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Creativity & Culture

In the future, the things we wear will take care of us

Creativity & Culture

In the future, the things we wear will take care of us

For most people, monitoring wellness or undergoing tests to diagnose a medical condition means visiting a clinic or hospital. That can present challenges for individuals with language or mobility concerns, and, as has been the case during the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns regarding in-person visits for non-virus related medical care have led many to avoid seeking advice or treatment altogether.

Our mental and physical health might also benefit from the regulation of activities, including simple human or automated reminders to stand up and stretch, rest when we are overworked or take medications. But there are limits to what we can do with prevailing technologies and methods.

From day-to-day monitoring of our health and ensuring that prompt attention is dispatched in the event of a medical emergency to promoting better human connectedness and wellness through modern design and manufacturing processes, there are many opportunities to apply more creativity and innovation to how we take care of ourselves.

Ryerson is at the forefront of supporting such efforts and is contributing to work that ultimately will improve the lives of people everywhere.

Using smart textiles to promote health and wellness

“The apparel oft proclaims the man,” says Polonius, advisor to the newly crowned King of Denmark, to his son Laertes in Act 1, Scene 3, of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

But what if our apparel could proclaim more than just our station in life, such as the state of our health and safety or even performance at critical tasks?

Those are the kinds of questions that Toronto-based Myant Inc. has spent the last decade exploring. Now, in collaboration with Ryerson’s FCAD, the Faculty of Communication and Design, they are pushing the boundaries of design, fashion and engineering in the emerging field of textile computing: the integration of technology into the very fibres of clothing and other fabrics.

smart fabrics
Myant Inc. has “smart” apparel that can monitor everything from ECG to sleep quality

“Myant is at the forefront of the next wave of industrial and commercial innovation in Canada,” says FCAD Dean Charles Falzon. “Our students and faculty live at the intersection of design, technology and user experience, and we are excited to work with Myant to unlock new possibilities for the future of human-machine interactions.”

Indeed, the vision for textile computing is at once bold and far-reaching. The clothes we wear, bedding we sleep on and covered furnishings we use at home and work, for example, can be embedded with nano-scale sensors and actuators that are connected to an AI-enabled digital platform. That puts us on the cusp of a new era in remote health monitoring and management, along with improved productivity, performance and workforce wellness and safety.

a woman with a construction hat at a textile production line
FCAD’s partnership with Myant Inc. reimagines the future of design and technology through textile-based solutions

To demonstrate what’s possible, Myant has already launched an apparel line that includes everyday essentials such as underwear, bras and undershirts, as well as baby onesies and polo shirts. Each serves as a digitally connected epilayer on top of a person’s skin to monitor essential health information.

“We all wear clothes or sleep on sheets,” notes Todd Carmichael, FCAD’s executive director of strategic planning and advancement. “By embedding technology in use-cases that are already pervasive, we can unleash a world of possibilities.”

70+
Number of patents secured by Myant Inc.

That chair we sit on to work? It will sense our physical and psychological state and suggest we take a 10-minute break. Sensors knitted into the fabric used in safety shoes will provide continuous gait analysis to help predict and ultimately prevent occupational slips, trips and falls.

The list goes on. So, too, will the need for more research and multi-disciplinary collaboration. What, for instance, are the useful lifetimes of smart textiles, and how should they be recycled or repurposed? It’s questions like these that will drive future innovations and refinement of the technology.

With textile computing, we’re seeing not just the emergence of a new industry that has the potential to make a profound difference in the lives of individuals, but also the start of a unique, made-in-Canada innovation network in which the Myant Textile Computing Lab at FCAD plays a central role.

We all wear clothes or sleep on sheets. By embedding technology in use-cases that are already pervasive, we can unleash a world of possibilities.
Todd Carmichael, Executive Director of strategic planning and advancement at Ryerson’s Faculty of Communication and Design (FCAD)

Making remote, real-time heart health monitoring a reality

Heart disease is a leading cause of death. For those with heart ailments, there are a few options for monitoring outside of healthcare facilities, but all are uncomfortable to wear and there is usually a delay before the information they collect is reviewed by medical professionals. Some of these devices also lack the ability to detect certain conditions. Plus, they are expensive.

