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November-December 2016

INNOVATION - Ryerson University Research & Innovation Newsletter

Issue 24: November/December 2016

Frontiers of Perception


Feature Stories

Partner in Innovation



Funding Announcements

Around Campus


There’s no denying that we are on the cusp of a digital revolution, with augmented and virtual reality finding their way into our everyday lives in ways we could have never imagined.

At Ryerson, our researchers are finding innovative ways to embrace technology and are changing how we view the role of technology in the world. Though currently used mainly for entertainment, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have the potential for much broader applications. Our researchers are examining ways that AR and VR can improve health, enhance learning and be used as tools in the marketplace to drive the economy.

In this issue of Innovation, we look at how Canada Research Chair Alexandra Mazalek is examining the tangible aspects of AR, which can help us learn and acquire spatial abilities. We will also see how Alexandra Fiocco and Richard Lachman are aiming to improve the lives of individuals in long-term care residences by giving them new opportunities to experience travel. Seung Hwan (Mark) Lee is examining how VR can be applied to improve marketing and sales in different sectors, including tourism and education. Meanwhile, Jason Nolan, whose roots in VR go back to a time before the immersive environments of today’s virtual worlds, is working with sound to create VR experiences.

This issue will also look at how sustainable technologies (like geothermal heating and cooling) can impact the way we build, as Seth Dworkin partners with a geotechnical consulting firm. We will also touch on how Cherie Ding is using data to streamline the software used in hospitals, which recommends radiology diagnostics based on input by physicians.

Our researchers are embracing technology to create solutions that solve problems in new and exciting ways.


Usha George
Vice-President, Research and Innovation (Interim)



Seniors gain the benefits of travel without leaving home

While travel has been shown to improve quality of life, options for hopping on a plane are limited for seniors in long-term care residences.

Enter professors Alexandra Fiocco (Psychology) and Richard Lachman (Digital Media), who are undertaking a collaborative virtual reality (VR) project aimed at improving the lives of the elderly by offering virtual travel with the help of a Ryerson RECODE grant. Lachman was approached by startup company Owlflix, which wanted to examine the health benefits of “virtual travel” for seniors. Lachman saw the opportunity to collaborate with Fiocco, who has expertise in working with elderly populations.

Visiting seniors in Greater Toronto Area nursing homes, Fiocco and Lachman’s team presented seniors with the opportunity to have VR experiences, wearing an immersive headset 3 times a week over a period of several weeks.

According to Fiocco, the seniors who have participated in the study thus far have enjoyed their experiences in the VR environment and are open to the idea of trying out the new technology. The senior residents have had the opportunity to see the Eiffel Tower in Paris, ride a camel in the Moroccan desert, or scuba dive in the Caribbean. According to Fiocco, some of the seniors have asked to travel to the same destination on two different occasions, or have expressed an interest in staying in the VR environment for a longer duration than the 10-minute limit that is set by the research team.

“A lot of seniors can’t travel due to mobility restrictions or financial reasons, and this might be a great way to fill that void,” said Fiocco.

In 2017, Fiocco and Lachman will conduct a second study that will measure the well-being of seniors exposed to virtual travel three times a week over the course of six weeks. “We will be measuring quality of life, social engagement, and levels of depression and loneliness,” said Fiocco.

Observations of the participants are already revealing some potential benefits such as improved socialization amongst the seniors after their VR experiences. “The new experiences create conversations with other residents,” said Fiocco. “People are discussing their trips. It has given them something new to talk about.”

“And this is only the tip of the iceberg,” said Fiocco. VR may help create new memories or enhance autobiographical memories by stimulating memories of past travel destinations, which Fiocco said is “closely linked to sense of self and quality of life.” Improvement of autobiographical memories will be examined in the next step of the research team’s investigation of VR technology for older adults, including older adults with dementia. 

As the VR expert on the team, Lachman said that the research is examining not only what content is most appropriate for older adults, but also ways to reduce motion sickness, which can be caused by the VR experience.

While they are currently using stock footage, Lachman says that the project has longer-term goals of creating its own content that would take into account all of the feedback received from the participants. “There is a sense that the elderly are being left out of technology design,” said Lachman. “Most of them were eager to try it. They are interested in trying something new.”

The Ryerson team is working with VR startup Owlflix in order to develop content that will not only appeal to seniors but will also offer long-term benefits.


