Sunday, June 14, 2015

At the East Coast Hobby Expo - ECHE 2015

It was my first 100+ km drive. It was a gloomy and rainy Sunday morning on the 14th of June. Though a little hesitant, I could not miss the East Coast Hobby Expo at Tweed Heads. So I drove and reached there around noon. I saw Elisa and Haydn manning a desk representing Techspace Tweed. Dalek and Tardis (models from Doctor Who TV series) built by Haydn stood proudly beside the desk. There were few gadgets lying around. The main feature of the desk though was a couple of 3D printers that were printing some designs. One of them was calibrated by me and one of the members last Thursday (yay!). As usual, I received a warm welcome. First, I decided to have a look around.

Techspace Tweed at ECHE 2015
I noticed that locomotive modeling was a main feature of the expo. There were quite a few stalls exhibiting model trains. While some of them were very sophisticated, some were more traditional. More modern ones were operated remotely with the help of microcontroller programming. They were operated through smartphones and tablet computers. I was talking with one of the members of a model train club. He said that they do it just as a hobby - 'There is no money in this for us'. The model train parts were available for sale for a very cheap prices. He also noted that it is a very old hobby that loosing popularity nowadays.

Apart from model trains, there were other model vehicles also - airplanes, cars, trucks etc. They all were locally made and were available to purchase for very reasonable prices.

Car, truck, models

Airplane models

I came across this woodworking hobbyist group also and found some fascinating woodwork designs. Surprisingly, most of the carvings were not available for purchase. Then, there were figure builders, War Hammer model builders, rug makers and so on. It was great to see so many people turning up and talking with the creators.
Some woodwork

Good for your FB profile picture?
A War Hammer Model

Figure/trophy modelling

Around 1.00, Caroline also joined us. Many people were quite interested about 3D printing. They were asking questions and we tried our best to make them understand what is going on. They also did not forget to take photographs with Dalek, despite he shouting out 'exterminate' whenever anyone comes nearby!

The proud and 'destructive' Dalek!
This expo was more towards artistic nature while the other exhibition I attended last year in Gold Coast (Gold Coast Maker Faire - Hack'n Show) which had a more science and tech color to it. We wrapped up around 3.00 pm and thought that it was a successful appearance at the expo. I had to drive 100+ kms again - well I wouldn't mind, I like driving!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Crossing Boundaries – Finding New Spaces

Caroline from Gold Coast Techspace sent me an email couple of weeks ago. She had two messages there. One was bad and the other was good. The bad news was that Gold Coast Techspace (GCTechspace) is closing down temporarily. But let’s hope for the best. I really hope that they can find a new place soon. It is an active design space filled with friendly people who are experts in many things. The good news is that Caroline is going to Sri Lanka. So I gave her some tips about traveling in my home country.

In the same email Caroline told me that she is attending this other hackerspace in Tweed Heads called OneSpace (, just beyond Queensland border in New South Wales State. She was kind enough to give me a lift from Nerang on last Thursday. I came to Nerang around 5.00 pm. We reached there around 6.00 pm. They have a group meeting every other Thursday starting at 6.00 and runs till around 9.30 pm. The coordinator of the space - Elisa gave a tour of the space for me and another new attendee. It was a fairly bigger space than GCTechspace. It had two floors with few spacious rooms. There were couple of working benches and storage racks in the main area which was in fact the entrance area. Two desks were located in an open area near the kitchen area as a co-design space. Elisa specifically stated that it is designed in a way that allows people to talk to each other while they design. Elisa described this entire workspace as a “co-working space” rather than a “hackerspace”. I have to talk bit more with the members to understand what the difference is. Elisa said that she is planning to rent out the space for developers and companies so they can do their design work and pay by day/month.

Seven other people flocked in to the workspace by 7’O clock. There were few things going on. John has brought in a Raspberry Pi and he was excited about installing an Operating System (OS) on it. It was like a mini tutorial. He (and others in fact) introduced the Pi to the others. Raspberry Pi is virtually a mini computer. It has a processer, memory, audio/video ports, USB ports – every basic component that constitutes a computer. John explained every step while he was installing. David (from GCTechspace) was filling gaps in the knowledge as he is an expert in the area. Everyone was involved in the discussion. I gained some basic knowledge about the Raspberry Pi (that I really should have known after working closely with makerspaces for a long time). And bingo! It was up and running.

A Raspberry Pi

Meanwhile, Caroline and Jim (also from GTechspace) were working on a stepper motor simulator. Stepper motors are used in a vast number of machines to rotate certain things in desired angles. These are common in laser printers and 3D printers. This project was an attempt to design a model so that people will understand what is going on. I thought this is a great idea. It shows the passion of makers to share knowledge with others. Jim owns a laser cutting company. So he managed to cut the plastic pieces that act as rotors in the model. He even moulded a ‘jig’ to ease the process of winding coils around iron cores. Well frankly I did not get the mechanics behind it – but next time I am sure I can comprehend!

Busy with the stepper motor!

An expert discussion!