Those and other shortcomings are partly what prompted Frank Nguyen and André Bertram to start HelpWear while they were still high school students in 2015.

There was also a personal incentive. Nguyen’s mother had serious heart problems. Nguyen was concerned that if an emergency occurred when he was absent, she would not be able to get proper medical care in time. So, he and Bertram set out together to develop an alternative.

smiling grandparents holding a baby
HeartWatch, a lightweight armband that allows users to engage in daily life without the physical restrictions associated with conventional ambulatory monitors

The result of their joint efforts is HeartWatch, a lightweight armband that allows users to engage in daily life without the physical restrictions associated with conventional ambulatory monitors. It’s an easy-to-use solution that combines the accuracy of a hospital-grade ECG heart monitor with the health data technology and smartphone integration of consumer-level wearable devices.

“HeartWatch is different from others on the market in that it monitors heart activity 24/7, can detect cardiac events, notifies emergency medical services of a patient’s GPS location and event data to emergency physicians in real time, so they can treat patients more effectively,” explains Bertram, who is now the company’s CEO alongside Nguyen as the chief technical officer.

An important first step in developing their device was attending Ryerson’s DMZ Basecamp, which helps aspiring young entrepreneurs bring their innovative ideas to life. It provided Bertram and Nguyen with access to “an ecosystem of industry experts, tech whizzes and advisors” as a starting point to building on their initial concepts.

24/7
The constant monitoring period of the HeartWatch differentiates from other products on the market

HelpWear was also one of the first residents in the university’s Biomedical Zone, a leading incubator for medical startups in partnership with St. Michael’s Hospital. The zone is one of 10 on-campus incubators in which entrepreneurs work to develop real-world ventures, projects and causes.

“Allowing us to design our technology around not only what a patient needs, but also from a clinical perspective with direct reference to what physicians and the medical system require, was a huge benefit,” Bertram says of their zone learning experience.

Looking ahead, he and Nguyen aim to position HeartWatch as “the doctor around a patient’s arm,” providing ICU-quality monitoring and care from anywhere to any location. More broadly, their business aims to be a key piece of the technology layer required to improve telemedicine.

That’s an ambitious goal. But if HelpWear succeeds, it could mean more than extending health monitoring to remote and under-served communities in Canada. It could also make affordable and potentially life-saving health care available to patients around the world.

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Creativity & Culture

Our relationship with technology is about to become much more personal — and that’s a good thing

Creativity & Culture

Our relationship with technology is about to become much more personal — and that’s a good thing

Individually and collectively, we rely on an increasing number of interactions with machines, devices and platforms to perform tasks, connect with others and create as never before.

At the same time, the sophistication, scope and constant newness of those interactions can be bewildering and difficult for us to manage and process. And yet, our approaches to handling that complexity can take control further away from us, by handing it over to powerful but unseen algorithms, data streams and circuits that sense, process, suggest or decide on our behalf — often poorly or in ways that fall short of their full potential.

It doesn’t have to be that way. As researchers and innovators at Ryerson are demonstrating, there are opportunities to reshape our thinking around the complex digital landscape we inhabit, even as we continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible through the creative use of technology.

A new way to think about problems — and solutions

For decades, the field of study known as Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) has focused on what we can do using graphical user interfaces and standardized input devices, such as keyboards, trackpads, mice and so on. But there’s a problem with those conventional methods of presenting and manipulating digital information. As ubiquitous and familiar as they are, they fail to take advantage of the full spectrum of our physical, sensory and cognitive capabilities.

a hand holding a futuristic device on a digital surface
A user performs a filtering operation on a large biological dataset by stacking two active tangible objects on an interactive tabletop display

Exploring approaches to HCI in ways that capitalize on our human strengths is what drives Alexandra (Ali) Mazalek, Canada Research Chair in Digital Media and Innovation at Ryerson’s RTA School of Media in the Faculty of Communication and Design.

