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September-October 2015

INNOVATION - Ryerson University Research & Innovation Newsletter

Issue 17: September/October 2015


SociusPro is a video sharing platform developed by researchers and students at Ryerson. Photo credit: Will Pemulis.


Feature Stories

Partner in Innovation


Around Campus

This publication is made possible, in part, with the support of the Research Support Fund.


More than technology push is needed to drive innovation.

That’s why Ryerson partners with industry, government and community organizations to make things happen. Our unique cross-disciplinary approach not only drives the creation of new technologies, products, services, and ventures, but also examines the drivers and impediments to change in existing organizations. Research in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) is necessary but insufficient. We need social sciences and humanities research to better understand user needs, organizational drivers, factors shaping personal preferences and behaviour, aesthetic and content design, as well as policy, legal, and ethical issues. We need to understand the demand side as well as the supply side to drive innovation.

Take, for example, the Ryerson Centre for Cloud and Context-Aware Computing (RC4), which partners with industry to develop leading-edge technology and tools. RC4 also examines the impediments and drivers of mobile technology adoption and develops evidence-based strategies to promote them, tailoring them to specific vertical markets such as entertainment, financial services, manufacturing, health care, and transportation. Research shows that while Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) are the drivers of economic development, they often do not have the time or money to devote to new technologies that could help drive their growth and success. Through our action-oriented research, and partners like the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, we help SMEs to develop the absorptive capacity to innovate and remove barriers. 

Research at Ryerson provides many examples of how a multidisciplinary perspective brings new ideas and perspective to solve societal problem. Our new Social Media Lab offers deep social science insights to understand and predict behaviour. The work of psychologist Frank Russo uses music to stimulate the brain and promote rehabilitation in patients with Parkinson’s disease. Computer scientist Alex Ferworn has integrated the functionality of robots with the instincts of dogs to devise a unique approach to urban search and rescue. Photographer Edward Burtynsky, a Ryerson alumnus, is working with Ryerson’s Advanced Manufacturing, Design and 3D Printing Lab to explore the frontiers of additive manufacturing and 3D design in domains as diverse as architecture, health care, aerospace, and culture. He is also hosting Toronto’s first comprehensive conference on the subject of 3D printing on October 23 and 24. Engineering professor Bala Venkatesh, academic director of the Centre for Urban Energy, is forging a new partnership with Schneider Electric to provide mission critical back-up power through microgrids. 

Ryerson is leading the development of Canada’s innovation ecosystem by daring to go where no one has gone before. Bridging disciplines and building strong partnerships to solve real societal needs, Ryerson researchers combine excellence and relevance in exciting new ways.


Wendy Cukier
Vice-President, Research and Innovation


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Social Media Lab launches in new space

As social media changes the communications landscape, Ryerson University’s Social Media Lab (external link, opens in new window)  aims to create a roadmap for individuals, businesses and organizations to navigate the new terrain.

Launched on September 29, the lab already has several initiatives underway to gather and analyze data from social media networks.

Faculty and students have worked together to create tools like:

  • MyTweeps, which gives Twitter users insight into how their followers are using the social network.
  • Netlytic, which provides a visual model of data captured from various networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.
  • PoliDashboard, which analyzes Twitter chatter about national leaders in the upcoming federal election.

The multidisciplinary Social Media Lab, as part of the Ted Rogers School of Management (TRSM), will be open to “research associates, PhD students, international students, national students, undergraduates, as well as collaborators,” said director Anatoliy Gruzd. Some of the disciplines currently being studied in the lab include health, politics, business, as well as computational research, said Gruzd.

Steven Murphy, dean of TRSM, said that some of the most interesting work at the University is done when the faculties and disciplines intersect. “And this is a beautiful intersection,” he said. The synergies between the Social Media Lab and other labs on the 10th floor of 10 Dundas St. E., such as the Legal Innovation Zone, will offer substantial opportunities for growth, said Mohamed Lachemi, provost and vice-president academic.

Gruzd brought his lab with him from Dalhousie University in the last academic year, but was operating without an official space last year. The new, sleek, tech-centric zone features bright open spaces and large digital displays for researchers to demonstrate visualizations of the data they are analyzing. “We believe visualization techniques allow us to summarize and condense all of this complex data into a more understandable form, shape and size,” said Gruzd. Understanding the data will give decision makers the ability to make better choices for their businesses and organizations.

