Canadian network for assistive technology launched at York

Canadian university researchers and private sector organizations that are developing intelligent technology to improve life for seniors and people with disabilities have formed a first-of-its-kind network to increase collaboration in research and development and improve Canada’s competitiveness.

The Intelligent Computational Assistive Science and Technology (ICAST) network, launched last week at York University, is a Canada-wide initiative sponsored by York and Ottawa-based Precarn Incorporated, a not-for-profit company that supports the development of new, commercially-viable technologies. The assistive devices R&D network brings together scientists, engineers, clinicians, industry leaders, and representatives of organizations that serve people with disabilities.

“We are putting our heads together to ensure we benefit from each other’s research and focus on what is needed, whether it is mobility technology that senses surroundings and helps people with disabilities interact with their environments, or technology that can increase safety for seniors in their homes,” said ICAST network chair John Tsotsos, a York computer science & engineering professor who holds the Canada Research Chair in Computational Vision.

Left: York Professor John Tsotsos at work on his PLAYBOT project — an intelligent, visually-guided wheelchair intended for physically-disabled children. Researchers in the ICAST network are working on several intelligent wheelchair projects across Canada.

The ICAST network concept is a unique research structure in Canada. The network will ensure better alignment of university research capacity with the needs of business and will help to develop Canada’s medical devices industry. Academics, industry and others will work in four clusters within the network, focusing on mobility, communication, smart homes and issues pertaining to the elderly. They will collaborate on research, development and commercialization within their fields and will share their results with other clusters, as the issues often overlap.

Researchers are working on a variety of projects including intelligent wheelchairs that are self-guided, wearable robotics, technology that prompts a user with dementia through an everyday task, and smart homes that can anticipate occupants’ needs. Commercial applications of some technologies may take some time but others may be available more quickly. For example, York’s Tsotsos and Professor Alex Mihailidis, of the University of Toronto and the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, are discussing how to combine their approaches to detecting when a person has fallen; results may be available within a year that could provide an automatic fall detection system in special care homes for the elderly.

Paul Johnston, president and chief executive officer of Precarn Incorporated, said the ICAST network will foster important collaboration among the Canadian academic and private sector research and development communities.

“Technologies for assistive devices can be very complex; this collaboration will apply precious resources to solve tough problems, create unique solutions, and get them to market faster,” said Johnston. “Developing solutions together through an assistive technologies R&D network will have enormous social and economic benefit.”

Organizations on the steering committee for the network, in addition to York and Precarn, include: the University of British Columbia; University of Toronto; Toronto Rehabilitation Institute; Neil Squire Society; the Health Technology Exchange of Markham; LifeLink Systems of Ste.-Marie-de-Beauce, Quebec; and Quanser Consulting Inc., of Markham, Ont.

The collaboration that will be promoted through the ICAST network is essential, said Paul Gilbert, chief executive officer of Quanser Consulting, a world leader in the design and manufacture of state-of-the-art advanced control technology used in a range of applications including robotics and medical assistive devices.

“Industrial partners need confidence that a real market exists for products they develop, and academic researchers in medical fields are close to the end users,” said Gilbert. “They can help define the needs and size of the various markets and provide key insights into how to position products so they are accepted by end users. They also help us to understand how technology can be applied in a medical setting, which may significantly improve product design and reduce development time.”

Stan Shapson, York’s vice-president research & innovation, said York is committed to its role as the home base for the network. “With our outstanding researchers and with more than 50 per cent of Canada’s medical device companies located within the region surrounding York University, this national network builds on our important regional strengths,” he said. “The network will provide important support to continue our collaborations and world-class research, while ensuring the translation of research outcomes into social and economic benefits for Canadians.”