DISPATCHES: Monash University shows that innovation isn’t tied to Silicon Valley

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Despite not having the gloss of a unicorn startup like Snapchat, or the media attention like Atlassian or Uber; Monash University wants everyone to know that they can be technology disrupters too.

Last week, the university held its fourth annual Faculty of Information Technology Innovation Showcase. Hosted at Telstra’s Gurrowa Innovation Lab in Exhibition Street, it showed off some of the more interesting projects that the PhD students and researchers have been working on to key industry members and to the media.

And based on what I saw, some of the projects on display might be things to look out for in the future.

Introducing the ‘touchRing’

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The night’s main star was the touchRing. Built by Monash University’s sensiLab and based on the research work done by Dr Cagatay Goncu, the touchRing is a new wearable device that is designed to assist those who are blind or visually impaired.

The idea is that the user wears the ring and interacts with a smartphone or tablet. The ring will then send vibrations based on what you touch on-screen. And yes, it will vibrate differently on different parts of the screen. When I got the chance to use it, this difference was subtle – but I would expect that a person who has a vision impairment will be able to tell.

According to Dr Goncu, the ring does not replace the voice-to-text on smartphones. Instead, the touchRing compliments voice-to-text, especially in areas where you cannot hear the voice from the smartphone due to noisy backgrounds.

The only hurdle for the touchRing is to have apps utilise the ring. One app already supports this – Raised Pixels, co-developed by Monash and also based on research by Dr Goncu – but there are plans to release an API so other developers can integrate it in their apps.

According to the university, they plan to create a Kickstarter campaign to mass-produce the product. That is coming out in the next few weeks, so look out for that.

A new way to encrypt your drive

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Industry partnerships are key for Monash University, and the Innovation Showcase featured one such partnership with security startup Scram Software. Both are working on developing a new way to encrypt your hard drive.

Called ScramFS, it promises to be the world’s “most advanced cryptographic file system” and can be used to secure local or cloud storage. This is done by encrypting every single file and adding an additional layer when reading the file to decrypt it. In contrast, other hard drive encryption methods (like BitLocker) encrypt segments of the drive.

According to Scram’s founder Linus Chang, his method is preferable as more data is being sent to the cloud. Encrypting a file then uploading it to the cloud ensures that the file cannot be read, even if the attacker does compromise your account. As well, since you have the keys – cloud providers will also not have access to the data.

Scram says that its encryption uses quantum resistant primitives, and that it will be able to detect file tampering and forgeries. Chang also told me that they plan to get their method of encryption peer-reviewed by another cryptography expert at the University of Melbourne.

ScramFS should be available for public testing by the end of 2016.

Proper real-time collaboration

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Another demo on display was ContextuWall, which allows you and collaborators – who may be in different labs, universities or countries – to work on “one screen”. Users can upload material, annotate content, and even switch the focus from one item to another easily. According to its developers, ContextuWall ideally works on tiled wall displays.

However, Monash has identified several use cases where this could be revolutionary – imagine, for example, health specialists being able to share image scans and discuss them in real-time without having to do screen sharing via Skype or having to upload them so they can see it on their screen.

The developers are keen to stress that ContextuWall does not replace existing VoIP systems such as Skype, but complements it. It is also very early in its development, but it does look very promising.

Revolutionising education and transport

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At the very back corner of Telstra’s Gurrowa Innovation Lab were two products that promised to revolutionised how people deliver goods, and changed how people learn.

Co-developed by Monash, the University of Melbourne, and Data61, Minizinc is a new tool that lets businesses optimise their processes without spending millions of dollars and years of calibrating commercial software. It will also accomodate to changing business requirements – for example, if new working regulations are imposed or a new customer opportunity comes up, they can see what impact it has on the company and adjust accordingly.

Also on show was Alexandria, a new product developed inside of Monash that allowed lecturers to create interactive and engaging eBooks for their students, and collaborate with other lecturers to produce material that could be reused for a variety of courses. For example, classes could reuse the same “Introduction to Java” chapter for a wide variety of courses, since there will be some students who may not know or need a refresher on Java.

Students can view the material online, or download a copy of the eBook to read it on their tablet or smartphone. They will get an option to download the “enhanced” version or the basic text version only.

Silicon Valley does not have a monopoly on innovation

I think we often forget that universities can be a source for innovative ideas. We always report on stuff that’s coming from Silicon Valley or whatever comes from the mind of Elon Musk, but never hear a lot about the ideas that are being worked on by university students, PhD candidates and academic staff.

The Innovation Showcase may have not featured a moonshot as the Hyperloop, but it shows that Silicon Valley does not have a monopoly on the word “innovation”. The event showcased some down-to-earth ideas that have the potential to become a startup or business potential.

And I can’t wait to hear more about them.

 

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