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!