Looking back - Visit to University of Alberta, Canada

Zoe Leonard, 9 Oct 2018

Looking back - Visit to University of Alberta, Canada

CDE Research Engineer Mark Moseley, had the opportunity to travel to Canada and visit the University of Alberta in June.  Here he reflects on his visit, the overall experience and the benefits to his research.

Where did I go, who did I visit and why?

The CDE provides international visit opportunities to its EngD cohort.  The visit must be to an organisation which aligns closely with the research area of the Research Engineer’s EngD.

For my international visit, I travelled to the city of Edmonton, Alberta in Canada for two weeks in June 2018.  I visited Professor Kim Adams at the Assistive Technology Labs (AT Labs) within the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Alberta (U of A) and also the I Can Centre for Assistive Technology at Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital.     

   

                                    Picutres from left to right:  Downtown Edmonton, The University of Alberta, Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital

Assistive Technology Labs (AT Labs) are regarded as world leading in the area of applied research for assistive technology for children who have disabilities.  AT Labs was started by Emeritus Professor Al Cook and is now run by Professor Kim Adams and her team/colleagues.

The research of AT Labs has traditionally focussed on the control of robotics by children who have disabilities, for education and play purposes.  Over recent years this research has involved the use of low cost Lego Mindstorms robotics kits.  This research has been carried out in collaboration with the I Can Centre for Assistive Technology and universities from around the world including Portugal, Columbia and Brazil.

The current research focus has expanded to explore the areas of Machine Learning, Haptics and BCI.

My research involves young people who have profound physical disabilities, and the control of a robotic arm using just the eyes, accompanied by haptic feedback in the hand when the gripper holds an object.  The research of AT Labs is the most heavily cited within my literature review and is closely aligned with my research.

The I Can Centre for Assistive Technology provides Speech Generating Devices, powered mobility and other Assistive Technology solutions for young people and adults who have disabilities.  AT Labs and the I Can Centre have worked together on research projects for many years.

 

About me and my research

I completed an undergraduate degree in Computing.  I then worked as a software engineer within security and defence but always felt a motivation to use technology to ‘help’ people.  I had an opportunity to change direction and have now worked within special education as an ICT consultant and Assistive Technologist for the past 12 years.  I was also a member of the BU ‘SHIVA’ team.  The SHIVA research project won a Times Higher Education award.

My research focusses on children and young people who have profound motor impairments.  This group have little or no reliable movement of their limbs and their difficulties may be compounded by involuntary movement.  They are also non-verbal.  From this point on I will refer to these individuals as the Target Group or TG.

During my research I created a system which allows the TG to control a robotic arm using just their eyes.  When the robot grips an object, a sensation is delivered to the wearer’s hand by a haptic device.

The system was used both to reveal the TG’s existing knowledge, and also to examine the effect that using it had upon their knowledge and understanding relating to physical and spatial concepts.  This system has been used by two pupil participants at Victoria Education Centre in Poole.

Mark's Research System

 

My system was transported to Canada where I gave live demonstrations to my hosts during my visit.

 

What did I do and see during my visit?

I presented my research to two audiences whilst in Edmonton.  The first was within the Faculty of Engineering at the U of A and the second was at the I Can Centre for Assistive Technology.  I also gave live demonstrations of my research equipment at the I Can Centre.  The majority of my time was spent at the U of A - I visited the I Can Centre twice.

AT Labs

AT Labs and collaborating researchers from other U of A departments are investigating the use of BCI as an alternative access method for those who have disabilities.  They are also evaluating the effectiveness of using haptic feedback to help people who have motor impairments to hone in on and locate physical objects.

The I Can Centre for Assistive Technology

I was given an extensive tour of the I Can Centre and related parts of Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital.  I was very impressed by their range of Communication Aids (Speech Generating Devices), eye gaze devices and also their CAREN system which combines a flight simulator platform, a treadmill and virtual reality to help people with rehabilitation.

I also had the opportunity to visit departments within the University which are performing research relating to robotics, motion capture and head-mounted eye tracking.

Me wearing a head-mounted eye tracking device and holding a robotic prosthetic arm

 

My contributions

During my stay, I became an active part of the research team: helping to proof read potential publications and seeing first-hand how the team develop these publications, attending PhD supervisor sessions and providing advice i.e. sharing my academic, professional and practical experience and knowledge.

I volunteered to trial experimental set ups and was able to provide feedback and advice about carrying out research with people who have disabilities.

BCI Experiment (The things we do for research!)

 

I also gave a demonstration of the SHIVA software at both the U of A and the I Can Centre.  Both centres are interested in using the software with their own client groups.

