Dr. John Muñoz on Bridging the Gap Between Academia and Industry

Wednesday, July 6, 2022
by Sid Heeg

Dr. John Muñoz (J&F Alliance) may be one of the most versatile researchers the Games Institute (GI) has ever housed. Just when you think you have heard about everything he has done (working with NASA, creating virtual reality (VR) games, using mind-controlled devices for biofeedback, and working with robots, to just name a few), Dr. Muñoz brings up another project, in a completely different field than the rest of his work. When Dr. Muñoz originally came to the University of Waterloo as a postdoctoral researcher, supervised by Dr. Jennifer Boger, he worked with a team of researchers and health care practitioners designing VR games for people living with dementia; he had no idea about all the other opportunities he would encounter on campus. 

When looking back on the serendipity of his research trajectory, Dr. Muñoz claims he acted with a combination of “luck and purpose,” often finding “the right people at the right moment.” The most important thing to him was that no matter the role, he was continuously exploring and expanding his role as a game designer. Dr. Muñoz happened upon the GI research ecosystem and instantly fell in love with the space and atmosphere. He quickly discovered that the GI was a hub of like-minded interdisciplinary researchers with whom he would be able to learn and collaborate. 

Dr. Muñoz admits that at the beginning of his postdoc, it wasn’t easy for him to manage his time as he worked with many different labs on many projects. But the support at the GI helped him bridge the gaps between all his various projects working with games and emerging technologies. Dr. Muñoz describes the GI as an “oasis” within the university where his skills and creativity” were nourished and the entire research process, including the essential first steps and blue-sky brainstorming, is valued.

In May of 2022, Dr. Muñoz presented research at the prestigious Game Developers Conference (GDC) with his collaborator and NASA scientist, Dr. Alan Pope. Their talk was titled “How NASA has Translated Aerospace Research into Biofeedback Game Experiences” and explored how games and game-like technologies have been used as part of NASA’s training exercises. Dr. Muñoz’s experiences at GDC made him realize how disconnected academia can be from industry. He is interested in helping facilitate these connections between industry and academia in the future.  

During his time at the GI, Dr. Muñoz says he is most proud of being able to lead the design process of a virtual reality game that produces benefits for people living with dementia. The game, Seas the Day, was co-designed by Dr. Muñoz and PhD Candidate Samira Mehrabi (Aging, Health, and Well-being), and is accessible to anyone, including the intended audience and their caregivers, through the Oculus store. Additionally, the research produced while making the game is available online to researchers and other interested parties as open-access articles. 

Dr. Muñoz may be coming to the end of his post-doctoral fellowship, but he is not done with the GI. He looks forward to staying affiliated with the GI and keeping in touch with the community here while also working in the industry. Dr. Muñoz has accepted a position at J&F Alliance, which creates extended reality solutions for public safety, including police de-escalation, simulations for eliminating sexual harassment within the military, and VR for exposure therapy. Dr. Muñoz’s extensive experience working with biofeedback will be used to improve J&F’s products as he settled into his new role as a User Experience Research Scientist and Product Designer.