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C/AMIGObot: Creating virtual soundscapes with robotic senses

Jason Nolan has been immersed in virtual reality (VR) in its various permutations for decades, long before its most recent incarnations of high-definition headsets and experiences.

“VR and augmented reality (AR) are most often associated with immersive visual environments, but AR/VR environments run the gamut from text-based simulations that have been around since the early 1980s to vibro-tactile hardware and the present trend in the form of VR glasses,” said Nolan, a professor with Ryerson’s School of Early Childhood Studies. “My present AR/VR project focuses on an interactive environment-sensing robot that we are calling ‘C/AMIGObot: A Creative Autonomous Mobile Interactive Generative-music Object roBot,’ which generates sound based on data from over 20 sensors.” These sensors can detect environmental information such as proximity to objects and people, ambient noise, environmental factors, and light intensity.

Nolan’s cross-disciplinary team is finishing the second prototype of the C/AMIGObot and hopes to begin field testing in the new year to assess how this method of “sonifying” spaces might influence our perception and understanding of the physical spaces around us. He is the director of the Responsive Ecologies Lab and the Experiential Design and Gaming Environments Lab, where the project is housed.

C/AMIGObot’s virtuality is perceived through auditory stimulation of space and participants, rather than through sight. C/AMIGObot takes the data that its sensors collect and uses it to generate ambient sound that in turn represents spaces virtually. “All of this information is processed into data that can then be assigned to various elements of music synthesis such as various generators and oscillators, and circuits,” says Nolan. “This would enable the general public or musicians to create music with the data generated by physical spaces, micro-environmental conditions, and how the individuals move in and about the space.”

Potential uses for the C/AMIGObot run the gamut from helping children to understand their learning environments, to modifying the perception of institutional spaces, to giving musicians tools to rethink how musical compositions represent and interact in mixed-reality (AR/VR) spaces.

Nolan is autistic, and this project is centred on Nolan’s curiosity about how young children explore and physically engage with sensory information as the foundation for their learning. The project is heavily influenced by the British musician and producer Brian Eno, and his ideas and work in generative and ambient music. Nolan believes that moving beyond an “ocular-centric perspective” offers new research, design and learning opportunities.

“Though I primarily see C/AMIGObot as a learning tool to encourage people to re-think how we perceive spaces, I look forward to supporting new ways of interacting with and through the spaces in which we live,” said Nolan.



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Tangible virtual reality improves outcomes for spatial abilities

Can playing virtual reality games help us do better in school?

Canada Research Chair Ali Mazalek is finding ways to improve spatial cognition, an indicator of success in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

Using virtual reality (VR), Mazalek’s research team at Ryerson, along with collaborators Timothy Welsh from the University of Toronto and Michael Nitsche from Georgia Tech, are looking at ways that playing games can enhance spatial cognition and therefore enhance an individual’s success, not only in STEM fields but also in creative design fields such as architecture.

In previous research funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, Mazalek and her team have shown that engaging the full body in interaction with virtual environments that provide new spatial experiences can have positive effects on players’ mental rotation abilities — the skills to visualize the rotation of two- and three-dimensional objects. In the team’s studies, participants were given a standard mental rotation test before and after playing a virtual game with one of three interfaces: a keyboard and mouse, an Xbox controller, or a full body “puppet” interface, which looks like a wearable exoskeleton. They discovered that the group that played with the more embodied interface equipped with the wearable technology not only did better in the game, but also improved more on the mental rotation test taken after gameplay.

The team’s current research is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and focuses on an individual’s ability to perceive space through different perspectives. Game players in a VR space can choose to position themselves from a bird’s-eye or on-the-ground view, and are challenged to solve puzzles by working across these perspectives. The game can be played with different interfaces, like a mouse and keyboard, or an embodied setup that uses a VR headset that is augmented with a Leap Motion sensor on the front to detect hand movements. The embodied version of the game, using the wearable technology, allows users to grasp and move wooden blocks in order to create openings in a fence on a virtual farm.

“Players of the VR game can manipulate their world in a way that could never happen in the real world,” said Mazalek, referring to the ability to change perspectives within the game.

This kind of training allows the users to engage in the 3D world with their bodies, creating a new method of tackling spatial challenges. “Most spatial training materials are surface- or paper-based,” said Jack (Shen-Kuen) Chang, Mazalek’s PhD student and project lead, who is working on his dissertation in this area. “We are putting the ‘space’ back into spatial abilities.”

