I’m really pleased (and a bit relieved) to announce the funding of my ERC Starter Grant project AUGSOC - “Bringing the Augmented Society to Reality: Shaping Perception, Resilience, and Rights for Everyday AR”. This project was chosen for funding by the ERC (plucked off the reserve list just before Christmas after 3-4 months), and ultimately funded by UKRI (EP/Z000068/1) due to UK – Horizon association delays, and will start in August 2024 (after some upcoming paternity leave around April!). You can find the proposal abstract at the end of the page if you’re curious!

Inspired by Julie Williamson’s excellent blogpost on her experience in applying for, and ultimately being awarded, an ERC Consolidator Grant (one of four(!) ERC grants now held by GIST at the School of Computing Science, University of Glasgow - ViAjeRo, DIFAI, FUSION and AUGSOC), I’d just like to share a few thoughts about my experience going for this grant from an HCI perspective, the help I received along the way, and how I tried to build a track record as an early career researcher that would set me up for going for these kinds of grants. Take everything here with a pinch of salt though - I was reserve listed first after all!

Help & Thanks

The first thing I want to emphasize is that as much as ERC grants are led by individuals, the science that underpins them is inherently collaborative, and I received lots of support and feedback from peers along the way. I won’t be able to thank everyone that deserves it as there are just too many people, but this includes:

  • Glasgow Interaction Systems Group - I’m fortunate enough to be part of a thriving HCI research group, and received feedback from many here across two rounds of submissions, including Stephen Brewster (the reason I’m even doing HCI research), Alessandro Vincaerelli, Roderick Murray-Smith, Mathew Chalmers, Joseph O’Hagan, Florian Mathis, Graham Wilson, Mohamed Khamis, Euan Freeman, the rest of MIG, and more I’m sure i’m forgetting.

  • Collaborators - In particular Jan Gugenheimer, Aidan Kehoe, Leonie Tanczer and Richard Jones, who all gave valuable feedback and shared their own experiences of applying for similar grants. Building a network of colleagues whose experience you trust is important here, and taking part in events led by REPHRAIN and SPRITE+ really helped here, in particular the SPRITE+ sandpits (through which I got to work with a brilliant team of researchers lead by Leonie Tanczer, including David McIlhatton, Lena Podoletz and Jill Marshall), which I would strongly recommend participating in.

The need to network is a tremendous difficulty when you are afflicted by social anxiety, but science is inherently collaborative and often multi-disciplinary, meaning that if you have any grand ambitions you’re going to need help to realise them. For me, my first taste of this was workshops at SIGCHI conferences, but I also cannot talk highly enough about some of the community-oriented projects funded by UKRI, specifically REPHRAIN (National Research Centre on Privacy, Harm Reduction and Adversarial Influence Online, a UKRI Research Centre of Excellence) and SPRITE+ (The Security, Privacy, Identity and Trust Engagement NetworkPlus).

As an ECR, REPHRAIN gave me the opportunity to conduct preliminary research through it’s strategic funding calls, and involved me in a community of researchers focussed around online harms, giving me the opportunity to present my research to a variety of policy stakeholders, including a trip to talk about social XR online harms to the House of Lords. And SPRITE+, through their conference and sandpit series, gave me experience in conducting multi-discplinary research and working with colleagues from a breadth of disciplines, from Criminology and Law to International Security. ERC grants aren’t particularly collaborative in a PI/Co-I sense, so be careful with how you approach this in your proposal, but I learnt a lot from these collaborations, and they helped establish a track record and network which strengthened the feasibility of my proposal.

The Topic

As daunting as the proposal looks in theory, in practice putting this together isn’t all that different to writing an ACM CHI paper (the big venue everyone in HCI aims for), and in some ways it’s more freeing, as the ERC ultimately want ambitious, high risk high reward research - so you can be a bit more creative and imaginative and push the boat out. But the scope is much much broader - you’re putting a 5 year project together, that will probably give you 2-3 PhDs plus 5+ years PDRA time. That’s a huge amount of resources, and those resources have to build towards some common goal.

I started off by trying to narrow down the rough topic area. I knew that given my past experience that I was really interested in the harms associated with Extended Reality, and the future prospect of everyday or ubiquitous augmented reality. And I’d already got some key papers in as groundwork, including international collaborations and a few last author papers (important for emphasizing independence and that you are a viable PI). I then started to note all the potential work packages and research ideas within that topic - vastly more than could be accomplished in even multiple ERCs - and then try to pick out common themes, relationships, and generally a narrative that could piece these activities together.

