didn't translate so well to programming at undergraduate university. That formalization of programming wasn't really instilled in high school. I felt, I knew the basics and actually in not then engaging with the basics, I perhaps missed those foundational steps of programming to then support the more advanced level programming. Even though I could pass it, I never got the high distinctions in the programming. Whereas when it came to the more soft skill leadership, software engineering design approaches, they were the ones that I did really well in. And From the end of my degree, towards 1999, I was very fortunate in that our head of school at the time came into the lab while I was there with my mates and he said, oh, you guys are all pretty good students. We would happen to be the only ones there at nine o'clock at night, finishing off an assignment. And he said to us, I'll look, we've got an industry project that we need some people to do, so there's no no. You're going off and you're doing it. It happened to be with Kelvin Ross, a prolific entrepreneur here in Southeast Queensland and has done a lot of work around business enterprise and other things, and very capable in the whole connection of how digital technologies can innovate. So we went and worked for him at Compaq research and development. That was at the time when the gold coast was meant to be the Silicon valley of Australia and the Southern hemisphere. And you have many different organizations and it was a research culture. It ran like Silicon valley because basically, their partner was in Palo Alto. We would get up early in the morning and have conversations with the crew over in Palo Alto. We were there as testers and it was really good, fun to work on innovative projects, like precursors to iPods and work on all of these projects that, even today, you're only just seeing some of this. That was my Xerox park moment. I could see research development, innovation, and really high caliber individuals working in amazing environments with lots of other high caliber individuals. I decided that I wanted to go and do my honors year because I saw this research culture and I said, oh wow, that's what I want to do. I asked them, how do I get in here? This is my dream. They said, you need a master's or you need some kind of research degree, maybe up towards a PhD. I went back and did my honors year and just like everything, not everything works out. And within the first six weeks I left the honors program. I then went back to Compaq. It was that time when the old.com crash happened and also the tax incentives left for the state government. A number of those high-tech, innovation research and development companies left Australia. You had some of the group move on to places like IBM, which is still here on the gold coast. Here I was as a graduate, earning over a hundred thousand dollars a year to then all of a sudden have absolutely no work. Even though the.com crash didn't affect the greater industry, necessarily, that industry of IT and technology, it was total decimation of that industry, especially in Australia. It went from just such high employability to gig economy, contract to contract, you will work for no more than $35,000 a year. It was a really tough period. I remember having to traipse up to Brisbane for a contract. I was in this company and the average age was 60 and all of the people that essentially been fired, but they were there to be business analysts to do a data migration project. You could imagine what their state of mind was. And here is this 19 year old where the average age of those individuals was 60. I thought to myself, this cannot possibly be my career. I remember, coming back, and it poured rain. All of the rail lines got flooded and I was stuck in Brisbane and I had to go and stay in a motel soaked to the bone and I got the flu and all these things. No, this isn't for me. That was the first time I ever quit a job. That was the only time where I just went, no, I just cannot do this. Then I fell into gaming and I basically just played EverQuest and massive multiplayer games. I just played those incessantly for maybe 12 months. I was looking for jobs, kind of looking, but really just playing games. Then my honors supervisor rang my father and said, oh, watch James doing. And he goes, he's sitting, playing computer games. She got me on the phone and said, I'm enrolling you back into the honors program. You cannot say no. I thought that was really fascinating. And I said, oh, okay. That's sounds. That was it. And I've never left university since. I did my honors. I aced it. Because I learnt you don't get a second chance. And I went, I can't fail at this. I applied for PhD scholarship and I didn't get a first round PhD scholarship on 99.8 because someone else got 99.9. It shows you how competitive that is. That person didn't take on the scholarship. It came to me essentially did my PhD looking at quality assurance. It was utilizing machine learning. So I use genetic algorithms and neural networks and other things to understand errors in source code for the purpose of how do we optimize our application of testing resources to apply them in the areas that need it the most. It taught me the idea of problem optimization, which essentially is the cornerstone of machine learning and how it's used today within data science and other things that probability of outcome. I finished that within just under three years. Then I was introduced to bureaucracy. My PhD supervisor went on long service leave and it was nearly 12 months from finishing my PhD to actually submitting my PhD because she wasn't there to review. And my co-supervisor had left the institution through redundancy. It was very fascinating to see that bureaucratic kind of underplay take place. But during that time I was teaching tutoring and then I started taking courses. So with her going on, her long service leave and sabbaticals, I essentially took the software engineering courses and the project management courses. I was teaching six subjects at the institution I was at and loving the teaching. Because I was more of the student's age, there was that connection with the students and myself. It was really fascinating teaching people much older than I was as well. I got my PhD and then I started to work at lots of different institutions. I never wanted to leave the gold coast. I love it here. I genuinely do. And so work was always something that enabled me to stay. There's not that many universities on the gold coast, only a couple. So trying to get a full-time gig was tough. I was a sessional. It was just about constantly teaching, and not being able to have the capacity to build from there. In 2008, I was teaching across three institutions. So bond Griffith and central Queensland Uni. There was one semester where I was teaching 11 subjects across the three institutions I was doing night work day work. I managed to do it, but then I could see the writing on the wall. Cause again, it was, redundancies, are, this is always the way in any business you have your ups and downs. I could start to see the courses deteriorating. And there was a lot more focus where the course convenors would have to start taking those courses on as opposed to sessionals the sessional is the one that gets shed. And, I did my PhD because of one of the teachers and this teacher at the uni I played chess with on the open day where we went to find out whether that was the university for me. The first time I ever met this person was playing chess with my PhD supervisor before I started any of my undergraduate. The director, where I was at CQU happened to become the director here at Bond in the college. And he said to me, oh, let me introduce you to Jeff Brand. I remember having a coffee with Jeff and he said, we've got this new games program that we're launching and you'd be great or your skillset, would really fit in well around the programming and the design and all of these things. You should put in an application. I did, and I got the job. That was my first proper full-time job. I was super excited and actually met my wife here at bond. And we had our wedding photos here at Bond. When Jeff had set up the bachelor of computer games or the bachelor of multi-media. It was so novel. I think we were either the first or second institution in Australia. He set that up in 2008 and then I came in in 2010. And, it was really novel, but it was so funny to see the stigma around games and you would have the graduations and the Dean would say, and now here are the graduates from the bachelor of computer games and you could see the sniggering around the audience. Computer games, was my entire childhood, taught me things, was my educator was everything. And I went, why is it that there's this stigma? I didn't even think that there was a stigma because of course I was immersed. That I think was probably one of the biggest issues that we had to face because universities were always meant to be about the bachelors of businesses, laws and the list. And here was this bachelor of computer Games. Yeah. The numbers were fantastic in the early days. And then they started to dry up and we would ask, why is that? On, you know, I really want my son or daughter to do a law degree, or I want them to do medicine. Oh, why not this? And then the grandparents would say, oh no, you can't do computer games. They're bad.

