Canadian students solve daunting business challenges with technology

Software that estimates the cost of a roofing job, and a social networking application that transforms a cell phone into a media exchange tool are just two of the innovative projects graduate students from universities across Canada are working on.

Students responsible for these innovations are participants in Accelerate Canada – an internship program that partners student researchers – under the supervision of a university faculty supervisor – with a Canadian company for short-term, applied research projects.

The idea behind these initiatives is to foster the creative use technology to drive very definite business benefits, or solve real-world business problems.

Accelerate internships have been so successful in B.C. that the program has been introduced nationally this year.

Most noteworthy are the benefits these projects are bringing to certain industries or trades.

Recreating roofing

Joe Kahlert can testify to that.

A computer science graduate student from Simon Fraser University, Kahlert has been working with Automated Systems Research (ASR), a Coquitlam, B.C.-based firm that develops estimating software for the roofing industry.

Estimation software creates the overall shape of a sloped roof – the kind you find on most residential houses – from a building layout. This enables a more accurate estimate of materials needed to cover it.

ASR’s line of software applications is used in the construction industry to enhance the accuracy of roof takeoff and design estimates.

But the ability to create a comprehensive picture of the entire roof was a missing element in ASR software, and Kahlert’s internship project with the company addressed this challenge.

Creating such an all-encompassing image – that includes all the little nooks and crannies – is vital to estimating roof costs.

Kahlert’s work on this challenge was a win-win situation for all concerned, according to ASR president John Gudaitis.

“Joe’s supervisor suggested the program as a way to support [him] during his postgraduate studies. ASR saw it as a way to help finance needed research.”

During a chat with a fellow graduate student at Simon Fraser University, Kahlert learned about a computational geometry technique, which he implemented in the software.

This method is now being incorporated into ASR’s new software package, which will be made available to customers in the near future.

“I had been working on this problem with ASR for a number of years before starting my studies at SFU,” said Kahlert. “In fact, my struggle with this difficult problem [led to] my decision to pursue computer science graduate studies in the first place,”

The technique that Kahlert used is called straight skeletons – a method of representing a polygon by a topological skeleton.

Kahlert was responsible for all aspects of this project – from research to development to integration of the method into ASR’s TopView product.

The project improved modeling of complex roofs that was difficult to do using earlier methods, said Gudiatis. “The new technology makes it easier and faster for our users to estimate complex roofs.”

Gudiatis said from a business perspective, this technology represents a huge business advantage ASR, which is the main supplier of this type of application to the North American metal roofing industry.

He said many advanced CAD packages – including AutoCAD – cannot correctly generate roof shapes in all cases.

ASR is also working on a beta version of the new software, which will be sent to select customers for feedback later this year.

And for Kahlert, the “straight skeletons” experience was also a lesson in flexible thinking – the ability to zero in on relevant research, and apply that to many different areas.

For instance, he said, straight skeletons can be applied to other areas such as terrain modeling.  “The roof generation algorithm itself could be used to model things like in-ground pool liners.”

SQWhere art thou?

Another Accelerate program breakthrough came from pairing, David Humphrey, a Master of Applied Arts Student at the Emily Carr Institute in Vancouver with Elastic Entertainment, an interactive and design company based in the same city.

Elastic thought of creating a novel online social networking portal called SQWhere (SQWhere.com) that would revive the “town square” concept for today.

SQWhere was originally conceived as a digital-to-real world forum for interaction among Vancouver’s diverse neighbourhoods and communities, said Elastic Entertainment president, Jennifer Ouano.

Ouano and her business partner came up with the concept in Spring last year.

Originally, it was conceived of as a pure Web portal – the backend built on Ruby on Rails and the front-end in Flash/Flex.

But later mobile technology came to the foreground.

Ouano said Elastic investigated how many areas of mobile technology – including WiFi, GPS and Bluetooth – could “interface with the Web and other portable devices.”

Funding for the SQWhere was secured through private investment. As they started to develop the team, Ouano learned about the internship program and Accelerate BC.

The opportunity to apply academic theory in real-world industry situations, was the most exciting part of the program, says Humphrey – the intern who worked on the project.

He dubbed the project “amazingly fun and wickedly engaging.”

Humphrey said the SQWhere team was highly creative and open to non-linear thinking and problem solving.

The technology is currently still conceptual, Humphrey said, as the internship was mainly focused on research and development.

But he said potential uses for the SQWhere application are many.

In the mobile space, for instance, the application could work on  ‘smart phones’ (it was prototyped for the iPhone) using their existing GPS technologies.

SQWhere users could “tag” stories using images, audio, text, and video at specific locations of interest throughout their environment for others to interact with.

Again it was a win-win deal for all participants.

“Dave’s contributions have helped shape the project and push it forward towards market readiness,” says Elastic’s Ouano.

While SQWhere hasn’t hit the market yet, Humphrey believes the impact will be huge.

“[It’s] a grass-roots application – meaning users dictate how it will be used and what content will be shared,” he says.

The Accelerate program grew out of an existing initiative in mathematical sciences operated by Burnaby, B.C.-based research network, MITACS starting with 18 internships.

Now in its fifth year, the program, which focused mainly on mathematics and sciences in B.C., has expanded nationally and includes all disciplines with 600 internships.

The focus of the project is developed in partnership between the intern, the intern’s supervising professor, and the company. Each project addresses a key business or technology challenge.

Students spend half of their time on site with the company doing research for the project, and the other half at their university developing the techniques required to accomplish project goals.

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