While all these things happening Jim suddenly thought of showcasing his improved Quadcopter to us. He has improved the signal detection strength using some sensors and an Arduino board. He used a special remote controller to control it. And it was flying all around the vehicle park. Jim managed to make these improvements without disturbing the original operation of the quadcopter, i.e. if he removed Arduino board it would have worked the way it was supposed to.

Time went by through these exciting gadget operations and interesting chit chats. It gave me a different feeling to GCTechspace. I am yet to find what the difference though! The last train was at 10.19. Caroline told me we should leave with time to spare to catch the earlier train. But, I insisted on staying longer. Caroline was immersed in the stepper motor project also and I did not want to disturb her. We left around 9.15. Jim still wanted to finish the project. But I assumed there was not enough time. So, maybe next time I attend there I will be able see the finished stepper motor simulator and learn more about it!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A New Hope

The purpose of a research should be to advance humanity. The ultimate question we should ask ourselves is that "Can my research help people?" I was searching for an opportunity to do so. 
I am happy about the background work I have done so far. I have made connections with makerspaces, volunteers and disability services organizations. So I was in search to start a project. An effort to start a collaborative project to design hardware devices for students with intellectual disabilities did not go according to the plan. One of my supervisors and myself was searching for uni students to take on this project as one of their course requirements. We could not, however, find any student in the current semester. So, I wrote to Endeavour Foundation - which is a not-for-profit organization that aims to improve the quality of life of people with disabilities. I have known the Development Manager (let's call himTom) there who has been working with our uni in few projects. I wrote to him inquiring about possible projects. He replied: 
"Hi Ravihansa, Nice to hear from you. Happy to meet and discuss ideas. What does next wed afternoon look like, say 1:30pm at uni?" 
I obliged. Then he wrote to me again next day:
"Thinking through your request for ideas, I met with a gentleman yesterday whose daughter has been diagnosed with the below (Rett Syndrome). His daughter is now 10, but we got talking about VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments) and online environments and I wonder if there is something here that might lead to some hardware type development? In particular, people diagnosed with Rett syndrome effectively lose use of their hands. Thoughts? A potential google glass!!?? Have fun reading"

We had a group meeting around this topic: two people from Endeavour and one of my supervisors. We discussed firstly about the condition of this girl (let's call her Ann). She has lost her hand movement abilities and much of the verbal communication abilities. Her father is keen to explore accessible technologies so his child can easily communicate. Ann has the ability to understand, let's say operations of a computer and workings of software applications. She lacks the ability access a computer with her limited motor movements.

We talked about designing hardware devices that can ease access to communication technologies for Ann and for other persons experiencing similar difficulties. Hardware devices that can ease access to communication technologies such as computers, laptops and mobile devices or even devices that can help day-to-day communication are likely outcomes of the project. Wearable devices, touch pads, push button controllers, headbands, can be possible ideas. These devices will be designed keeping in mind the individual requirements. Low cost materials such as microcontroller kits (like Makey-Makey), sensors will be considered in design to keep the costs minimal.

I told them that there are makers from kaer communities who are interested in developing things for external community and this can be a good opportunity for them. They have the passion to design things and also the knowledge to do so. So, I told them that I will search for makers who a specifically willing take on this project. 

Endeavour people will talk with the parent of this child and parents and carers of other children who have similar difficulties in accessibility. I realized that Tom haven't thought about the possibility of developing individualized technologies, probably at lower prices in collaboration with creative design spaces like makerspaces. He commented that it is a great idea. We thought that even if this works for just a one child, that will be worth the while. We can, however, extend this work to help other children or adults with similar difficulties.

As a PhD student, part of my job is publishing. We hope that we can produce few high quality publications based on this project. We are also planning to get the help of uni students possibly in the next semester so they can complete project tasks as a part of their degree program. We also need to sort out some ethics concern before we do any prototype testing also.

I went to Gold Coast Techspace about week ago. The first person I met was Peter and we somehow ran into this project. Without even me asking, he said that he can help, he sounded very enthusiastic about it. So I added him to the loop. We need to find couple more people. I am sure we can get more on board by the time we prototype any device.

The project was tentatively named 'New Hope'. So, all in all, the path looks good and exciting. It all fell into place. Now it is a matter of holding it together. It is challenging. But, I believe it is possible. And if that is possible we will be able to bring smiles to few faces. I believe, that is the job of a researcher - the job of any person really!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Back to the Paradise...

Conference, Vacation and Field Work. Sounds a lot for a two month trip back home. But, it was Sri Lanka - so I would not mind! It was a great trip really. Conference was a success - two workshops by me and my supervisor. A key note speech by the supervisor. All went great!!! I planned for 10 interviews - did 12, so can't complain. Had good times with family and also with supervisor - went places. Now back in Brisbane trying to tune in! The blog has been mute for few weeks - what's better to break the silence than a holiday story...

The conference - ICT for Emerging Regions (ICTer) was held in Colombo from 10th to 13th December. The workshops were based on Do-It-Yourself Technologies (DIY) and Human Centered Design. Both went really well. I will discuss about the workshops later in another blog. My supervisor talked about how to design 'with' people instead of 'for' people - an interesting talk. She took a number of examples to show how some designs have gone wrong and how some went great. She pointed out that human centeredness is the key for a great design. 