Her work seeks to reap more of the potential benefits of our digital interactions, while ensuring that they can also have positive influences on our lived experience — from our health and wellbeing to our ability to learn, create and discover.

“My research focuses on designing interactive systems that enable us to effectively use our bodies and minds, working in partnership with information and algorithms,” Mazalek explains. “It draws on the opportunities within emerging sensing and interaction technologies to better bridge our physical and digital world experiences — an area of research called Tangible and Embodied Interaction (TEI), which is a subset of HCI.”

a man holding a futuristic device surrounded by digital screens
A researcher visualizes and compares different gene regulatory networks using a cross-device interaction system called Tangible BioNets

An example of what she’s talking about is the gesture-based interface that is a highlight of the Steven Spielberg science-fiction film Minority Report. By moving holographic-like images, the character portrayed by Tom Cruise is able to sort through data — an embodied interaction — to “pre-visualize” capital crimes, so they can be stopped.

My research focuses on designing interactive systems that enable us to effectively use our bodies and minds, working in partnership with information and algorithms.
Ali Mazalek, Canada Research Chair in Digital Media and Innovation at Ryerson’s RTA School of Media

TEI is now a staple of science fiction in the creative arts, but there are many real-world applications, such as computer consoles with remote cameras and linked devices that enable users to interact with a range of scenarios for entertainment.

Mazalek wants to go way beyond that. She’s trying to better understand how our physical interactions with digital information can enhance our ability to think about complex data and problems in even more novel ways.

“That means designing real-time tangible interfaces that can serve as both representations and controls for complex information and processes, and can give our sensory and motor systems the materials they need to tinker, explore, question and form insights,” she says.

Changing the representation of information and our interaction with it opens the possibility of finding solutions to problems that currently seem too difficult for humans to fully comprehend. That could be a game-changer in areas such as computational biology and bioinformatics, for example, inasmuch as it re-imagines the way that algorithmic approaches are applied in discovery and opens those techniques to embodied manipulation and coupling with human visual-spatial skills.

Indeed, the same techniques could be used in other areas of discovery and scholarship, as tangible and embodied interactions help us rethink the way we access and manipulate large information repositories, look at problems and find solutions.

Harnessing technology to save lives and create art

What if within, say, a decade, we could create living body parts using 3D printing and implant the organs in someone in need of a life-saving transplant?

The notion is not so far-fetched. Manufacturing capabilities are evolving rapidly and already starting to produce work that challenges conventional uses of technology.

“Technology, if applied with a creative lens, is a tool that enhances the development of new frontiers, not just in entertainment and artistic expression, but in many other fields as well and often in unexpected ways,” explains Charles Falzon, dean of Ryerson’s Faculty of Communication and Design (FCAD).

The university’s Creative Technology Lab is an example of where such research and development can occur. Falzon likens it to a “state-of-the-art sandbox” — albeit one that covers 650 square metres in the university’s new Daphne Cockwell Health Sciences Complex — that enables the FCAD community to push traditional boundaries and harness technology in dynamic and inspired new ways.

Technology, if applied with a creative lens, is a tool that enhances the development of new frontiers, not just in entertainment and artistic expression, but in many other fields as well.
Charles Falzon, Dean of Ryerson’s Faculty of Communication and Design (FCAD)

“This is much more than a fabrication space,” adds Jonathon Anderson, the lab’s director and an associate professor in the faculty’s School of Interior Design. “One of our primary goals is to create an environment that provides hands-on training for FCAD researchers and students and enables them to experiment with advanced equipment such as robotic arms, projection mapping, motion tracking, 3D printing and CNC equipment. We’re working to disrupt traditional views that are commonly associated with this type of facility.”

That focus on disruptive innovation can encompass more than two dozen projects at any time. They span unexpected fields ranging from interior design and fashion to new media, image arts, performance, graphic communications management and journalism.

a man wearing a mask and face protector
FCAD student making masks for Covid-19. Photo by: Peter Bregg C.M.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the lab sprung to action as a dedicated micro-factory designed to address a national shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). Making use of its broad range of process capabilities, Anderson and his team were able to prototype hundreds of face shield designs, ultimately coming up with an origami-inspired design using a laser cutter, which reduced typical production time from hours to 40 seconds.

