Professor James Elder wins major ORF grant to support sustainable urban mobility

Featured image for the James Elder story on 3D town
James Elder
James Elder

Seeking to use his intelligent systems research to facilitate sustainable urban mobility, Professor James Elder applied for an Ontario Research Fund (ORF) grant with private sector partners and University of Waterloo co-applicants. He won the $4-million ORF grant, plus $4 million from industry partners (Esri Canada, Exascale Solutions, Fugro Roadware, Miovision, Mircom, Teledyne-Optech and Trans-Plan) and another $4 million from York University and the University Waterloo, for a total of $12 million over five years from April 2017 to March 2022.

“We are delighted to see James Elder win this major ORF grant,” said Vice-President Research & Innovation Robert Haché. “It’s clear that this vital research will help Ontarians in many different ways, from creating opportunities for industry partners and start-ups, leading to growth and jobs; to more effective sustainable urban design and management,” he added.

Elder’s plan aligns with the province’s priority on digital media and information and communications technology, and York University’s own research priority in these areas.

Robert Haché
Robert Haché

Elder has devoted his academic life to understanding how the human brain makes sense of our complex and dynamic visual world, and to building machines that can do the same. This is interdisciplinary work that he says relies critically on his joint appointment as a Professor in both the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the Department of Psychology at York, as well as his membership in York’s Centre for Vision Research and new Vision:  Science to Applications (VISTA) initiative.

Health of our cities at stake

The health of our cities depends, in part, on the freedom of citizens to move safely, efficiently and sustainably through the urban environment. “Unfortunately, as our cities have grown, this freedom has become challenged in a number of ways,” says Elder. These challenges include:

  • Sub-optimal management and planning of transit and roadways, leading to congestion and excess greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Crime that makes some areas unsafe at night when crowds are sparse; and
  • Barriers that make some routes inaccessible to those with disabilities.

These challenges will be met by Elder’s Intelligent System for Sustainable Urban Mobility (ISSUM) project. This project will research and develop new technologies for sensing, analyzing, simulating and visualizing diverse forms of traffic within the urban environment to inform planning and management.

“Many of us now use crowd-sourced traffic data from GPS-based devices to help guide our commute,” Elder explains. “But these data are incomplete. They only come from a fraction of vehicles and don’t tell us how the traffic is distributed across lanes, or how much of it is due to Smart Cars versus transport trucks. Most importantly, they don’t tell us the mix of traffic across categories:  vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians and wheelchairs,” he adds.

Elder assembles stellar team of researchers and industry partners

To solve this problem, Elder has assembled a high-powered team of researchers from York (Professors Gunho Sohn and Petros Faloutsos) and Waterloo (Professord Liping Fu and John Lewis).  “To develop end-to-end intelligent systems technology, we need a wide range of expertise that spans the entire pipeline, from computer vision through geomatics, 3D computer graphics and modelling, transportation engineering and urban planning. This team delivers that expertise,” says Elder.

Industry partners are also playing a key role. “These companies are all located in the GTA and Waterloo regions, and provide the commercial expertise in sensing devices, 3D modeling, GIS and simulation software, roadway and traffic analytics and building monitoring systems needed to transfer ISSUM technology from the lab to real world applications,” says Elder.

The Ontario Ministry of Transportation and York’s Transportation and Security Offices are contributing valuable data and facilities to the project as well and providing critical feedback as potential end-users of ISSUM technologies.

Builds on existing scientific advances

The ISSUM project builds on two recent scientific advances made by ISSUM research teams:

  1. 3DTown. This technology combines innovations in 3D urban modeling, photogrammetry and computer vision to produce a web-based 3D visualization of urban activities.
  2. Steersuite, an approach to large-scale, realistic 3D modeling and visualization of crowd behavior.

“We want to advance and then fuse these two technologies to generate an integrated system that goes well beyond the state of the art in providing real-time 3D visualization, analytics and simulation capacity for urban management applications,” Elder explains.

3D town Commons – Intelligent Systems for Sustainable Urban Mobility from Bob Hou on Vimeo

In ISSUM technology, multiple cameras are used to detect and track vehicles and pedestrians in the scene.  These vehicles and pedestrians are then represented as 3D avatars within a detailed 3D visual model of the urban environment. Not only does this provide a cognitively natural way to integrate complex information, it also allows the data to be anonymized, thus preserving personal privacy.

Elder’s team will focus on two types of applications:

  • Third-person applications. “Here, we want to sense, analyze, visualize and simulate the flow of crowds and traffic through urban environments,” says Elder. Key applications are transportation management, safety and security, disaster management, urban and institutional planning.
  • First-person applications. “Here, we want to provide mobile apps that assist individuals to safely and efficiently navigate urban environments,” Elder explains. Target applications are mobile apps for accessible urban navigation for those with physical or cognitive disabilities; and building and navigation guides for first responders. 

Aligns with Ontario’s priorities

ISSUM aligns with the Ontario government’s priorities on digital media and information and communications technology and will be of direct benefit to Ontarians by providing:

  1. Opportunities for our Ontario-based industry partners and start-ups to commercialize our technology, leading to growth and jobs;
  2. More effective sustainable urban design and management, particularly with respect to transportation;
  3. More effective systems for security, emergency response and disaster management;
  4. Better applications for accessible route-finding in complex indoor and outdoor city spaces.

For more information about Elder and his research, visit the Elder lab or his profile page. For more information about the ORF, visit the website. To learn more about VISTA, visit the website.

By Megan Mueller, manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University,