This project can help inform Mazalek’s work on using tangible interfaces combined with visualization to solve complex problems, such as working with large or abstract datasets. “It builds on the evidence that our motor system is fundamental to our cognitive processes,” said Mazalek.

Mazalek says her team is also examining how this kind of learning can be applied in elementary and secondary school environments.

“There is very little focus on spatial cognition in the education curriculum,” said Mazalek. “In addition to our lab-based research and studies, we are running workshops with teachers from kindergarten through Grade 12 to find out how they think about spatial cognition in their classrooms at different levels and how we may ultimately be able to integrate the results of our research into curriculum.”


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Using virtual reality as a marketing tool

Seung Hwan (Mark) Lee is examining the ways that virtual reality (VR) is changing how we do business.

Lee, a professor in retail management at the Ted Rogers School of Management, is looking at how VR can generate a bigger return on investment in a variety of sectors, whether in charitable donations, where potential donors can get a clearer picture of the work being done by charities; through marketing tourist destinations with the help of immersive VR experiences; or by enhancing online classrooms to create more interactive experiences.

In his current project, Lee is studying how VR can affect visual comprehension and memory. In the study, he is using an Oculus Rift headset to show individuals short marketing pieces designed to promote tourism. Control participants are shown the same content on a laptop screen.

So far, his work has shown that VR enhances visual comprehension and memory. Lee said that of those who have taken part in his study, participants viewing content through the Oculus Rift are able to recall visual elements much more easily than those who are shown the same information on a computer screen.

“Interestingly, there wasn’t the same effect with audio elements,” said Lee. “Therefore, we would recommend to companies looking to use VR as a marketing tool to focus more on creating visual content. People have a heightened sense of awareness for visual elements.”

According to Lee, there is also more enjoyment from the same content in VR, making it a more appealing tool for marketers.

Lee is convinced that the integration of VR into businesses is really in its infancy. “Working in retail management, this opens so many opportunities,” said Lee. “It is changing the field of hospitality. Looking forward, we can explore how virtual reality can enhance tourism.”


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Partnering to improve output of geothermal systems

In their search for answers to create an efficient geothermal heating and cooling system for large buildings, geotechnical engineering consultants McClymont and Rak partnered with researcher Seth Dworkin in order to build a viable product.

A Ryerson professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, Dworkin describes how traditional geothermal heating and cooling systems can be problematic: “The heat transfer in and out of the ground is not perfect,” he said. “If you use the cooling system in the summer too much, you might overheat the ground and the system will stop working. Alternatively, if you require a lot of heat in the winter, you can take too much heat out of the ground and it will freeze and stop heating the building.”

Dworkin is currently studying the feasibility of changing the method by which geothermal heating and cooling solutions are constructed. Instead of many smaller deep bore holes for individual pipes in the ground, they would drill larger shallow holes to be filled with a construction slurry containing nanoparticles — a compound made to resist the heat and cold more effectively — before inserting the pipes into the ground.

Currently, Dworkin and his team are working on testing computer simulations of the proposed system, as well as testing physical models, including a scale model at collaborating university McMaster and a larger one at the McClymont and Rak property in Caledon. Additional partners at the University of Toronto are helping to develop the optimal nanoparticle-slurry mixture.

McClymont and Rak have said that the partnership with Ryerson has helped break down barriers for research, advancing the project quickly. They noted Dworkin’s excellent technical knowledge and his management capability and strong business sense as invaluable assets. McClymont and Rak clients have been asking for geothermal solutions, and by working cooperatively with Dworkin they will soon be able to bring a market solution forward to address the demand.

Bringing this technology to market will mean that McClymont and Rak, as well as startup company CAPTURE Technologies, can expand and create green jobs that will bolster the Canadian economy outside of the current booming technology fields. CAPTURE will employ both tradespeople and engineers in applying the results of this research project.


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Building better software for hospitals

By using data analytics to create predictive software that will enhance a doctor’s ability to request radiology procedures, Cherie Ding is helping doctors to make more intuitive and predictive responses.

An expert in information retrieval, data analytics, and recommender systems, Ding worked with Toronto-based MedCurrent Corporation with the help of a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Engage grant to improve their clinical decision support software, making it easier to use and to update. Using predictive analysis of the symptoms, the software recommends radiology diagnostics based on integrated information from a hospital information system (HIS) and input by physicians into the software.

The system collects over 50,000 transactions monthly that record information like symptoms, procedures recommended by the software, and procedures chosen by the physician. Rather than going through each individual entry, Ding and her team created a ranking system that would prioritize and sort the entries in order to make updating the system easier.