With an innovative design in place, the lab partnered with Glia, Toronto General Hospital, Unity Health Toronto, and St. Michael’s Hospital to ensure that the face shields made it to frontline health workers. Over 12,500 shields were manufactured to St. Michael’s Hospital alone, which can be sanitized and reused by hospital staff.

40
seconds it takes to produce face shield using a laser cutter at the Creative Technology Lab

Beyond pandemic response, many of the lab’s activities are pushing the limits of how robotics can be used creatively. For example, the Uncanny Robots Project led by assistant professor Michael Bergmann of the faculty’s School of Performance is investigating how robotic arms and humans can perform together. And, for her part, Linda Zhang, an assistant professor of interior design, is investigating digital heritage through drone scanning, photogrammetry and the reproduction of artifacts using the robotic arm.

Those and other efforts are gaining global attention and helping to position the lab as a premier creative technology facility. At the same time, cultivating relationships with industry and community partners adds immense value and creates additional opportunities for students and researchers.

“We’re eager to nurture those relationships and the potential they bring, and to see creative applications across more and more sectors as a result,” Anderson says.

For good reason, too. It’s clear that as our relationship with technology continues to evolve, even more opportunities to explore how we interact with it — and to what ends — will arise.

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Creativity & Culture

Creative expression is set to become even more engaging and interactive

Creativity & Culture

Creative expression is set to become even more engaging and interactive

In the best of times and worst of times, we seek entertainment and creative experiences to add more joy to our lives or find comfort and distraction in the face of adversity. We also routinely borrow from different means of creative expression to educate and inform.

Meanwhile, the methods of expression available to us continue to evolve. New media emerge to complement or displace traditional forms, and the sophistication of content presented to us grows daily.

We’re accustomed now to hyper-realistic animation and computer-generated graphics in film and television. Books are adapted to audio performances and interactive digital versions. Streaming services and live performances are increasingly amping up their staging, narrative choices and effects, as well.

Canada is a robust contributor to this landscape of creativity. Indeed, we have a thriving “experiences industry” that spans multiple sectors and produces attractions and performance events for both domestic consumption and international export. Even so, there is a continuing need for exploration, research and training to maintain and grow that ecosystem.

$18.8B
Forecast of the size of the global augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) market in 2020 (in US dollars)

Ryerson is playing a leading role in advancing new technologies and creative approaches that are shaping the world of entertainment, education and other avenues for expression today — and tomorrow.

Expanding the world of virtual reality

Immersive virtual experiences are not new. The notion of “something in essence or effect, though not actually or in fact” can be traced to the mid-1400s. Stage productions were regarded as such in the mid-20th century, while driving and flight simulators have been used for training purposes and amusement for decades.

What is relatively new is the technology that presents realistic images, sounds and other sensations, typically through a head-mounted unit, to simulate a user’s physical presence — and 360-degree awareness — in a virtual environment.

As is the case with many new technologies, there are challenges for those seeking to accelerate a transition from traditional media to fully immersive virtual reality (VR) experiences.

people wearing virtual reality goggles
Contraverse virtual reality cinema screening

“We started out as a VR production company and found that the tools needed to showcase and distribute our content were not comparable to what is present in the traditional film or TV industry,” explains Josh Gonsalves, Ryerson alumnus and co-founder and CEO of Toronto-based Contraverse.

“So, we decided to establish ourselves as a full end-to-end production and distribution company. We are not just creating exceptional VR content, but we are also developing the software and processes needed to present that content both digitally and physically at events.”

For Gonsalves, a game designer and filmmaker who initially aspired to “break through a television screen and become one of the characters in a program,” Contraverse is now an extension of work that evolved while at Ryerson’s RTA School of Media.

We are not just creating exceptional VR content, but we are also developing the software and processes needed to present that content both digitally and physically at events.
Josh Gonsalves, Co-founder and CEO of Contraverse

Gonsalves developed many of his ideas at the university’s Transmedia Zone, one of 10 on-campus incubators in which students can advance their startups or social ventures.