 

Academic benefits of the visit

The global academic community working in Assistive Technology is relatively small and this visit helped to facilitate the dissemination of my EngD research findings to world leading experts.

The main aims of my visit were:

  • Knowledge exchange: To discuss my research with peers - both academic and clinical in order to obtain feedback;
  • To network with academic and clinical staff: I networked with AT Labs researchers both in Edmonton and also in Brazil and Columbia (via Skype).
  • To identify potential collaboration opportunities such as publications and ideas for future projects;
  • To raise greater awareness of my research to these groups.

 

As can often be the case with doctoral students, I work largely in isolation in an academic sense.  Assistive Technology is an emerging field at BU and so currently there are few others with whom I can discuss my research.  My visit to Canada provided me with an opportunity to discuss my research with fellow researchers in my field.

Placing yourself amongst those in your field is a great way to obtain really targeted feedback and to hear about and see what others are doing.  I had opportunities to ask specific questions about their research and clarify points relating to their publications.  We were able to compare experiences and discuss how we dealt with issues.  It was interesting to experience different approaches and ways of thinking and to discuss ideas.

The team at the I Can Centre, in particular, highlighted the importance of my research in terms of its potential to identify the knowledge of the TG by providing experiences for them to interact with the physical world.  The TG are traditionally a very complex group to assess.  My research involved the creation of both physical and cognitive assessments.  One Speech Language Pathologist was very enthusiastic about the potential of the cognitive assessments.

The people that I met were genuinely interested in my research and very enthusiastic about its potential.  I received very positive feedback throughout my visit.

 

Personal benefits of the visit

On a personal level, this visit was both a daunting and exciting prospect for me.

Daunting because of the esteemed reputation of AT Labs.  Also, because I was going to present my research to two very different audiences, one of which was academic, the other largely clinical.  How would my research be received?  Would I be able to answer their questions?  My equipment had been transported out to the U of A – would it arrive in time and would it work!?

Exciting because I was visiting the place where so much of the research that I had admired and had felt an affinity with had originated - and I was going to meet Professor Kim Adams and her team!

I needn’t have worried…

Kim Adams is very approachable and had very kindly arranged a variety of activities for me.

My presentations were attended by a broad range of academic and clinical staff and were well received.  I lost count of the number of questions I was asked, but was able to answer all of them.  The audiences that I presented to were far more ‘targeted’ than those I’ve experienced at conferences and so the feedback and questions felt much more ‘relevant’.

My equipment did arrive in time and despite some logistical and technical issues it all worked perfectly during my demonstrations.

An Occupational Therapist from the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital using my system

 

Experiences such as this are great for building confidence.  Receiving compliments about your research from people whose research you admire is very uplifting.

 

Professional benefits of the visit

The experiences that I had whilst in Canada will have an impact upon my professional practice especially concerning the ways in which I will use eye gaze technology in the future.  In fact they already have – I now have a more flexible approach to how I use eye gaze technology with certain client groups.

 

Future/post-doc

Once I have completed my EngD research, I am keen to apply and continue research in the field of Assistive Technology within my workplace.  I plan to use the AT Labs Lego Mindstorms’ research at Victoria Education Centre and have ideas for extending this research.  My international visit has given me lots of ideas!

I also feel that through my visit to Canada, I have connected with researchers and clinicians that I would like to work with on future projects.

 

Final statement - Mark’s advice

The international visit scheme is a great opportunity and can help you and your EngD research in multiple ways.  If you can schedule the time and you can find an organisation that you feel would result in a positive experience then do it!

 

Me with Professor Kim Adams and members of her research team

If you would like to know more about the work of AT Labs, please visit their website:

http://www.rehabresearch.ualberta.ca/assistivetechnology/

For more information about the I Can Centre for Assistive Technology please see:

https://www.albertahealthservices.ca/grh/page14504.aspx

and for information about the CAREN system, please go to:

https://www.motekforcelink.com/product/caren/

 

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Professor Kim Adams and PhD researcher Isao Sakamaki at the University of Alberta for their hospitality and for arranging such an interesting schedule of events.  I would also like to thank the staff at the I Can Centre for Assistive Technology for giving up their time to show me their facilities and for taking such an interest in my research.

I would also like to thank Dr Mike Board and Zoe Leonard at BU, and Tara Graham at the University of Alberta for facilitating the visit and for ensuring that my equipment successfully completed its round trip.

The EngD research and international visit described here were funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (grant code: EP/L016540/1).  I would like to thank the EPSRC for this funding and for the opportunities that it has provided.

 

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