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A tilt in the right direction

10 Feb 2016 - 09:17 in Alumni


A group of Victoria University of Wellington alumni has developed an interactive gaming system to help take the chore out of physiotherapy exercises.

The system—a lightweight balance training board called ‘Tilt’—allows the user to play games by standing on and tilting the board, while at the same time strengthening their muscles and improving their overall balance.

The developers, including Swibo’s Benjamin Dunn, Lukas Stoecklein, Connor Broad and Zac Bird, formed the idea for Tilt at Victoria’s annual Entrepreneur Bootcamp.

Benjamin holds a Bachelor of Engineering from Victoria, while Connor has also studied here. Zac Bird is also a VUW alumni with a Bachelor of Design Innovation.

“We wanted to make it easier for people to carry out their physiotherapy exercises and recover properly, and we realised playing games can be an incentive,” says Benjamin.

“The system uses any smartphone to connect the board to a computer running the games. The phone can then record the board’s movements and measurements, which are analysed by computer software. This helps physiotherapists and sports trainers track the user’s improvements and provide tailored training as time goes on.”

The system is already used by professional sports trainers and could extend beyond this, says Benjamin.

“A lot of people can benefit from these kinds of exercises, including the elderly, children or those with disabilities. It’s very helpful for preventing injuries before they occur. It’s also for people who just want to be a little bit more active and have fun gaming.”

The current three games— NeoZen, Hexile and Unbearable—see users race their friends in space rockets, solve puzzles in an island adventure or fight back against deadly bears.

The team is already developing more games and hopes to begin bulk manufacturing of the boards through their recently launched Kickstarter campaign.

“We see the potential to make a real difference with Tilt and are excited for people to start using it and seeing its benefits,” says Benjamin.

This year’s Bootcamp teams are preparing for their final pitch event on 24 February. The Bootcamp is run by Victoria University and Viclink, the University’s commercialisation office, in partnership with The BizDojo, Deloitte Private and Chapman Tripp.

“The Victoria Entrepreneur Bootcamp brought our team together, and the combination of our different backgrounds encourages and facilitates collaboration,” says Benjamin.

“That collaboration is what fuels the creativity you need for entrepreneurship.”

Photo credit: Olivia Pitcher

Developing a digital reputation

05 Jan 2016 - 08:44 in Research


A Victoria University of Wellington researcher is developing a new reputation management system for the digital world.

Ferry Hendrikx, who graduated recently with a PhD in Computer Science, is researching ways of building reputation profiles online that draw information from multiple sources.

“The widespread use of the internet for social and commercial use has made traditional methods of gathering reputation, such as word-of-mouth or personal associations, insufficient for gaining a clear picture of an individual or organisation,” says Ferry.

“Many websites have features designed to build trust, but these only provide a narrow perspective of an individual. They don’t allow for a fuller, more substantial impression. Someone might be an honest trader on Trade Me, but a poor mechanic. A company might give generously to charities, but be a bad employer.”

Ferry’s thesis proposes a network-based framework that automatically extracts information about an individual or organisation from multiple sites and stores this information in a profile. The system decides what’s important, reliable or relevant based on online activity.

The reputation associated with a profile will develop and change over time as new information comes to hand and old data becomes less significant.

“The profile develops as a result of online actions and associations. While the individual or organisation can host their own profile, it’s not something they can necessarily modify—you can’t lie about yourself,” says Ferry.

“A key aspect of the research is the establishment of an access control feature, meaning that, as a reputation develops, the individual or organisation will gain (or lose) access to relevant online services or groups. They’re not required to apply for these things—it just happens.

“Examples might be access to industry relevant publications, a wider database of customers to trade with, or membership to online societies.”

The technology is still at a nascent stage, however Ferry believes this approach has significant potential for reputation management as social and commercial activity continues to grow and develop in the online space.

Wellington Traffic Visualisation aids local commuters

18 Dec 2015 - 10:20 in Achievement


Sick of sitting in peak hour traffic? Thanks to ECS Honours student Josianne Hyson, slow mornings and frustrating commuting could soon become a thing of the past.