“The Transmedia Zone gave us the space and basic equipment to really get started,” Gonsalves explains. “If it weren’t for the VR-ready computers and headsets that we had access to in the early days of our company, we would never have been able to pursue our research and development and build the expertise we needed.”

The focus of that expertise now is Expo — an easy-to-use platform for presenting VR content to large audiences by synchronizing multiple headsets and gives an exhibitor the option of controlling these headsets with a tablet or laptop. It’s used for everything from immersive training applications to virtual real estate walkthroughs, as well as museum installations and, increasingly, at film festivals.

“We’re helping festivals expand their offerings by giving them an easy way to integrate virtual reality screenings into their programming,” adds Gonsalves. “This benefits not only those running the festivals, but also creators who can now see their content shared with much larger audiences. Plus, it expands the reach of VR by exposing more people to the experience, when they might not otherwise get the chance to consume VR content at home.”

someone pointing a finger at an iPad
Expo Cinema Remote app on iPad Pro

A next step for Contraverse and its Expo platform would be to get Expo in the hands of as many enterprise clients as possible to create a deeper integration with their hardware, and possibly with a major production studio, which would provide the space needed to work on large-scale, interactive VR storytelling experiences, rather than just 360-degree video content.

As COVID-19 has put a premium on virtual experiences, the potential application of Expo for experiential learning and educational purposes is also a promising horizon for the company.

80%
of consumers in the US and UK report increased media consumption during Covid-19

Indeed, where Contraverse wants to take its technology is very well suited to the shifts to virtually supported interaction and human engagement. The possibilities are nearly limitless.

Rethinking the boundaries of live entertainment

Worldwide ticket sales for concerts, festivals and themed entertainment experiences have experienced annual double-digit growth over the last decade, but with shifts in how live events take place thanks to COVID-19, there are a host of areas within the live entertainment industry remain ripe for exploration.

To that end, Ryerson’s partnership with Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group, the world’s leading creator, producer and distributor of live entertainment, to conduct boundary-pushing research on live entertainment has become even more urgent.

The Future of Live Entertainment Lab (FOL!E) at the Faculty of Communication & Design (FCAD) is examining how changes in audience preferences, emerging technologies and shifting economic conditions are creating new possibilities for the live entertainment industry.

people sitting around a table
Working session with Ryerson University researchers at Cirque du Soleil International Headquarters

“FOL!E’s mandate is to bring together faculty, students and industry experts to develop innovative projects in high-potential areas — performance, stagecraft and experiences — for academic and field-based investigation,” explains Louis-Etienne Dubois, the lab’s director.

“Unlike traditional industry-academia research, our projects are not focused on the pursuit of a single, predetermined outcome or need. Rather, they support broad exploration — even if it leads to failure — of new technologies, weak signals, trends and opportunities.”

The lab’s projects fall within three clearly defined application domains, according to Dubois.

Unlike traditional industry-academia research, our projects are not focused on the pursuit of a single, predetermined outcome or need. Rather, they support broad exploration — even if it leads to failure — of new technologies, weak signals, trends and opportunities.
Louis-Etienne Dubois, Director of the Future of Live Entertainment Lab (FOL!E)

The first explores new types of human performance, especially those related to augmentations that enable performers to do things previously not humanly possible, as well as emerging unconventional, surprising or unexpected acts.

A second domain examines stagecraft, novel design and production approaches, including makeup and wigs, costuming, fashion tech and smart textiles, lighting, sound, set and prop design, robotics, projection mapping and tracking technologies.

And finally, the lab researches new approaches to ideation, novel business models, emerging types of entertainment experiences, as well as audience measurement, emerging industry trends and changing audience needs.

“At the moment, our work is filtering through to Canadian organizations and the domestic research community, but there is no reason for the results of our research not to have a global reach,” Dubois insists.

“The sector is growing pretty much everywhere, and competition with other entertainment media creates pressures for rapid innovation for everyone,” he adds.

Indeed, the next frontier might be to further blur the lines between themed experiences, attractions and live performances, and to launch research into any kind of entertainment that draws people together — in good times or bad.