The Narrative

My first attempt at this kind of project wasn’t great in truth - this was my first submission to the ERC STG for 2021, entitled “ADDER: Averting the Digital Dystopia of Extended Reality”. The activities planned weren’t vastly different, but similar to Julie’s experience, the scope was too broad, too “everything and the kitchen sink”, and the project wasn’t cohesive. I ended up with 5 work packages on privacy, bystander awareness, identity augmentation, inequality and manipulation, and perceptual realism and impermissible content. All worthy topics, but they didn’t click together to form a cohesive whole. This didn’t get to the interview stage, so I was stuck waiting until STG 2023 to submit again. But I did get some really valuable feedback.

Try, Try Again

A point that is rather to unique to ERC grants is that we can redraft and submit again, and again, and again - provided the review ratings each time are reasonable. I don’t mean this as a “playing the odds” recommendation, but rather that I had a good 1.5 years to mull over the feedback I received and make a stronger case next time, which is a rather more constructive position than that of handling e.g. UKRI / EPSRC standard grant rejections.

The second time round, it took me a long time to get started on the bulk of the writing. Instead, I spent (quite literally) months revising the title, and the aims of each work package I was proposing - endlessly editing a handful of sentences then critiquing them, including seeking feedback from others. The reason I did this was because I was fairly confident that if i could get the structure and narrative right at a very high level, the rest would be straightforward, and this was a very lightweight way to iterate through lots of different ideas/narratives. And by critiquing the work plan/packages in a lot of detail, I arrived at my own understanding of a strong, cohesive narrative. After that, I worked on writing the Part B1 first - it’s the hardest to write as it needs to succinctly motivate and describe the whole project. And it’s the one the reviewers first see, so it needs to make a great first impression!

For my second submission, I tried to improve across multiple axes:

  • Narrative - I wanted a more cohesive narrative next time - something that took the best bits from my ideas, but made sure they amounted to a singular project, with work packages building on each other towards overarching objectives, with a clearer focus on everyday AR rather than XR more broadly;
  • Early evidence/groundwork - I wanted to demonstrate my research independence more strongly - so trying to get preliminary work published that would help more strongly motivate what I was proposing, and being careful about the extent of collaboration with my former PhD supervisor (and as an aside: i’ve always found this notion of “academic independence” disappointing, why break up successful collaborations? I had 30+ papers without my PhD supervisor and still had comments about independence to address);
  • Papers and funding as PI - I wanted to demonstrate leadership, through successful smaller grants in particular, and through last authorship of papers to high quality venues;
  • Indicators of esteem/impact - I wanted to demonstrate more engagement with the duties expected of an active researcher - moving from reviewing of papers towards conference organisation, AC’ing etc. And I wanted to demonstrate the potential for impact and engagement, by working with others across disciplines, contributing to voluntary initiatives (e.g. the IEEE XR Initiative) and other organisations (e.g. through REPHRAIN), and developing links to Government and third sector organisations that would help reassure reviewers my plans were feasible.

That kind of planning really gave me confidence that next time I submitted, I’d have a stronger track record in multiple areas, as well as having a better submission.

Learning from Others

I reviewed as many accounts from others as I could around the ERC submission and interview process, including:

One guide I read really helped to focus the above by reflecting on the common reasons for rejection, including projects being too narrow or broad, too incremental, too collaborative, and the PI having an insufficient track record or independence - all things that given time and planning can be addressed!

Good luck!

With luck, you’ll have your ERC submission progress to the interview, and I’ll follow-up with my experience there, and what helped, later in the year!

Proposal Abstract

Wearable, fashionable, everyday Augmented Reality (AR) headsets will herald a transition towards personal spatial computing - augmenting our intelligence, perception, and interactions. In doing so, they will become as integral to our daily lives as smartphones are today, empowering users, communities, business’, governments and others to alter, diminish or otherwise mediate our perception of reality.

I argue that in driving the Augmented Society, everyday AR has the potential to become a powerful agent for societal change. For social good, this technology will empower individual and community expression e.g. enabling individuals to augment their social identity to better represent their ‘authentic’ self; or supporting communities to digitally change how their public spaces are perceived, encouraging representation, exploration and social cohesion. For social harm however, everyday AR could not only infringe upon privacy, but also facilitate and amplify information disorder, discrimination, censorship and manipulation through 3rd parties altering our day-to-day experience of reality. Consequently, it is crucial that research seeks to anticipate societal challenges and steer the development of, and legislation around, everyday AR - minimising harm and maximising the potential for social good before mass adoption of AR headsets occurs.

Using Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) methodology, AUGSOC will explore how we can safely leverage AR to reshape how we perceive society, and develop resilience to individual and institutional misuse and abuse. We will holistically consider our findings to propose new digital human rights and protections, in particular balancing the tension between perceptual agency (i.e. that users solely control what they perceive) against the desire of others (individuals, communities, institutions) to influence what is perceived - fundamental, timely research in support of the EC’s vision of a fairer digital society.