Danu Poyner:

Thank you so much for sharing that and laying out what an incredible series of events that you've described. You've been swept up in some extraordinary trends and events with economic boom and bust cycles and little, serendipitous stuff around taxes, incentives and things. so You've ridden some of those waves, but also what I heard was a lot of you making your own path through those when the moment arose. Is that something that resonates with you?

James Birt:

I do a lot of workshops with young people. My favorite time is actually going out to schools and talking about entrepreneurship. I constantly am doing that myself. Intrepreneurs or something, I heard that term the other day? I thought, yeah, it's true. That idea that never is anything going to be a smooth road. And being able to have foresight, but then also being able to take enjoyment in what you're doing, because as you said, there's been so many bumps and then rises and falls. It never changes. You've got to take the joy out of what you do, but at the same time, you've got to constantly be seeing where the next path takes. The amount of service activity and marketing activity and all the things I do is massive and constantly going out to schools. And provide young people with some of that lived experience to say that, life is not going to be a straight line. It's about you being able to engineer something that fits you and hopefully in a way change it. How can one be that person that can change and understand, but deeply understand it, not just from a evangelical sales marketing kind of approach, but actually really be able to talk about it and action it from a lived experience. Having that knowledge around and guiding young people towards it, which is hard because they've not had the lived experience. They only know what they know. You need to be an entrepreneur and you need to have skills that allow you to be a chameleon because no one else is gonna do it for you. You have to do it. And you have to have a set of agile skills that allows you to duck and weave and carve out a little cave somewhere and be there. Then when the cave's about ready to get flooded, go off and set up another one and be able to work your way up and have success in working your way up as well.

Danu Poyner:

Absolutely. The other thing that does strike me from the story you've been telling is about that mix of being self-taught but also combining different things, formal education. That's not easy to do, and it's not something that comes naturally to everyone. You're a fairly laid back kind of guy, but you've got this really important message, which is not a message that you hear often in education about being entrepreneurial necessarily. You've quite accomplished and you're very well known in the sector and you've got a lot of attention. Do people see the striving that happens underneath, because that's a big story that you've just told.

James Birt:

Yeah, I don't think so. I think most people see the badges. People don't see the work that goes into the badge. It's the hard yards of achievement that actually gives you the skills and the resilience to be able to deal with the changing environment around work. Life families, et cetera. I've certainly noticed it a lot in education, probably more recently than back when I was doing it. And that was instant gratification of outcome. Not appreciating a journey to outcome. You'll hear it from a lot of older academics where they talk about, it's not about the final point. It's about the journey of getting to that final point. What I've noticed happening a lot now seems to be about instant gratification of the badge and not about the hard work about earning it. In doing so there is a real issue and we can see it in society. We have so many problems because there is this mindset around instant achievement. The problem with that is that kind of thing reduces achievement. Everyone's a winner. Everyone's got this, everyone's got that. Education should be universal for all. There is no doubt about that, but achievement and striving and hard work and all the rest of it still deserves to have that achievement at the end. Somewhere along the pathway we've lost the badging of achievement. And it's simply just badging of doing something. Formalized education is really in a way trying to create an optimal workflow, if I use my AI background, to get those skills. It really does help support formal structures of learning and when it's done correctly, but I also a hundred percent support hacking and play and failure because hacking is about failure. I learned about hexadecimal and programming by hacking Dungeons and dragons games on my IBM client. And going, oh, I want lower armor class, or I want my sword to be higher powered. It was really cool on the weekend because my daughter, they've gotten into scratch programming and it's all about creating a game. It's about using games and fun and excitement to excite this idea of algorithmic thinking. She was following some cheats on scratch and making this little puppy dog make sounds and move up and down and jump over things and score points. And I sat there thinking I've not done any of that with her. Obviously we play games together and we enjoy that but it's interesting to see that she now really wants to make her own. It's about creating and making. That's where that hacking entrepreneurship, intrepreneurship, whatever we want to call it alongside formal education. That's the key that creativity, that spark of wanting to do. That's not something that I think can be formalized in teaching that well. That self motivation, self-determination. There's gotta be that as a foundation. The entrepreneurs often say, oh, I never even went to uni. I just went and did it. My best mate, through university, who's also an associate professor and his brother never formalized his education, but has made millions of dollars in computer programming. He built one of the first templating systems for HTML when he was 13. Then he made micro SMS transactions, and then he got into the voiceover IP platforms before they were really a big thing and then sold it for millions of dollars. Formalized education never worked. He tried to do it. He was actually in my classes and just couldn't sit still. He was constantly sitting there programming his micro SMS platform and not doing the formalized education. So very fascinating to see how that that took place. Whereas his brother was exactly the same as me formalized PhD or associate professor. It was really interesting to see within the same household, such a variance individuals. There's always been an opportunity for entrepreneurship but there's a lot more in the digital space now with a lot of different platforms to enable content creation.

Danu Poyner:

The tension between formal informal kinds of learning is very much at the heart of things that I care about. I'm someone who did well at school for the most part in that environment, but also really hated the experience. Informal It Resonates with me more. But I think that the game, world is a really interesting space for an academic discipline because in fields like games and tech, more generally credentials seem to matter a lot less than being able to show people what you've done, have a portfolio. And there's more of a game jam kind of ethic of just learning by doing stuff and putting yourself out there. You're saying you really believe in the formalization of education, so I can see this as really important to you. I wonder if you can say something more about that.

James Birt:

Definitely that hackathon game jam approach, one looks at that and the reason why they're so successful at finding individuals is because you're essentially doing authentic examination. From a formalized approach, you're basically being examined under real world conditions, doing direct application of knowledge. If you do not know what you're doing, you ain't going to win the game jam. The portfolio is an interesting one because I've had students that can create incredible portfolios, but the production of that portfolio is taking them so long that in a way to create and craft this logo or icon or game or whatever it is, if that's taken you thousands of hours, then you're unemployable. We've moved into this era of portfolio generation, typically around gig economy type stuff. What ends up happening is that they give them a task and then they can take as long or whatever to generate that. If one was to look at say like corporate enterprise work, or user experience, design work, or client work, or even games, you're constantly under crunch, you're constantly having to perform. A portfolio may not be the best way of actioning someone's capacity under crunch. That's where your game jams and other things really shine in those endeavors. If you look at apprenticeship models, the apprentice learns from the master, and you're only as good as your master in a way, because you learn from them, and that applied work over and over and over. By the end of it, you've got a pretty good understanding of solving problems and working through things. In tech and games and stuff like that, there isn't really that apprentice mentor model. So they obviously use these types of approaches to almost gauge where that individual is. This is a little bit like the tech industry saying, we don't need formal education. We just want people who can action their skillset. And we can validate their skillset by hosting a hackathon and seeing how they solve the problem, and then bringing them in. In some instances that individual is genuinely good, but they may not have that formal process to understand how to work within corporate teams, being able to work as part of large scale organizations, the KPI approach to things. Then what ends up happening in a lot of cases is that they'll go in and they may not survive within those organizations. They haven't been trained to understand how to work within there. Then they end up leaving and maybe starting up their own business or something. There's so many things to try to capture in this growth of this entrepreneurial education stuff. Does it work? I want it to work. I'm not sold on it. There's so many moving pieces that need to be captured. And I don't know if formal pedagogy can work across all of them, but definitely think that formal education skills and having an understanding of how to learn to learn is super important. But I still believe you gotta be able to have freedom to tinker, create fail, experiment, put it out to the world, be resilient, get your knock-backs because that builds you up as a character.

Danu Poyner:

I think this is a good segue to talk about what you're doing in your programs. Your programs work, you're well known for your innovative approaches to teaching, particularly in the mixed reality space. And before we dive into that, something I always do on the podcast is to ask someone how to explain something as if to a 10 year old. Could you, explain what mixed reality is to a 10 year old who probably already knows.