Josianne spent the year creating the “Wellington Traffic Visualisation”, a tool that helps the user to see where the concentration of traffic is in the central city and at what times. Users can also view more detailed graphs about a particular street by clicking on it or searching for it.

Josianne credits the initial idea to her supervisor, Associate Professor Kris Bubendorfer, who proposed the project. Her other supervisor, Senior Lecturer and ECS Head of School Stuart Marshall, helped with the user testing.

The Wellington City Council provided the data for the visualisation in the form of spreadsheets detailing traffic volume and speed information for each year since 1999. Josianne's tool was designed to help city planners find trends in the data with the aim of aiding the practical design of Wellington's streets.

“Reading the data from the spreadsheets it originally came in made it very hard to quickly spot meaningful changes or patterns”, says Josianne. “Having a visual tool that lets the user see the information in a graph or on a map makes it easier to find the trends in a high volume of data”.

In the user testing phase, Josianne showed the graphs she had prepared to her supervisors and classmates whose feedback was used to refine the visual information to make it more effective. It took her six months to build the system from start to finish, while juggling three regular courses.

“I had to draw on knowledge from a range of courses that I took at university”, says Josianne. “Courses that provided practical experience with web technologies, databases, visualisation and human/computer interaction were particularly useful for this project but many other courses contributed to my programming abilities as well”.

While there are currently no plans to sell the tool and Josianne is as yet unable to host the system publicly due to restrictions on the data, she hopes a future student will be able to carry it forward for their Honours project after she has made a few tweaks.

“This project was an opportunity for me to improve my coding abilities and learn new technologies. The large scale of the project was also an interesting experience dealing with an increasing codebase and researching solutions to the difficult challenges I encountered”, she says.

Josianne now has the opportunity to use these new skills in her chosen career. She has started working full-time at Powershop, where she has been interning for the last two years, as a Ruby on Rails developer. Ruby on Rails is a web application that combines the Ruby programming language with HTML, CSS and JavaScript.

Now Josianne also knows the best route to get to work in the mornings!

PitchHub project takes to the stars

11 Dec 2015 - 09:56 in Achievement


What could Star Wars mastermind George Lucas do next time he needs ideas on how to crush the Rebel Alliance? Thanks to ECS Honours student Michael Winton, he could use PitchHub, an online collaboration platform for innovators.

PitchHub is the result of a year of hard work for Michael on behalf of his client, Callaghan Innovation, a government agency supporting high tech businesses in New Zealand. The aim of Michael's Honours project was to create an online, cloud-based platform for users to share creative ideas and connect them to other people and to resources. The end result was christened 'PitchHub'.

“Gregor Neumayr, Senior Research Engineer at Callaghan Innovation, had the idea for PitchHub a while ago,” says Michael. “This year's ENGR489 project was the ideal opportunity to turn that idea into reality”.

In his end-of-year presentation at the Dean's Sessions event recently, Michael used Star Wars to explain how the platform works in practice.

In his fictional example, Michael used Star Wars characters to contribute ideas to filmmaker George Lucas, who needed help to decide how to crush the uprising Rebel Alliance.

Princess Leia saw that George Lucas had posted a 'pitch card ' to PitchHub detailing his idea to create a Death Star, a galactic super-weapon to help the Imperial Forces destroy rebels and planets.

She made a suggestion which changed the direction of the pitch, saying, “No, the Death Star should become an arbiter for the Rebel Alliance; helping people, helping planets...”

While Lucas rejected her suggestion (a friction that Michael says often happens in negotiations), he accepted the advice of Trade Federation character Nute Gunray instead, who suggested he use a Droid Army.

He updated his 'pitch card' to include this final solution and there we have it – through PitchHub, the Star Wars characters helped Lucas continue the plot that we all know and love.

There are several key selling points which differentiate Michael's PitchHub from similar products.

“PitchHub enables an easy and collegial sharing of ideas between users,” says Michael. “They can also choose who sees their information, which is important to protect their intellectual property, while the high tech security prevents malicious access to the platform.”

