Public-private tech group to aid differently abled

Composed of university, private sector R&D teams, and non-profit organizations, the newly announced Intelligent Computational Assistive Science and Technology (ICAST) network aims to use technology to improve the quality of life of seniors and the differently abled.

The aging population has spurred on many researchers to enter the assistive technology field. “The demographic trends highlight the aging baby boomer population, and because of modern medicine, people are able to keep going longer, but with limited functions, and assistive technology reduces the strain on the healthcare system,” said Graham Taylor, vice-president of external relations with Precarn, a non-profit organization that champions technology R&D and is one of ICAST’s primary sponsors.

The network is the brainchild of York University professor John Tsotsos, whose work in assistive technology stems from a lifelong desire to help differently abled children. This summer, a lecture he gave at the University of British Columbia turned into an impromptu meeting on the country’s assistive technology industry, which, in turn, inspired a workshop that was held at York University earlier this month, where 30 persons from 20 companies, non-profit organizations, and universities agreed that Canada’s assistive technology community needed to come together.

In addition to Precarn and York University, the network’s steering committee includes the University of British Columbia, the University of Toronto, the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, the Neil Squire Society, the Health Technology Exchange of Markham, LifeLink Systems of Ste. Marie-de-Beauce, and Quanser Consulting. These organizations and those who attended the workshop provided network chair Tsotsos with a list of contacts among the academic research community, assistive technology companies, hospitals and clinics, and user groups (such as the Canadian National Institute for the Blind) from which to build a membership and word of mouth; Taylor said that several organizations and universities have already expressed interest in joining the network.

One of the major goals of the network, which focuses on mobility, communication, smart homes, and seniors’ issues, according to Tsotsos, is to streamline the industry’s R&D. “There is overlap where the technology is used,” he said, using the example of an elderly person with limited mobility who might use technologies from several of the research areas.

Taylor stresses collaboration: “We need to take advantage of having this experience and expertise in different areas. Some of these systems are very complex, and instead of having to get them in one place, different teams could work on different parts together. That way, we can have better systems, and those with elaborate development can move faster, getting (the systems) into the hands of Canadian people who can use them ASAP.”

Communication can also avoid redundant research- there are currently, for example, three Canadian universities working on intelligent wheelchairs, Taylor said, and the network would allow assistive technology teams to see whether a similar project has already been started, or check if their fellow organization would like to team up. “We’ll be fostering collaboration, so that, rather than working on similar individual projects, they can work on solutions together,” said Taylor. He and Tsotsos’ anticipate that network members will also undertake joint research, and would eventually apply for funding under the ICAST banner.

Taylor is also counting on the power of the grapevine-he hopes that awareness of the network will bring forward other researchers who aren’t necessarily working on assistive technology, but whose products could be appropriated to increase the quality of life for the elderly or the differently abled. For example, said Taylor, an R&D team could be working on a camera that would be mounted on a robot in an industrial plant. “The same camera could be put on a wheelchair, which could detect shapes and then maneuver the chair for a blind person around the room,” he said.

The network will also increase general awareness about the benefits that technology provides the elderly and the differently abled. Taylor said, “Canada has a lot of capability in this area, but not many people are aware of that-this technology has economic and social value.” And the quickest way to get there? “Well,” said Tsotsos, “It makes more sense to have more than the sum of the parts-not just the parts.”

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