James Birt:

We have so many terms coming out now, like metaverse, augmented reality, virtual reality, immersive reality ,XR. So many different things being thrown out there. Mixed reality is just another one of those things. Mixed reality, is a continuum between physical space and full virtual space. The mixed reality continuum moves across that space where you start to enhance and create digital overlays of a physical environment through devices to bring information in or to enhance those spaces, which moves you towards augmented reality. Augmenting existing locations or spaces. Then we start to move from those augmented spaces into fully virtual environments, which might be a game, could be a virtual reality where you have a headset on your head and you're fully immersed. There's so many definitions and so many different avenues of exploration. That's where people get really confused. But the way I sort of like to say it is we have virtual reality, which immerses us in a completely digital space, Immersive virtual reality, or a headset allows us to have full peripheral immersion. Everything I see is digital. I can move my head and my eyes and everything will interact with that virtual space. Or augmented reality is presenting information, digital overlays into my physical space. That in itself has a continuum in that we can simply present stickers. If someone thinks about something like Snapchat or filters on iOS or whatever, where you're able to put funny pictures of a dog on your face or whatever. That essentially is the lowest scale of augmented reality, which uses a bit of machine learning to mimic your face and put a digital overlay. That's essentially the beginnings of augmented reality to more sophisticated, mixed reality, which is where you're able to blend the physical space and the digital space in a way that your brain is unable to discern the difference between them. That when I moved my hand into the space, I can see it and it could be totally digital, but there's a connection between it and my brain that I'm able to add haptics or touch sense through olfactory. I'm able to create the digital space that my brain, my physical biological computer cannot discern the difference between those spaces. That's true, mixed reality.

Danu Poyner:

That's very helpful. Thank you. Mixed reality, if I understand it as the core around which some of your teaching is working. Could you tell a little bit about that?

James Birt:

Yes. I teach so many different subjects into lots of different areas. Where I apply mixed reality predominantly is in the areas at Bond of architecture and construction. For students who might be in law or business or communications or whatever, and it doesn't matter what discipline and they want to be able to create things, prototype things, be able to create something that sells an idea, I run these courses where from fundamentals, you don't have to know anything that get the basics of understanding what 3d is. They understand the basics then of gaming in a way around shaders and materials and lighting and texturing and animation and transitions and logic and all of those kinds of things come into play. Then it also brings in the areas of cognitive psychology around how the mind works, affordance theory, how we see the world. How we then test those environments from a usability perspective or where human factors understanding. It brings all of those areas together for a student to basically go from no understanding to creating either a virtual reality training scenario or a building that has got a fly through walkthrough approach to it. Being able to bring in some basic coding and that side of things. We saw that our business model in our private institution worked best by integrating technical understanding and digital literacy and immersion and immersive realities and things into existing disciplines. rather than trying to create programs specifically related to digital media or interactive media or games or whatever. All of the subjects that I run really have that problem solving critical skills, project based approach to outcome. Where they're unique in a way is that they do that within a discipline setting. If it's in architecture, it might be creating a interactive walk through with a building and teaching them about core design thinking approaches to showing and hiding things, animating certain objects or components, lighting something in a certain way, using games design, and digital affordances to guide and navigate. In something like communications, it might be how that technology can sell a concept or enhance a existing product. It might be that the student wants to create a new brand of toy for a branding campaign. Then it might be, how could technology enhance that product and maybe connect it with additional audiences or add those different layers of something to that particular product. It's getting the students to understand that something doesn't have to just be the essence of that object. That we can utilize technology, and we can utilize other mediums to be able to create new enterprise new understanding you interactions with existing componetry or objects or new ways of new businesses, new prototypes, whatever it is. It's utilizing formal theory from discipline, whether it's psychology or human factors or design, but being able to distill that into the disciplines so that they can take their disciplinary perspective on those theoretical principles.

Danu Poyner:

Yeah. It's a big ask. And I'm curious where the students are at, are they coming in for that or are they coming in for something else and then they're open to this. What kinds of people are attracted and how's that working?

James Birt:

Usually someone who's got a curiosity. It might be someone who says, I'm curious about what augmented reality is. It might be a business student might be a student in law and they go, oh, I've heard about it. I've seen it. I've experimented maybe a little bit. Now. I want to know how to do it. I want to formalize that and learn from someone who's gone through all the hurdles and can give me some stepping stones and frog me into being able to understand it better. Then their students may maybe from a discipline specific enterprise, like architecture. Some that are very digital. Then you've got some that are incredibly traditional. They might be sketch architects and they say I'm a Luddite. It's really interesting young Luddites. You couldn't imagine it. But then at the end really going, wow. That really changed my mindset about an architect doesn't just have to build physical locations. An architect can craft digital locations. Why can an architect not construct new metaverse architectural locations for people to do remote work. That opens up eyes because they go, whoa, hang on. Didn't even think about that. It's looking at trends, it's looking at technologies looking at disciplines. Trying to make people think slightly outside of their comfort zone or perhaps the subjects that they've undertaken and get them to break out of the mold a little bit.

Danu Poyner:

Thank you for that. It sounds like one of the services that you're providing them with expanding the possibility space for people, which is a gaming term as well.

James Birt:

That's really important because if you can't see beyond your own little bubble, then we're never going to be able to solve the big, critical problems that we're starting to face that siloed within disciplines is never going to be able to solve it. I know because I listen to computer scientists and I sit there and think haven't even thought about the person you feel about the algorithm, very unique, very innovative, highly optimized. But no one's going to use it. Really sitting in that mid point, but having good discipline formalization across and being able to do this listen to people and work out well, how can I solve problems. These roles need expertise and they need people who've had a lot of experience. That's the bit about the badging. I'm an instant expert. This is just wrong. That's the mindset. We genuinely have to change both within individuals and also in companies and all the rest of it. What we want is just young people that want to learn, want to create, want to inspire, want to really genuinely do something productive.