ICTer Workshops
I will dedicate this post for the things I learned from my field work (caution - the data is yet to be analyzed, so these are from my memory and notes). As I said it was 12 interviewees. 10 males and 2 females. Both the female participants and another male participant were affiliated with two Disability Services Organizations (DSOs). Both of the organizations were specialized in the welfare of women and children. While the females were executive members, the male participant was an occupational therapist. All the other participants (who are male) were innovators. Four of them had their own organizations and two of them were trying to establish their own. Most of them were interested in microcontroller programming and related design activities. Two of them have designed an electric car from the scratch - to suit Sri Lankan conditions (price, fuel consumption, noise and air pollution, etc.). 3 of them were working in the software industry (one of them was in the USA) - they do Arduino-like projects in their spare time. While some of these innovators were experts in microcontroller programming, others were beginners and some fell in-between. I conducted semi-structured interviews by visiting their office places (apart from the one in the USA). That is another reason I love this kind of research - TRAVEL! I went to Colombo (the capital), Kandy (my home town) and Anuradhapura (an ancient kingdom city) to meet these lovely people. I will summarize what I learned from them as an entree for extended articles in academic publications.

I visited DSOs expecting a typically believed - poor structure, disorganization, and bla bla bla - environment. I was surprised. Believe or not these organizations are well organized that can be easily matched with the ones in Australia (okay again I was working closely with only one DSO here). Both the DSOs had excellent frameworks to carry out their charity work. They have properly organized school classrooms, rehabilitation programs and awareness programs. They also have strong linkages with hospitals, doctors, educational institutions and government authorities. It seemed they manage them brilliantly to provide their services. I think it comes from their hearts. They don't get paid much. But, still I saw an enthusiasm and organization that I could not see in any other government or private organization.

I had a question though - to which i could not still think of an answer. If Sri Lanka has such good DSO structure, why are they still lagging behind in accessibility for people with special needs? Yes, there are Braille trails on the roads and accessible entries in some of the buildings in the capital. Other than that, it is a nightmare for a person with lower limb impairments to get on to a bus and get off. There are no accessible toilets or lifts that I have seen. Why is this? I think it is not in our 'blood'. Accessibility is still an alien concept for much of the population. So, they don't think about accessibility for everyone when they build something. To change this, I believe - we need to start from the school. We need to teach children how important accessibility is. There is not enough information on our syllabuses. (Oh I switched to 'we', 'us' when I mention Sri Lanka - I can't help it!). We need some radical policy changes.

Let's talk about the technology adaption of DSOs in Sri Lanka. According to the occupational therapist, technology use to develop mobility aids such as prosthetic hands, supporting equipment is reasonably good. But, it seems none of the design happens within the organization. The design task is often outsourced to tech-specialist companies. The use of computer technologies, however, is very low. Apart from using computers to typeset documents (that is also very rare), there isn't much use of computers or even smartphones or tablets amongst the people with disabilities. I could not see any laboratory. In contrast to this in the school for the deaf, blind and mute in Colombo, they had a computer laboratory with state-of-the art equipment (this was when I was doing my final year undergrad project in 2011). So why don't they come to DSOs?

On the way to Anuradhapura...
It is not that Sri Lanka does not have technology. When I was talking with the innovators it was apparent that we are as updated as any other country when it comes to information technology. In fact Sri Lanka is known for developing few of the worlds most efficient software products. It seemed that even in hardware aspects, there is much awareness amongst the young generation (who are involved with the software industry though). Why they innovate then? The reasons were the same as innovators here - they really really really like to design! They learn somehow and design. They mostly use microcontroller kits like Arduino and sensors. It was clear to me they are keen to expand their practices to a wider community such as disability services. I felt the first step should be to gather these innovators to create an active maker community. I saw two of the participants have indicated in the Hackerspaces Wiki (that lists hackerspaces all around the world) that they want to initiate a hackerspace. But, it was not accomplished. If that can be done, then we can think of further collaborations. In fact I saw a glimpse of such an initiative. I had the chance to visit the inaugural Colombo IoT meetup which had a considerable turn-up. They have discussed some IoT ideas and invited the guests to contribute. 

So the key positives from my investigations were:
-There are DSOs with strong frameworks and connections
-There is technology available
-Innovators are keen to collaborate (and DSO people too in fact)
-Innovators are getting together

So we can hope for good things for us in the future. I also notice that the tendency for discrimination against people with disabilities is considerably weakened. It was evident with the discussion I had with the executive member from the DSO in Anuradhapura. So it is all headed towards a positive direction. 

P.S. When I was returning to Colombo from Anuradhapura after my interview i was thinking of the medals that DSO member received for athletics. She had lower limb movement difficulties. I felt ashamed and proud at the same time. Ashamed because I - as an able-bodied person have no medal in sports. Proud because what humans are capable of!

The medals...