CFI research projects could rewrite computing rules

A $23.7 million block of funding announced Thursday by the Canada Foundation for Innovation may help expand computing beyond the keyboard or change the way software is upgraded.

Those are two of the 135 projects that will

receive funding that is being distributed to 160 researchers at 32 research institutions across Canada.

The CFI perodically disperses funds to Canadian universities to aid research across technological, medical and scientific fields. These institutions submit proposals which are evaluated on their own merits and well as the merits of the researcher — their training, background and prior accomplishments. Another consideration is the capacity of the project as a training tool for future generations of researchers as well as broader positive implications for Canadian society and economy.

“”It’s an extremely rigorous evaluation process,”” said Dr. Eliot Phillipson, president and CEO of the CFI. “”We do a number of trackings and audits. There is a very tight reporting relationship between the institutions and CFI.””

Fund recipients provide annual reports on their progress, and for funding of more than $4 million, Ernst & Young will perform an independent financial audit. A separate scientific audit will determine the actual research output that results from each project. The CFI sends out a team on-site to perform that function.

One of the projects selected is Sageev Oore’s research on developing multimedia computer intefaces beyond the tandem of mouse and keyboard. Oore, an assistant professor in the department of mathematics and computer science at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, has developed what he calls interactive character animation.

“”There’s an expression: when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Unfortunately, a whole lot of computer tasks are continually hammered by the keyboard and mouse combo,”” said Oore.

Oore isn’t trying to replace those tools — since they are best suited for many computer tasks — but wishes to augment them. He’s devised a way to interact with 3-D characters on a screen using an interface that would typically be used to operate puppets.

“”It’s effectively virtual puppeteering where you use input devices that are like puppet sticks except that they’re connected to sensors,”” he said.

Musicians, doctors and artists use multiple tools in order to be creative and solve problems, so they needn’t be limited to just a mouse and keyboard, he argued. Future input devices could include a motion control glove which could detect movement and relay it to the computer. Data could be manipulated on a different level that way, he said.

Oore said it’s hard to say how long it will take to develop a marketable product from his research, but it could be within a year or two. “”Research is very hard to predict. Once you get an idea, it can happen quite fast.””

Phillipson is cognizant of the need to turn research in a university lab into products that can be sold to companies. One of the CFI’s funding criteria — economic and societal impact — takes this into consideration. The CFI has been providing funding for six years, so it may be too soon to measure the impact of any projects to date, he said. But he’s confident that the gap between development and commercialization can be bridged.

“”Clearly the research community itself is concerned. The type of individuals that got these funds . . . are a very different breed than if you go back 25-30 years when researchers liked to stick in their laboratories,”” he said.

Research success must also be encouraged through the involvement of government and the private sector, he added.

Another of the research projects that has received funding already has some of those elements in place. With the participation of partners at the University of Waterloo and IBM Canada, Queen’s researcher Ying Zou is attempting to improve software upgrade paths.

Zou, a professor in the electrical and computer engineering department at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., is studying IBM’s WebSphere e-commerce applications. Her research breaks down the source code in order to make the upgrade process easier to developers working on future iterations of the software.

“”After many years, the quality of the software can become really bad. It’s very difficult for the developer to modify the software any more,”” she said. “”My research tools . . . help the developer understand existing software . . . and guarantee the quality of the software won’t be decreased.””

Zou’s work will also help predict a piece of software’s performance and how it will be affected by changes to its structures through the development process.

IBM Canada is very involved in the project, but Zou said the level of the company’s own funding for the project and its stake in any intellectual property that results from it has yet to be determined.

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