Danu Poyner:

Absolutely. I'm curious how you're going with this. Your at the Vanguard of a lot of this way of thinking and certainly your message and your starting place for what education is and what the role of the university is, resonates with me. But I wonder how it goes for you in the broader sector.

James Birt:

Look from a. Badging perspective, I've been reasonably successful in terms of national awards, in terms of positions of where I sit, in terms of promotions and all of those things that one looks at as markers of success, KPIs. In terms of changing the whole landscape of education. That's probably a big fish try the land.

Danu Poyner:

Is that a fish you're trying to land?

James Birt:

I would hope so. I'd love to be able to say that. I sit on a number of boards. I sit on a number of think tanks and groups about how do we re-imagine education? How can we use technology? How can we disrupt, but also keep formalization. I sit on standards, organizations that are trying to tackle this issue of runaway technology and of standards, governance and legal frameworks. And how can we start to reimagine our governance around those kinds of things? Formal education has been around for thousands of. We're trying to, in a way, disrupt education in a blink of an eye and I think that's not going to happen. Because at the end of the day, we still want to have a formalization. We still want to be able to have a quality assurance.

Danu Poyner:

So is that why you're happy that the university is the right place to be doing this from in the scheme of things?

James Birt:

I, a hundred percent believe so, because I strongly believe in formalized education. I come from a quality assurance background that was my first job. Hacking in entrepreneurship and things can really innovate on those extremities hundred percent. But there is also a position for tradition, formalization theory, and having that pedigree of outcome it's legitimacy and I think having legitimacy there is really important. What I don't want to see is legitimacy coming in the way of innovation. You've got to have a happy medium, but you still have a constrained environment. That's why I love games because games are essentially a happy medium in a constraint environment.

Danu Poyner:

And you've been playing academia a bit like a game it seems and winning. What does winning look like for you?

James Birt:

When let's say I'm retiring, I would love to be able to run a not-for-profit that just helps young kids be able to segue into stem. I want to be able to Give something that I got as a kid and be able to support young people that maybe not have had that as a kid and to be able to open that up to a number of people. That would be my ultimate goal. I certainly would love to see higher education integrate a lot more of the entrepreneurial, creative failure. I'd love to be able to see that we can fail a lot more and deem as successful as opposed to not.

Danu Poyner:

I have to ask you on that point, James, you've mentioned that a lot and I agree with it. One of the really important things about an educational setting has being able to have that freedom to fail and learn from it in a safe way. And yet the story that you told me about your own journey, you said a number of times that failure is not an option. I'm just curious about the reconciliation of those two things.

James Birt:

Well you're right. I guess in my own self you're right. Maybe it's getting older where you can have that hindsight and look at actually failing along the way or what one would consider as failing along the way. Maybe that non traditional thought process, that actually is really important, but I don't think you get an understanding of that until you've actually gone through something and you can reflect. So when I say failure was not an option, it wasn't when I was young. So, yeah, you're right. The young people are thinking exactly the same thing. Failure is not an option, but then as you get older, you realize that actually failures where you do your best learning. When you're young, you fail and you embrace it. Like climbing a tree, you fall down, you hurt yourself, you go up and do it again. And you learn to climb the tree by falling down, scraping yourself, climbing up a bit further, et cetera. Education is about trying to create little stepping stones to help you avoid making the same mistakes over and over, but it shouldn't stop someone from learning from failure. If you think about why serious games work it's because you're put into a situation that could be highly dangerous, has real world consequence and you're able to fail. You're able to see the consequence in, so you should see the consequence because that's part of the journey. Look at something like dark souls, these games are brutally difficult and you only can get through the game through successive failure. It's a really brutal game, but it's a really interesting game because you have to fail to succeed. I'd love to be able to see dark souls as an educational tool, and now that's going to happen.

Danu Poyner:

I think it's a really important point because Dark souls is brutal. And I don't know if it's fun. Do we want failure to be fun?

James Birt:

It's a funny one. Isn't it? I look at the massive multiplayer games I played back in the day. EverQuest. You could lose everything in an instant. You go for your award and you could literally lose tens of thousands of hours worth of outcome in a blink of an eye. That was it. And then what you noticed is that they said that wasn't fun and it wasn't fun. There was genuine euphoria when you did it, but it wasn't fun. So then to make it a lot more mass produced, you had your world of Warcraft type situation, which took elements of success and removed the elements that essentially led to those undesirable outcomes. I guess education kind of does that as well in a way. Should it be fun?

Danu Poyner:

It's an open question, in education and in games

James Birt:

It is, and I think it's different games for different outcomesand different individuals. Dark souls is not going to appeal to everybody. In the case of education, you definitely want to keep the fun and enjoyment. I see it from young kids, especially in the primary school years, which where my kids are. The joy on their face. They just say, I want to be at school. I want to be there with my friends. I want to be doing the fun things I'm doing in school. I'd never hear them saying I don't want to be at school. It seems to be that entering of high school. Where everything really changes because you're moving from a play-based economy essentially into formalized. All of a sudden you hit high school and it just switches, because it's almost like the difficulty ramps up. If it was a game, we would say there's something wrong with the onboarding, we've got to rebuild the tutorial. Unfortunately, teacher you've had, it might be changing environmental schools. It might be something else. Some trigger that happens. We then struggle to on board, keep that process going. I know that there's a lot of thought about that, but that's maybe where games could come into play because we see it. We simulate with games, a lot, those kind of onboarding experiences. Can education learn a little bit from game design? Games have been around for nearly 50 years in terms of computer games, in terms of gaming, it's been around as long as humans have been around and being able to take some of the learnings that we've done and be able to integrate that into education.