“Without a system that recognized similar words, the hit rate for finding matches could be low,” said Ding. “One of the issues is that some of the doctors type random words. Sometimes it could be gibberish or it doesn’t follow what is in the system.”

Part of the project included building a thesaurus that would recognize similar words inputted by physicians to increase the odds of finding matching terms, as well as adding a parser that would recommend words based on the first few letters typed by the physician. The system would also make recommendations based on data like the physician’s personal profile and history, their hospital department, and the frequency with which the system is used. The system will differentiate between words that are gibberish and those that are worth including, reducing the time required for manual inputting of data.

While doctors are not required to follow the recommendations from the software, and many experienced doctors will make their own call on which radiology procedure to request, the software does give an indication of whether the physician adhered to the recommendations.

The changes to the software will improve clinical decision support processes for requesting medical procedures, giving insights to hospitals on how the rules and guidelines are being followed by medical practitioners.


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Congratulations to the following faculty who were recently recognized for their achievements:

  • Professor Candice Monson (Psychology) has been elected to the Royal Society of Canada as a new fellow, the highest honour a scholar can achieve in the arts, humanities and sciences. Monson was one of 89 new fellows elected by her peers in 2016 to recognize her leading expertise in the field of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

  • Professor Trevor Hart (Psychology) was one of the new members named to The College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists. This accolade recognizes Hart’s leadership in Canadian HIV research, using clinical trial methods to test behavioural HIV prevention interventions to reduce men’s risk of contracting HIV.

  • Professor Ebrahim Bagheri (Electrical and Computer Engineering) was awarded the Engineering Medal (Young Engineer category) by the Ontario Professional Engineering Association (external link) . The award recognizes his work in equipping software engineers and data scientists with new, cutting-edge tools and techniques that aim to take machines from being storage devices that support human data analysis to systems that can make sense of user-generated content themselves.

  • Dean of the Faculty of Science Imogen Coe has been named one of Canada’s top 100 most influential women by the Women’s Executive Network. Coe was lauded under the Trailblazers and Trendsetters category (external link)  for her advocacy for the role of women in science.



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Congratulations to the Ryerson faculty who have recently received grants in support of their research programs.

The list below includes a selection of recent grants awarded, where Ryerson is the principal grant holder and publication of the award is approved by the corresponding granting agencies.

Principal Investigator

Award /Program

Lu Wang (Geography & Environmental Studies) CIHR, Planning and Dissemination - Institute Community Support Grant
Mark Campbell (Media) Ministry of Canadian Heritage, Inter-Action: Multiculturalism Funding Program
Sherry Espin (Nursing) Canadian Patient Safety Institute, Research Contract
Ayse Bener (Mechanical & Industrial Engineering) OCE VIP II
Jaclene Begley (Urban & Regional Planning) CIHR - Travel Award - Institute Community Support
Xavier Fernando (Electrical & Computer Engineering)
Reza Kianoush (Civil Engineering)
Michael Kolios and postdoctoral student Krishnan Sathiyamoorthy (Physics) CIHR - Travel Award - Institute Community Support
Soosan Beheshti (Electrical & Computer Engineering) NSERC Engage Grant
Goetz Bramesfeld (Aerospace Engineering) NSERC Collaborative Research and Development Grant
Jinyuan Liu (Civil Engineering) OCE VIP I
Jelena Mišić (Computer Science) NSERC Engage Grant

Shelagh McCartney (Urban & Regional Planning)

Nibinamik First Nation (through the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, Capacity Development Stream)

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, Capacity Development Stream

Shelagh McCartney (Urban & Regional Planning)

Nibinamik First Nation (through the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, Innovation Stream Housing Authority)

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, Innovation Stream Housing Authority
Lori Schindel Martin (Nursing)
The Retired Teachers of Ontario Foundation
Imogen Coe (Chemistry & Biology) Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development - Ontario Human Capital Research and Innovation Fund


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Planning the Future: Ensuring Capacity Meets Demand

Tuesday, January 10, 2017
12:00-2:00 p.m.
Peter Bronfman Learning Centre, 7th Floor, 297 Victoria St.

Distinguished research fellow Bhanu Opathella hosts a chat on the future of power generation and the integration of new technologies into the power systems at the Centre for Urban Energy at Ryerson University. Light refreshments will be served.

More Info (external link, opens in new window) 


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