While there is no doubt that social media is forcing change in business and elsewhere, Murphy said that Gruzd was tackling the hard questions: “How is it changing? Why is it changing? What is it going to do in the future? What will it do to this election? How do we use it for business?”

University officials have lauded Gruzd for bringing the lab to fruition. Vice-president of research and innovation, Wendy Cukier, stated how thrilled the University is to have Gruzd on board. “He’s an outstanding researcher and he is also an amazing collaborator,” said Cukier. “It’s wonderful to have someone at the University who works so well with people across the institution.”

Before Gruzd started at Ryerson, he hosted a conference on social media that attracted 400 scholars. The attendance of the event was a testament to Gruzd’s leadership on a global scale, said Cukier. Lachemi noted that the lab was one of many strategic investments in scholarly, research and creative activities at Ryerson over the last decade.

“Ryerson is on a transformational course,” said Lachemi, adding that the Social Media Lab is a great addition to the University’s innovation ecosystem and a prime an example of how the University plans to live up to the goals set in its academic plan.


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Music strikes a chord of emotional response

Music is at the heart of some ground-breaking research for Parkinson’s patients.

Frank Russo from the Department of Psychology has started a choir to help patients bolster their social and emotional well-being.

The choir’s goal is to help patients practice vocal and facial expression in a way that will help them to communicate effectively, including the expression and understanding of emotional speech. The choir of 30 members met over several weeks this summer at the Royal Conservatory of Music to sing with the guidance of a lively choir director. 

“There is something unique about singing,” said Russo. “There is a rhythm. People with Parkinson’s disease have difficulty initiating voluntary movement. The substantia nigra, a part of the brain that is responsible for initiating movement, deteriorates in people with Parkinson’s disease. However, the auditory cortex functions normally and has the capacity to modulate activity in the motor cortex. As a result, you have the potential to kick-start movement through song.”

While Parkinson’s is generally thought of as a movement disorder with neurological origins, it has a secondary symptom of impairing expressive communication. Studies conducted in Russo’s lab suggest that the difficulty Parkinson’s patients have with understanding emotion is linked to their difficulty with mimicking those emotions.

In addition, the movement difficulties caused by Parkinson’s also make it difficult for patients to be understood. This is not surprising, since prior research has shown that inhibiting facial mimicry through the use of a mask, or placing an object in the mouth, makes it difficult to understand the emotions of others – even among young, healthy participants. According to Russo, among Parkinson’s patients, "facial and vocal mimicry is conspicuously absent. We think that this is why there is a deficit in understanding emotion."

A previous project in the lab, funded by the Parkinson’s Society of Canada, used one-on-one therapy that involved singing to rehabilitate expressive communication. Building on the success of that study, the choir seemed the next logical step, as it was a way to scale up the therapy without exhaustive resources.

Facial mimicry, vocal expressiveness, pitch range, and voice strength were among the variables assessed among members of the choir. Although other Parkinson’s choirs have been initiated elsewhere, their objectives have been limited to rehabilitation of breath control. According to Russo, it is clear that patients’ ability to produce emotions has improved during his choir study; however, any improvements in their ability to receive the emotions being projected is still being studied and analyzed.

The choir has been a great success outside the study as well. Despite initial growing pains, the choir is flourishing, and many in the Parkinson’s community are now interested in finding out how they can participate.

Singing ability is not a requirement for participation. “We are not concerned with pitch accuracy and harmonization,” said Russo. In fact, the choir is encouraged to favour expression over pitch accuracy. “In prior research we have done with trained singers, we have observed that prioritization of pitch accuracy comes at the expense of conveying emotion in a natural way,” said Russo.

Understanding emotion gives the Parkinson’s patients a stronger connection to their social world. “It really does affect quality of life to be able to express and understand emotions. Parkinson’s patients are often misunderstood as angry or indifferent when it’s quite the opposite.” Anecdotally, Russo said that many choir members have begun socializing and enjoying interactions with family and friends more. “Their voices are stronger,” said Russo. "Their confidence has increased and they are participating in more social activities."

Russo expects that the first paper on the results of this study will be published in December.