Danu Poyner:

I want to pivot the discussion a little bit now, and talk a bit about e-sports, cause I know that's an area that you're really involved in. In many ways it's the manifestation of a lot of things that you've been talking about. Can you explain what e-sports is again as if to a 55 year old?

James Birt:

Okay. So e-sport. Is really competitive video gaming. It's something that I wished I had when I was a kid, when I was five years old, I would have loved to have had this career opportunity around being able to competitively play games. That segues back into what we were saying before that there's so many opportunities available, but we need to educate around those opportunities, and then some of those opportunities can be a gimmick. E-sports is an incredible industry. It also can be a gimmick. A little bit like gaming in a way, there is a genuine capacity for these technologies, manifestations to be used for genuine outcome, whether that is pedagogical, whether that is industry based focus, whether it is new economies, but there's also a lot around these emerging tech spaces that are used a lot for individual quick gain ,in and out, bubble formation. My experience of having gone through many bubbles now, dot com, GFC, et cetera, that you can see how these bubbles form, you can hear it in a number of the entrepreneurs that utilize the early points of those bubbles to build businesses and get out because they don't really have a passion about the business model that they're doing. They simply just want to make money at the expense of others. At the end of the day, it's content creation. It's sportsmanship, it's competition, it's play it's. Anything that we see from what one would deem as traditional sports or endeavors, just so happens to be done on a computer game, as opposed to playing it out on a field with the soccer ball. If one looks at something like the AFL or the soccer industry, whatever it is, what you see out on the field is the tip of the iceberg of what the industry is. The industry is made up of hundreds of different roles that all interplay to create that as a viable industry, e-sports is no different.

Danu Poyner:

It's so interesting that the university space is really starting to come into the e-sports world at the moment. One of the New Zealand universities has to start at an e-sports minor this year. It covers things like training and performance of elite gamers through to the e-sports production side and broadcasting. You are the e-sports program manager at bond. I'm curious how you're thinking about e-sports from a teaching perspective, because it's in one sense that legitimization of the topic as it's coming on board here.

James Birt:

I see it in three ways. Student experience first, then pedagogy then, research. We've always got to think about the student as the number one, cause it's all about their experience and their capacity to learn. We also look at it around industry engagement, and being able to connect that through work integrated learning. At Bond, we weren't the first into the market by any stretch of the imagination. We're not going to be the last in the market by any stretch of the imagination. But we did see that e-sports is something that connects with the generations that the university obviously is their market share. We look at it as a growth industry, as well as an industry that's disruptive. It's a really interesting industry to explore because it's everything we keep talking about in the future of work, but it's now as opposed to 10 years time. E sport is going to be very different depending on where you are on the planet. If you're in north America, Europe, and Southeast Asia, it is a truly viable career opportunity with many leagues, many different organizations, trying to get high-performance talent, and lots of opportunity for industry around it. In Australia, New Zealand, there is a growth industry, but e-sports is about scale. Does not mean that we can't compete does not mean that we can't understand. It does not mean we can't use it as a case study, but we need to understand it within the context that we have available. We need a social understanding, a theoretical understanding of this phenomenon and how we can build it and form it and guide it in a way that it can be an industry that I want my kids to be part of that is a legitimate industry. And not just something that is a gimmick or something to on-sell or create a bubble around. So that two or three individuals make a lot of money. And then a lot of people are disappointed.

Danu Poyner:

That sounds like a fascinating project because it does seem like e-sports is really huge, but also at the same time, no, one's heard of it. It's a really interesting dynamic.

James Birt:

Our demographic, perhaps hasn't heard of it, but young demographics have. It's not built for you and I. It's built for eight through to 20 five-year-olds. It really sits within that demographic who essentially have disengaged from traditional media who have disengaged from traditional entertainment, who stream micro watch, micro binge, connect to live sessions of their particular echo chamber that they're interested in. That's so vastly different to what we've grown up with, with television, radio, newspapers, et cetera. I think it's just going to keep growing and the real question there is how can it grow in a legitimate fashion that is genuinely, societaly impactful and meaningful as opposed to the wild west of entrepreneurs and illegal transactions and match fixing and betting and all of these things that normal sports still has, but has so amplified in the sports area because of a number of reasons, particularly globalization and. Anonymity behind the keyboard.

Danu Poyner:

Well on that, one consideration that was on my mind about e-sports is the licensing of games from the studios that develop them and how a lot of this corporatization is built in from the start. So we're thinking of things like league of legends and rocket league. In regular sports, no one owns the ball as such but in e-sports the corporation owns the design, the developers and the platform. So it's more complicated to scale it in the same way. And that leads to different implications. What are you seeing?