So how did Michael apply what he learnt during his courses at Victoria?

“What I learnt at university was absolutely essential. Knowing how to break down what I needed to do, and then say: “This is the next step… this problem may occur later...” That's what I learnt at university”.

Michael has tested PitchHub to ensure it can cope with the 400,000 to 600,000 potential users (the size of New Zealand's innovation community) and it is now live at Callaghan Innovation has pledged financial backing to develop the project from prototype to commercial product.

In the meantime, Michael is off to Sweden's Uppsala University to study Masters courses in Cryptography and Distributed Systems. He plans to continue his studies at Victoria upon his return.

“Victoria has really sparked something in me, especially this year, when I was able to interact with my professors as colleagues.

“I believe that this Honours project, while it demanded blood, sweat and tears, will give me a great head start on a successful career in Engineering”.

Putting cybersecurity centre stage

09 Dec 2015 - 10:44 in Event


Victoria University of Wellington is kick-starting initiatives for championing cybersecurity in New Zealand with an industry briefing featuring a guest appearance from a world-renowned cyber-crime expert.

Cybersecurity is seen as one of the greatest commercial threats to New Zealand. The Wellington event aims to raise awareness of the developing risks in the digital world and the costs of complacency, and will be attended by senior representatives from some of New Zealand’s largest companies.

Joining the briefing will be Kristopher Rush, a technical director in the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) division of the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) in the United States, and a leading expert in cybersecurity.

Before joining SEI, Mr Rush worked for the United States Department of State as a member of the Antiterrorism Assistance Program, where he developed and taught courses relating to terrorism and cyber-crime to foreign military and police.

His visit follows the announcement of a collaboration agreement between Victoria University, SEI and the New Zealand firm Total Risk to develop training, advice and protection services in cybersecurity.

“Most New Zealand businesses and many government agencies are lacking the individual expertise to protect themselves from the growing cyber danger,” says Geoff Todd, Managing Director of Viclink, the University’s commercialisation office.

“By arranging the industry briefing and bringing Kristopher over to New Zealand, we want to place cybersecurity front and centre in the minds of industry, and profile what we intend to do in this space to help.

“The collaboration with SEI means we will be working with the gold-standard organisation in the field of cybersecurity, and the relationship with Total Risk means we are aligned with one of only nine SEI certified training partners in the world, and the only one in New Zealand.

“Through this collaboration we aspire to be a leader in cybersecurity in the Asia-Pacific region,” says Geoff.

The SEI is a Federally Funded Research and Development Centre (FFRDC) at Carnegie Mellon University, specifically established by the United States Department of Defense to focus on software engineering and cybersecurity.

ECS end-of-year Honours presentations impress

27 Nov 2015 - 11:22 in Achievement


Outer space, traffic and music were just some of the topics covered as students, staff and industry partners celebrated the culmination of a year of hard work at the Dean's Sessions end-of-year Engineering and Computer Science Honours students' presentations recently.

The inspiring student presentations included solutions for visualising astronomical data, a Wellington traffic visualisation tool, and the re-design of a commercial power amplifier.

“These presentations are the final milestone in many of our students' academic careers – they represent a huge amount of work, inspiration and determination,” said Dr Kris Bubendorfer, senior lecturer and Honours supervisor for ECS.

Eight students presented their work - Christopher Hawkins, Tony Butler-Yeoman, Andrew Lensen, Josianne Hyson, Michael Winton, Jarrod Bakker, Dayle Jellyman and Hamish Colenso.

They were chosen because of the appeal their work has for the wider community. Each presentation was marked not only on content, but also on each student’s ability to field detailed questions about their research from the audience.

The presenters spoke confidently and professionally as they shared their research outcomes with the audience, supported by their classmates who came to see them in action.

“With so much talent here, we’d like to see our students studying for as long as possible, before they’re snapped up by industry partners - including those present today,” said Professor Dale Carnegie, Dean of Engineering.

After the presentations, those same industry partners asked the students “Where to from here?” regarding the next steps for their projects.

Some students used the event as a way to connect with industry and foster links for future employment, while others plan to return to study at Victoria as Masters and PhD students.