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Canine and robot teams bolster rescue efforts

When disaster strikes, Alex Ferworn is your guy. The professor of computer science at Ryerson is developing technology for search and rescue teams aided by canine units.

Ferworn had previous success with the invention of his Canine Augmented Technology (CAT) system, which harnesses a camera to a dog’s body and streams data – including infrared images, audio feed, and GPS coordinates – to the searchers, so they can figure out what is happening with the dog even if it is separated from the dog's handler. He is now taking the technology one step further, using dogs as a delivery system for robots to monitor the scene. His research has been funded with the help of a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada grant of more than $200,000 over the last five years.

“Dogs are the best mobility system on a rubble pile, bar none,” Ferworn said in a YouTube video featuring his Canine Assisted Robot Deployment (CARD) technology. He is seen working with a black Labrador ready to climb through the simulated rubble field where much of the testing for the technology takes place, north of Toronto on Ontario Provincial Police training grounds. The robot itself, dubbed DEX (Drop and Explore), can be used to survey the area and provide data to rescuers, allowing them to make a plan to execute their rescue.

While Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) dogs do the initial searching, the robots can stay with the victims longer and help searchers keep tabs on their state of being before they’re able to be rescued. Dogs can move swiftly and ably over rubble piles with minimal risk, unlike their human counterparts. The dogs can also be used to deliver water or other supplies to a victim.

“Dogs are able to easily detect [live victims] through a process called ‘air-scenting’” Ferworn said, adding that the dogs determine the best route to take and find their way to the victims. “Where the dog determines the highest concentration of scent is, the dog will start to bark.” Then, after releasing the robot, researchers can maintain an open line of contact until further efforts can be made to safely extricate them from the site.

With the new CARD technology, dogs don’t have to stay in order for searchers to continue dialogue with the victims. “Robots have a good linger time,” Ferworn explained. “They can stay with the victim. They can continue to monitor at the site where the victim is found and there can be a continuous line of communication established through the robot.”


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B3D brings together researchers, innovators and industry leaders

One of the great technological advances of our time, 3D printing is set to shake up the innovation home front. A game-changer for everyone from small businesses to large-scale organizations, this revolutionary technology is bringing customization to the masses.

Innovation in the 3D printing space relies on research and the best in art, engineering, and design. As Canadian manufacturing faces an uncertain future in a world of increasingly globalized and intensely competitive supply chains, 3D printing has the potential to leverage our country’s competitive advantages. When combining our nation’s talent pool with progressive innovation ecosystems, a skilled manufacturing workforce, and great university researchers – such as those from Ryerson’s Advanced Manufacturing, Design and 3D Printing Lab – Canada can be at the forefront of this 3D printing revolution.

On October 23 and 24, Ryerson University’s Research and Innovation Office and Think2Thing – the 3D printing atelier that created a replica of the HMS Erebus’ bell and co-founded Ryerson's Advanced Manufacturing, Design and 3D Printing Lab – will host B3D (external link, opens in new window) , Toronto’s first comprehensive conference on 3D imaging and printing. The event will explore how 3D technology is opening a new world of design, production, and advanced manufacturing across a surprisingly broad range of industries – including automotive, aerospace, biomedical, ICT, architecture and design – and how it can be harnessed by Canadian businesses seeking to compete in the ever-changing global marketplace.

In the multidisciplinary two-day conference, Ryerson is hosting experts in the field on campus and at the Winter Garden Theatre, in the heart of downtown Toronto.

Ryerson researchers and global and local leaders will discuss how 3D technologies are already impacting our day-to-day lives as well as the future potential of this disruptive technology. The weekend event will include talks, interviews, conversations, panel discussions and debates.

At Ryerson, researchers are already using the technology to explore new techniques for scanning and printing, the adoption of the technology, as well as the software being used to support these applications. Architects are using the technology to create scale models of projects; designers are creating prototypes of all kinds with unprecedented detail; manufacturers are constructing components and parts with cutting-edge precision; and scientists are creating “micro-labs,” which are small-scale facilities that can perform specialized experiments.

In the medical field, the technology has been tested for use as a surgical navigational system, giving surgeons a complete diagnostic picture with drastically improved precision. This interpretation of the technology was created by professor Victor Yang, and co-created by alumnus Beau Standish and is being used in trials for patients undergoing spine and brain surgeries.

