Microsoft mentors students in its Garage

Teams from two post-secondary schools broke new ground with state-of-the-art health-tech inventions

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      Good inventors set out to solve a problem. Better inventors solve problems that society ignores.

      Technology giant Microsoft has taken that mantra to heart. In February this year, the company partnered with national NGO Inclusive Education Canada to launch Inclusive Education Month: an initiative to raise awareness of alternative-learning strategies. Alongside other programs, the Vancouver chapter featured a neurodiversity hackathon, inviting local programmers to create ways to improve the lives of those whose minds operate outside of the normal spectrum.

      From the scores of invited students and established engineers, one team stood out.

      Five postgraduate students from Simon Fraser University chose to help individuals with autism. Imagining a wearable device that could detect some of the behaviours associated with overstimulation, or “stimming”, they created a small machine that could measure biosignals such as heart rate, breathing rate, skin temperature, and galvanic skin response. The device—which looks much like a Fitbit or watch—would use those inputs to determine an individual’s anxiety levels and give insight into whether that person might be at risk of having an emotional episode.

      “The hackathon gave us a lot of tools to get started on the idea,” Jordan Lui told the Georgia Straight at the recent #BCTech Summit, where the group was showcasing its design. “Microsoft brought in experts who helped us highlight the daily challenges and obstacles that people with autism are having. We looked at some of those issues, such as tracking episodes, wanting to predict them, and trying to recognize that they’re happening. We realized that it was important to record biodata from the individual to give them and their loved ones greater awareness, and also incorporate motion recognition to recognize some of the telltale signs of stimming that can be associated with an upcoming episode. We thought an on-body device would help with that.”

      After their promising presentation at the hackathon, Microsoft invited Lui and his four teammates—Chakaveh Ahmadizadeh, Neha Chhatre, Rana Sadeghi Chegani, and Zhen Xiao—to the Microsoft Garage. A space created for individuals to design, code, build, and release a new product, the Garage offers state-of-the-art tools and the opportunity to toy with innovative left-field ideas. Under the mentorship of Stacey Mulcahy, the senior program manager of Microsoft Garage, the team was able to develop its concept to a working prototype.

      “It was a lot of hard work,” Ahmadizadeh said. “One of the biggest challenges was learning. We did a fair bit of research into which biosignals are the most prominent and did a lot of reading in order to tailor our design. We 3-D–printed the hardware ourselves, did our own experiments, and created an algorithm that could learn the specific patterns that could trigger an episode for each individual. It was a comprehensive thing to do over one-and-a-half months.”

      Before spending their time in the Garage, entering the B.C. tech industry was a pipe dream for a number of the team members. After realizing the speed at which prototypes can be built and receiving local interest, the group has floated the idea of possibly developing the device into a marketable product.

      “I came to B.C. because I was interested in getting involved in tech for health care,” Lui said. “When I got here, I heard that it was really hard to get into, because companies are highly regulated and you have to do the exact right degree. For me, I learned from this experience that people can help supply the resources and idea and start making things to help contribute to the health-tech industry. The barrier to entry is much lower than I realized.”

      The team from SFU answer questions about the wearable device.
      Kyle Ball

      The SFU cohort wasn’t the only group of students welcomed into the Garage by Mulcahy and the Microsoft team. After their dean contacted the company, three individuals at BCIT were granted the opportunity to spend a month and a half working on another cutting-edge health-tech idea in the technology giant’s office. Making use of the HoloLens—an augmented-reality headset created by Microsoft—Mark Tan, Rong Zhou, and Jae Jang created a tool that simulates flesh wounds, aiming to help paramedic and medical students become more familiar with trauma.

      “It’s a proof-of-concept project for BCIT health and science to help improve the way people identify injuries,” Jang told the Straight. “Currently, what the school does to represent the wound is to apply plastic objects on top of mannequin dolls, and then put makeup on it to make it seem more realistic. They have to repeat that process several times. They wanted a more efficient way to do it, and that’s why they proposed a project that made use of HoloLens and augmented reality.”

      The team wrote a program that lets the wearer of the HoloLens headset bring up a menu for either an instructor or student. By tapping fingers in the air, an individual can open a visual that displays up to five categories of images. Next, they lay a small square of paper that resembles a QR code on top of a mannequin and the headset turns the 2-D picture into a gunshot, slash, or stab wound, projected onto the dummy as a hologram.

      “Because the HoloLens is so new, there aren’t a lot of people in B.C. who know how to use the technology,” Zhou said. “There isn’t much information online. When we had trouble developing, we were able to be helped by the people who actually made it.”

      “We absolutely want to work in the tech industry in B.C.,” Jang added. “This experience has boosted our confidence. It’s been tough, but we’ve really enjoyed it. It’s great to have the chance to work on ideas like this, because they can be so impactful.”

      Follow Kate Wilson on Twitter @KateWilsonSays