Dr Bubendorfer says that whatever path the students choose, “We are incredibly proud of our students and wish them all the best in their future endeavours.”

Championing cybersecurity: Victoria partners with global leader

16 Nov 2015 - 10:04 in Achievement


Victoria University of Wellington has entered into an agreement with local firm Total Risk, a partner of the Software Engineering Institute’s CERT Program at Carnegie Mellon University in the United States, in what is considered to be a major development for cybersecurity in New Zealand.

“Cybersecurity has been identified as one of the greatest commercial threats facing New Zealand, with business and government largely lacking the individual expertise to protect themselves against this ever-developing danger,” says Geoff Todd, Managing Director of Viclink, the University’s commercialisation office.

“The collaboration with CERT means Victoria is working with the gold-standard organisation in the field. This isn’t just good for the University, it’s good for New Zealand.”

The Software Engineering Institute is a not-for-profit Federally Funded Research and Development Centre (FFRDC) at Carnegie Mellon University, specifically established by the United States Department of Defense to focus on software engineering and cybersecurity.

The relationship with Total Risk means Victoria will be aligned with one of only nine CERT-certified partners globally, and the only one in New Zealand.

“The significance of this collaboration cannot be understated,” says Victoria’s Dean of Engineering Professor Dale Carnegie. “It gives Victoria the impetus to push on with a multidisciplinary cyber programme, and a CERT-certified one at that, which should prove very attractive for both local and international students.”

Victoria’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Grant Guilford is delighted with the agreement.

“This initiative presents an extremely exciting prospect for Victoria University and Wellington in particular. However, it also translates into a highly valuable asset for the wider Asia-Pacific region and sits well with the University’s strategic objective of contributing to New Zealand’s digital future.”

The collaboration gets underway in the near future with a series of events in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, with Kristopher Rush, a Technical Director from CERT, addressing CEOs and CIOs on cyber vulnerabilities.

ECS researchers awarded in 2015 Marsden Fund grant scheme

12 Nov 2015 - 10:28 in Achievement


Victoria University's School of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS) is excited to announce that two academic staff and top researchers have been awarded funding for research projects in the prestigious Marsden Fund grant scheme for 2015.

The fiercely-contested Marsden Fund supports excellence in science, engineering, maths, social sciences and the humanities in New Zealand by providing grants for investigator-initiated research. It is administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand on behalf of the Government.

A total of $53.5 million in Marsden funding was awarded to New Zealand researchers this year. Victoria University received 13 grants, equal to more than $8 million in funding, cementing the University's reputation as a leading research institute.

ECS Professor Mengjie Zhang's successful project is entitled “Genetic Programming for Dynamic Flexible Job Shop Scheduling”. To support his research he has been awarded $550,000, distributed over three years, in the latest round of grants. The grants pay for salaries, student and post-doctoral scholarships, and research consumables.

Victoria’s Vice-Provost (Research) Professor Kate McGrath says the University is particularly proud of recipients who have received multiple Marsden funding over the years. This includes Professor Zhang, who is celebrating his fourth Marsden Fund grant.

“Marsden funding recognises excellence in leading-edge research. To receive multiple Marsden Fund grants is an outstanding achievement,” says Professor McGrath.

ECS's second Marden Fund grant for 2015 went to Senior Lecturer Dr Hui Ma. Her project, “Distributed Data-Intensive Service Composition”, was awarded a Fast-Start grant of $300,000. Fast-Start awards are designed to create research momentum for early-career researchers. Dr Ma was one of a number of women recognised as Principal Investigators of successful proposals, a number which rose from 39% last year to 44% this year.

Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce describes the advantages of supporting top-level research within New Zealand.

“The Marsden Fund invests in investigator-led research that seeks to generate new knowledge with long-term benefits for New Zealand,” Mr Joyce says.

“The Government recognises that funding for such research can generate substantial returns to society over time. The Fund continues to play an integral role in a high-performing science system focusing on excellence and impact, promoting New Zealand as a destination for top scientists and R&D investment.”