The B3D Conference will look at some of the deeper implications of 3D technology, including ethical dilemmas, artistic rights, and cultural significance.

The event will also include a discussion by Wendy Cukier on adoption of breakthrough technologies such as 3D printing. The supply of new ideas and technologies without attention to markets is a major issue of consideration if Canada is to be a forerunner in 3D technology. Innovation is not just about creating new technologies, products, and services. It is also about promoting the adoption of these technologies to drive innovation, productivity, and growth. As fascinating as new technologies are, if they are not actually used, there is no innovation. Ryerson’s multidisciplinary, collaborative approach focuses on bridging the gap between invention and innovation.

Ryerson’s areas of focus in 3D printing include: rapid prototyping, modelling and design; new materials and new techniques; biomedical technologies; tangible interfaces; creativity and design processes; and policy, ethical and social implications.

Ryerson presenters at B3D include:

  • Tom Bessai (Managing Director, Design Fabrication Zone)
  • Michael Carter (Director of Industry Relations, Master of Digital Media)
  • Wendy Cukier (Vice-President, Research and Innovation)
  • Chris MacDonald (Professor, Business Management)
  • Ali Mazalek (Canada Research Chair in Digital Media and Innovation, Professor, RTA School of Media)

To find out more about the conference, visit (external link, opens in new window) .


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Microgrids take power off-line

To address the problem of power losses for emergency centres like hospitals, Bala Venkatesh is working in the Schneider Electric Smart Grid Laboratory to create real-world solutions through microgrids.

Sponsored by the Ontario Ministry of Energy and funded in part through the Ontario Smart Grid Fund, the lab is a place where models of microgrids can be created and tested extensively before plans for roll-out begin. Electrically, the lab is equipped to tackle the challenges that might be seen in a substation at a local distribution company. Users can implement different algorithms or scenarios to challenge the protection schemes, breakers, and transformers to see how they would fare in real-life scenarios. 

“Most pilot projects are much more simple,” said Venkatesh, who serves as academic director for the Centre for Urban Energy. “They can’t add in the all the complexities that could happen in real-life situations.”

In the Prototype Microgrid Development project, a lab-scale microgrid was developed to study the use of microgrids in “islanded-mode” when the main grid is not available for the power distribution company Powerstream. Using scaled models, Venkatesh has been testing the grid in the laboratory against issues like power failure.

“Islanded mode” allows the grid to continue to operate through secondary power sources in the event of a power disruption. Venkatesh gave the example of the Toronto ice storms, after which power was disrupted for major institutions. With the help of microgrids, power could be redirected to these sites to ensure that emergency operations continue. “If the main system fails, then some critical infrastructure can continue to operate,” said Venkatesh.

The lab-scale models allow for a cost-effective way of testing the grids. They also allow for extensive testing without actually disrupting the main grid. “There is a lot of microgrid research,” said Venkatesh. “But most is done with a great deal of expense.” Having developed software to analyze and compare the data from the microgrid to real-life scenarios, Venkatesh’s study shows that the results in the Schneider Electric Smart Grid Laboratory would very closely match reality.

On their website, Powerstream expresses their commitment to microgrids. The power distribution company is currently running a microgrid demonstration project at their head office in Vaughan, powering their air conditioning, lights, and electric car charging stations through the use of renewable energies distributed through a microgrid that has the ability to connect and disconnect from the main power grid.

“We believe that the microgrid is the next step forward in Ontario’s energy future,” said John Mulrooney, Powerstream’s director of smart grid technologies, in a YouTube video featuring their head office’s project.

Microgrid technology is not limited to renewables, as Venkatesh noted. The project executed in the Ryerson lab has a broader application in mind. “We have a working prototype in the lab,” said Venkatesh. “They could take it and scale it up for their needs.” Before this technology can be implemented, however, there remain many future steps, including gaining approval from our power regulator, the Ontario Energy Board.


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Changing the landscape for safer roadways

Ryerson Urban and Regional Planning professor Nina-Marie Lister is working to find ways for humans and animals to move safely on and across our roads.