James Birt:

It brings us back to the whole higher education thing around governance, like TEQSA in Australia. That creates legitimacy. That's why I really liked these areas because it is a microclimate in a way of everything that we've been talking about. And that is that governance is important for legitimacy because you need to have a quality, you need to have controls of what is deemed acceptable, unacceptable, et cetera. Otherwise it really is the wild west, but the problem with governance is that it, in some ways can stifle innovation or new forms of entrepreneurial spirit or whatever. It comes into play a little bit like me selling digital items in EverQuest I would camp spawns in EverQuest and I would sell the short swords Yeah. and high items and all these little things, which were quite difficult to get the, because of the time zone and the way that the servers would come down and turn back on. I happened to be in the perfect time zone and have the right character class to essentially farm those items and sell them on eBay. That became illegal in the terms of agreement with the developers. And they really cracked down on that. And because I'm a goody two shoes, I realized that I wasn't going to be illegal and sell items on eBay anymore. So I stopped. It turned a pretty good profit and it really gave me an insight into the virtual item economy. So the governance that came over the top and said, you shall not profit here off the sale of our intellectual property. Now you fast forward to today. And it's a legitimate industry. Look at roadblocks, look at, um, you know, any kind of, of these metaverse based, um, environments, where the whole thing is about creator economy, selling items, selling digital content that is created in those platforms to other people and the. Governance of those platforms, whether it's valve, whether it's epic or whoever it is, has thought about that, right? From the beginning, how do we monetize content creation? How do we monetize, people's play? How do we take us a portion of those profits and, create incredible outcomes for our companies? That's why the free to play model is so, so, so popular because it's just about mass scale, skinning and muddying and, and item generation, and, look at what I've got.

Danu Poyner:

Have you got any examples of particularly transformational or student experiences that you're proud of having facilitated?

James Birt:

In terms of our e-sports program, there's probably a couple that sit really well there. One was a vice-chancellor scholar of ours who was a hearthstone champion. He was top three in the Australian context of Hearthstone and he was able to highlight his capabilities around gaming. He got featured on some news media around that. His background was actuarial sciences and commerce. He was able to essentially spruick himself to the world as data scientist, actuarial by day and gamer by night, but both of them influence who I am as an individual. He's now a system bank manager at ANZ. It's not really gaming per se, but still able to utilize that and show those things. Another one was a new Colombo scholarship for a student who was able to go to Malaysia based on e-sports. He did a research project with us and explored e-sports as diplomacy. So e-sports has soft power diplomacy essentially. His expertise was in the area of security. Nation building soft power and how gaming sat in there. He got a new Colombo scholarship and then went on to do a national security approach for the Australian government around those types of endeavors.

Danu Poyner:

I'm curious how much you find that the dynamics of the sports industry tracks the dynamics of regular sports and where the differences are surprising. So e-sports diplomacy, I'm glad you mentioned that. It's very topical, and must be relevant for you. Brisbane is hosting the 20, 32 Olympic games. I think there's a trial of e-sports in the next Commonwealth games. How similar are the dynamics in e-sports diplomacy to regular diplomacy?

James Birt:

That was the topic of our paper that we wrote. Sports diplomacy is certainly a growing area, and sports diplomacy maps well within the sports frameworks, the government sports initiatives, et cetera, both from an Australian context, but also internationally. Traditional sport has one advantage and disadvantage. One advantage is that they do have governance. Whether that's IOC governance, whether that's FIFA governance, whether that's whoever governing body is overseeing. So it does create legitimacy. The one area that they don't have, which they really want from e-sports is that entrepreneurial spirit, the ability to modify and change. To experiment, to fail, to reach new audiences, to create new economies. They really struggle with that because they try to keep legitimacy and governance of their brand and product. What we do see happening with traditional sport today. Again, I wonder if it's a gimmick, is your NFTs and other things transitioning into traditional sport where the old playing card becomes a two to three second bite of video or audio footage from some game that's played or whatever it is. I wasn't expecting

Danu Poyner:

the Governance stuff

James Birt:

to become such a big topic in this conversation, but I'm glad that has, because it

Danu Poyner:

really connects a lot of the things that we've been talking about and regulation in tech in general is a huge topic. One of my must read newsletters is Benedict Evans, the tech analysts, and he's always talking about regulation in tech, but none of his readers are really that interested in it. But coming back to the role of education. Your role is critical and conscience in this big, messed up space. You seem to take that on in a very conscious and deliberate way?

James Birt:

Absolutely. A hundred percent. Having children is a big one there because you want to make sure that you have something like what you had as a kid. That environment that was supportive and you can fail and you can do these things and you can pick yourself up and keep going and be a kid. One of my big things is to say to my kids, just be kid as long as you can. Cause that's what my parents said to me, be a kid, as long as you can be a kid, because you're an adult for way too long. Kids fail and you have to fail to learn. In sport, you can fail at a game of sport and come back the next week and apply that knowledge to enhance your strategy. We should be able to do that in education in life. Governance and rules and regulations certainly sit there because it really does support that side. You can obviously over govern and over do things and that stifles. It's just this very fine line of not stifling innovation, because we want innovation. We want these things, but we want it in a way that's safe.

Danu Poyner:

I'm curious how you keep up with these things yourself. You mentioned that you've taught or you've changed courses like 86,

James Birt:

I've taught 86 unique course code since 2002.