Going forward with Google

28 Oct 2015 - 11:17 in Research


Victoria University has further solidified its place at the forefront of research in one of the most innovative emerging technology areas—software defined networks (SDN).

After forming a software defined networks research group in 2014, Victoria’s School of Engineering and Computer Science has gone on to sign a three-year research agreement with Google to embark on SDN development, maintenance and teaching.

Traditionally, networking hardware is manufactured with specific software in mind, but standardising the way that software interacts with hardware allows developers the freedom to go beyond what is standard in the field.

“This means software developers can write programs for their own specific networking needs, and they are less restricted by the set-up of the hardware, which is more conducive to innovation,” says senior lecturer Dr Ian Welch.

“The flexibility of SDN technology means network modifications can be made more readily, and system threats dealt with rapidly and effectively. Even better, we can make networks more reliable by applying well-understood techniques from software engineering, such as unit testing and formal methods. Overall, this makes for a commercially nimble, cost-effective solution because it allows maximisation of the use of bandwidth and is potentially more secure and reliable than existing technologies.”

According to Google’s representative software engineer at Victoria, Josh Bailey, companies such as Google, Facebook or Amazon wouldn’t be in business without the vital role of network engineers.

“SDN is set to revolutionise things further by allowing better management of things such as cloud services, big data and consumer-interfacing technology, and it provides attractive options for scaling up business operations,” says Josh.

“This means SDN technology is set to be a growth industry and a serious option for any student considering network engineering.”

The three-year research agreement with Google provides a platform for Victoria to grow its profile in SDN teaching and research, with the goals of bringing more students into this emerging field and partnering with other academic and commercial organisations.

Training in computer science

20 Oct 2015 - 12:33 in Research


When Benjamin Powley first played with a train set as a small boy, he could never have imagined he’d be using a similar set to complete a university Honour’s project.

Benjamin, who is currently studying a Bachelor of Science with Honours (having already completed a double major Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and Mathematics), is one of the first to test out a new model railway purchased by the School of Engineering and Computer Science for student projects. He is using it to develop safety-critical control software that simulates a real-world, automated train network (such as the Paris Metro’s ‘Line 14’).

“I have to manage the scheduling of multiple locomotives, and safely route them through a network of tracks using the Java Model Rail Interface (JMRI),” Benjamin explains. “The safety challenges involve ensuring that no two trains are in the same section at the same time, and that all points are correctly set to ‘open’ or ‘closed’ each time a train enters a new section.”

As part of the project, Benjamin must programme both a handheld controller and a simulator—reflecting the real-life situation for software engineers who must always test their programmes before implementing them. “The handheld controller is a bit different to what you’d find on your average train set—this one has a special interface so that I can plug in my own programme and send instructions to the trains,” Benjamin says. These messages are sent across a voltage line to sensors on the track, which communicate with chips attached to each train.

At the end of the year, Benjamin will evaluate his work and formally present the results with a written report and a series of test runs. “I need to demonstrate a range of complicated scheduling, so I’ll put increasing stress on the network by adding more trains to run simultaneously,” he says. Benjamin will also use his maths background to build mathematical models for the controller to prove that the properties in the programme are correct and safe.

In addition to the project work, Benjamin says he is also improving his ‘soft’ skills such as time management and how to work as part of a team. “My two supervisors and I meet every week to talk things through and bounce ideas off each other. Their feedback is always incredibly useful.”

The idea to use the model railway as the basis for a project came from one of Benjamin’s supervisors, Dr David Pearce, a senior lecturer in the School of Engineering and Computer Science. “Where possible, I like to set projects that have some kind of real-world application, because students are more likely to relate to, and engage with, them.”

David says that the need for safety-critical software will become increasingly important with the rise of the ‘internet of things’. “More and more devices in the home will be built with wifi capability, making them potentially vulnerable to cyber attacks and hacking—unless they feature safety-critical software.”

David says that Victoria has the edge over other universities teaching the same subjects. “We have our own electronics workshop and technicians, which means we’ve got the facilities and skills to carry out any hardware projects or modifications right here on campus.”