Through her research work with ARC (external link, opens in new window) , Lister is improving the planning and design for wildlife crossing infrastructure on roadways across Canada. Prototype structures that move animals safely over and under the highway have been pioneered and tested in Banff National Park, Alberta, over two decades. The data reveal that these structures are successful in two important ways: they reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions by more than 90 per cent; and they improve the genetic fitness of wildlife through facilitating animal movement and reconnecting their populations and habitats. Given these positive results, ARC is looking at ways to improve the design of wildlife crossing structures in order to reduce their capital costs, streamline and coordinate the planning and implementation processes, and make them easier to replicate outside of National Parks across North America.

As the Professional Advisor to the 2010 ARC International Wildlife Crossing Design Competition—the first of its kind in the world—Lister oversaw the design of a wildlife overpass crossing for the I-70 in Colorado, just west of the Vail Pass summit. The interstate-70 highway is both a critical migration route in the Rocky Mountain corridor and a hot spot for collisions, particularly for Canada Lynx, a protected species that had been reintroduced to Colorado and are routinely struck by vehicles on this route. The concept designs have been enthusiastically received by the public, and widely published in Fast Company Magazine, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

“Wildlife crossing structures are proven solutions to reduce animal-vehicle collisions, provide safe passage, protect our wildlife populations and their habitats and ultimately, restore the essential functions of North America’s wild ecosystems,” she wrote in a paper for the Journal of Ecological Restoration on the ARC findings.

However, five years after the original competition, the I-70 bridge has yet to be constructed. Private-public funding has been slow to materialize and the implementation process for Colorado’s first wildlife bridge has challenged conventional decision-making models. Meanwhile, Lister has worked to communicate the science behind wildlife crossings and the success of the Banff models through public educational exhibits at Toronto’s Evergreen Brickworks and the Toronto Zoo showcasing scale models, interactive displays, video and photographs of wildlife using the structures.

According to Lister’s published work, the construction of road infrastructure should require the proactive consideration of both “clients”—human and animal—so that safety for motorists and wildlife can be assured cost-effectively through an integrated design and planning process. Proponents of the wildlife crossings argue that the cost of inaction is much higher than prevention: animal-vehicle collisions cost taxpayers $8 billion US annually in road closures, clean-up, repairs, and insurance—and this does not include the increasing cost of insurance premiums.

“When designed and implemented strategically, wildlife crossing structures solve the problem of animal-vehicle collisions permanently. These investments save costs as well as human and animal lives, while providing additional value in habitat improvement and wildlife protection,” she said in a recent paper published for the Ecological Society of America’s 100th anniversary in Frontiers in Ecology.

Wildlife crossings serve another purpose as well, in ecological research and education. The crossings offer significant potential and added social and scientific value for acquiring more knowledge about the wildlife that use them. Through the use of technology such as infrared motion-activated cameras, web-feed cameras, and track pads, animal movement across these structures is tracked and transmitted. The information which is currently available to wildlife scientists, could also be shared with the public, in classrooms, or even to passing motor vehicles.

“From scientist to student to tourist, wildlife crossings reconnect us all to the landscapes that surround us, and in so doing, have the capacity to improve environmental awareness and engage a new culture of ecological literacy and practical conservation,” wrote Lister.


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B3D | 3D Printing, Scanning, Software and Design Conference

Friday, October 23 - Saturday, October 24, 2015
Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre, 189 Yonge Street, Toronto, ON

Presented by Ryerson's Office of Vice-President, Research and Innovation and Think2Thing, B3D is bringing together global and local thought leaders to both inspire us and help us discover how 3D technologies (3D Printing, Scanning, Software) will disrupt our industries and communities. The conference will feature keynote speakers from a range of industries including Industrial Design, Architecture, Advanced Manufacturing, Advanced 3D Software, 3D Printing Systems, and Arts and Culture.


Dimensions of Social Media in Human-Robot-Interaction: @SMLabTO Speakers Series

Thursday, October 29, 2015 | 3:30pm-4:30pm
Social Media Lab, 10th Floor, 10 Dundas Street West, Toronto, ON

Social media usually serves as an added tool to support the main interaction abilities and functions of a robot, never however as a main tool or approach in Human-Robot-Interaction (HRI). By using the results from a social robot experiment – hitchBOT, the hitchhiking robot – Dr. Frauke Zeller (School of Professional Communication) will demonstrate that social media can play a more important and decisive role in HRI than it has been practiced so far. 

More Info (external link, opens in new window) 


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