Danu Poyner:

That's a huge turnover. You're at the forefront of a lot of these debates and discussions. How do you learn what you need to learn?

James Birt:

I think always having that spirit of being a learner that I actually enjoy it. I enjoy looking at the new things, I enjoy synthesizing that stuff. I enjoy seeing the success and failure of things that I can use that as a learning experience, as opposed to using it as failure. There's an excitement about constantly learning new stuff and that in a way I'm in a privileged position to be able to do that. Then as I get older, And get the wisdom and the experience, being able to reflect on that. And then hopefully being able to give back to society around that learning and understanding and be able to hopefully support those types of endeavors moving forward around governance, et cetera. I start the day reading and I end the day reading. Anything from latest research articles on applied to use of XR and whatever to latest educational practices to the latest tech news. I've built a LinkedIn network of nearly 14 and a half thousand high impact individuals and influences predominantly so that I can learn from them. Someone told me really early on you don't have to be the smartest person in the room. You just have to have a room of really smart people. That's. That I really took on board because I don't have the time to sit and troll through everything it's impossible. But if you can use high-impact individuals that have their finger on the pulse of different areas, then you can look at that and then having a good, solid research background, you can analyze and interpret which elements of that need to be extracted out and or further analyzed.

Danu Poyner:

It goes to what you're saying for about the importance of networking as well. Putting yourself in a situation where you don't know where things are going to pop up from, but you maximize your chance of something happening. That sounds like you've done that in a very deliberate and intentional way.

James Birt:

It's gaming, isn't it? Probability of success?

Danu Poyner:

So that leads me all the way back to where we started this conversation about your personal journey. You're so busy. You have your finger in so many pies and you fit it very driven. Do you have time to engage with games in a playful way for pleasure still?

James Birt:

I broke my back for the second time, 2020. So my COVID years were'nt great. The first time round, I blew my disc doing personal training, it was literally a week after my first daughter was born. You can imagine my wife was extremely happy about that. That was 2013. And then I went through heaps of rehab and all that was awful. I still go to the physio once a week for that. Then fast-forward two kids later and a dog, was wearing socks on my stairs and just went bang. Three of my transverse processes on the L one L two L three. That was in 2020. At the time, that very popular mobile game came out against an impact. I was like, oh, well, I get to play a game now. In doing that, I then went, how can I use my knowledge of games? Gamification? Motivation, et cetera, to actually rehab this second back. That was when I went right. I'm going to take up running and was not a runner. Then I used an app, couch to 5k type motivator app. My wife and I downloaded the app and started day one, which was like one minute of walking. One minute of running to the point where I was up to running nine and a half K. Every second day. Then another injury happened. Since then, it's been difficult to do the running, but I do Pilates and other types of things. I want to get back into it and I'm building my doctors back to do that, to essentially start that process again. It worked for me and I was running for a good six months and there was a couple of news media articles about gaming and was a professor of gaming using gaming to actually motivate and drive success. And it did at the time. Then, recently getting COVID in January I was like, well, it's a great time to play cyberpunk. Reality is I really don't get much time to play games. Where I actually play games mostly now is with my kids, which tends to be games on the Nintendo or something like that, that are much more age appropriate games.

Danu Poyner:

If people wanted to dip their toe a little bit more into this world. What would you suggest people do or look at or read or try in order to go a little bit further in their journey?

James Birt:

I certainly think areas like Minecraft education. If you want to start with something, that's some tangible, I think Minecraft education is a really good one. It has some good pedagogy. It has great connections with causes related to climate and other types of things that were really good. I look at a lot of tech news. Having a good appreciation of what's emerging, whether that is using your apple news or Flipboard or whatever it is, and just highlighting a couple of the new technology threads into those news aggregate programs, and just each day, having a look at what are the trends what's coming up? The EDUCAUSE horizon report is a really good one to look at where things are moving over the next few years. So that's a really good just to have a look at some real foresight into. Impacts trends, trajectories and how it fits across education, politics, environment, et cetera. Then I think it's getting in yourself and having a tinker, having a play. Having a really open conversation with those around in your ecosystem about technology, innovation, education and understanding that there is a genuine need for a formalized education. I really strongly believe in that, but there's also a need for the play, the creation, the value of the entrepreneurial side.

Danu Poyner:

Thank you for that. I think that's a nice summary. One thing I always ask people on the podcast is if you could gift to someone, a life changing, learning experience, what would it be and why?

James Birt:

If I was able to do anything, it would be to have everyone who wants it to be able to experience education and to be able to enjoy that journey. I would love everyone to be able to take the joy of play and games and be able to understand how that process and the joy that you can have in playing those can become a educational experience and that you can learn from any of those engagements and that you can take that and apply those to other avenues.

Danu Poyner:

Great answer. Thank you so much. James has been a great pleasure speaking to you today. I've really enjoyed it. I've learned so much and I've got a real buzz of excitement to go explore a few things. I think I speak for everyone listening to this when I say you might be lost to the plastic surgery profession, but I think we're glad that it's you in the chair, understanding what's in the black box and distilling things for us in that formalization way. I hope we can come back and talk about some more things another time but it's been a great pleasure talking to you today. Thanks so much, James.

James Birt:

Thank you very much.