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Faculty Rockstar: Dennis Kappen

Written by Anju Kakkar

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Dennis L. Kappen, Ph.D. 

Professor: Industrial Design | Faculty of Applied Sciences and Technology (FAST)

The Humber Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning is committed to designing a future for polytechnic education where knowledge is embedded through experiential learning. This would not be possible without Humber’s diverse and experienced faculty members’ contributions and unrelenting leadership. Dennis Kappen is one such leader; we thank and acknowledge Dennis for his mentorship and student-centric approach to imparting knowledge. Dennis is a propeller of human-centred design strategies, and he continues to apply his vast life experiences in technology and research.

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Dennis Kappen’s field of expertise spans computer science, gamification research and design, industrial, user interaction and brand experience design. His educational journey began in India, acquiring a Bachelor of Engineering from the University of Mumbai in 1989, moving on to attain a Masters in Industrial Design from the highly reputed Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai in 1992. He further went on to get certified in Product & Industrial Design from the Art Center College of Design, California in 1996. Soon after, his path led to Canada. Before joining Humber College in 2005 as Professor of Industrial Design teaching in the Bachelor’s program, he spent over 15 years in roles spanning design & development, consulting and design strategy. Dennis challenged himself to acquire a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the now Ontario Tech University in 2017. He credits his family and peers, especially the faculty of industrial design, for their support to help him survive and thrive. Dennis has had his work published in numerous journals. He has also been the recipient of several awards, the most recent: Co-recipient of the President’s Research Excellence Award in 2019 – shared with colleague Professor George Paravantes for their work for the AutomotiveUI’18 Conference in Toronto, which Dennis boasts was a fantastic opportunity heavily involving students’ engagement, and Co-recipient of the President’s Extra Mile Award in 2020 – for organizing an online platform due to COVID-19, assisted by his peer Professor Catherine Chong, enabling students to present their thesis virtually, which was a considerable success incorporating industry engagement resulting in creating job opportunities for the participating students.

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Dennis humbly reflects on his Learning and Teaching journey, often citing the joy of engaging with students. His approach reminds us of: “Teaching is the highest form of understanding” – Aristotle.

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We prompted Dennis to educate us on his passion for ‘Research’, and he clarifies that as an industrial designer, he is focused on ‘evidence-based research’. Design has to be driven by evidence, and keeping that concept as the crux of the motto behind any research is what he endures to inculcate in his students. Dennis aims to teach his students about the need for ethnographic research, understanding the demographic, and having a participatory experience of being one with the demographic to have an immersive experience. Through the learnings of these experiences, they can then design for the end-users. The motivation, according to Dennis, behind any research should be about nuanced problem definitions, understanding the problem and designing based on evidence.

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“Research helps us understand the fundamental human values which serve as a starting point
to define evidence-based strategies for improving human lifestyle through design.”

– Dennis Kappen

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Humber greatly appreciates and supports the benefits of embedding research-based learning into the curriculum, and the enthusiasm and foresightedness of researchers, like Dennis help us achieve that goal. Read a short overview of the Ph.D. research that Dennis conducted, a collaborative endeavour that required research ethics application approvals from both Humber College and Ontario Tech University (UOIT); Dennis accords thanks to the massive support he received from Humber, including the utilization of resources like the Live Labs and the cross-discipline between the Faculty of Applied Sciences & Technology as well as Faculty of Media & Creative Arts to materialize the triumphant result emerging from what he calls ‘organized chaos’:

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Technology Facilitates Physical Activity Through Gamification: A Thematic Analysis of an 8-Week Study

Our paper studied the usage of gamification elements over an 8-week period in the context of older adults’ physical activity (PA) using gamification. Thematic Analysis of the interview data showed distinct variations in emergent themes for three groups, indicating that gamification elements can be customized to participants for the 50+ age group and tailored to suit their current health conditions and prevalent barriers, thus facilitating adaptive engagement in PA. The emergent themes, motivational affordances and design guidelines are valuable for researchers and designers of PA technology and will help to advance the development of gamified PA technology for older adults.

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An added achievement was the publication of the research study in the Frontiers in Computer Science journal, which is a feat worth celebrating. Dennis once again shares this achievement with Humber acknowledging, “it was a lot of hand-holding to make this happen, and I am very thankful to many of my peers at Humber.” We thank Dennis for his valuable contributions and look forward to collaborating with him on a future research project. This is what Dennis had to say about his involvement with Humber’s research community:

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“Humber Research and Innovation has been extremely supportive in connecting subject-matter experts
from multiple disciplines, corporate partners and students with the common goal of creating new knowledge and nurturing human capital.”

We know you want to get to know Dennis a little better; here are 4 things you didn’t know about him, in his words:

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  • 1. When I’m not at work, I am gaming.
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  • 2. A book that most influenced me is ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’ by Daniel H. Pink. It argues that human motivation is largely intrinsic. I’ve re-read it several times, and it resonates with me every single time; part of the reason my Ph.D.-related research was around the understanding of human motivation, in the understanding of ‘why do we do what we do!’
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  • 3. A website I visit most often is www.engadget.com as well as www.wired.com. New technologies and technological innovation are a constant phenomenon. Our job as designers and researchers is to stay abreast of the trends, and these sites provide great up-to-date content.
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  • 4. Coffee or Tea: Tea is what I end up going for; it is a calming element.

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Our Humber Researcher Rockstar had a lot to express about his perspective on Research, and we had to share his wise take on ‘humanizing technology’; read what Dennis has to say:

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“Evidence-based Research should drive design. Everything stems from the human being.
That is my motivation behind conducting Research; understanding the human context, trying to humanize technology, trying to connect how all of these pieces, and the contextual aspects of the environment around us, all work together to create a functional design. A design for a space that you live in or a product that you use, everything stems from that aspect of humanizing the technology you are creating.”

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To get involved with Research & Innovation, visit:https://www.humber.ca/research/get-involved/