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Chime Red - making music with Tesla coils

17 Dec 2014 - 14:16 in Achievement

The School of Engineering and Computer Science staff and students are creating unique musical performances involving a trio of Tesla coils.

Tesla coils, invented by Serbian-American Nickola Tesla in the 1890s, produce high voltage electricity and have inspired many kinds of research and musical performances.

The coils can play a range of original compositions written by PhD students from Victoria’s Sonic Arts Engineering programme, along with a few covers.

The control software that drives the coils’ has been developed by Josh Bailey, a software engineer, who also owns two of the Tesla coils used for the performance. The name of the performance—Chime Red—comes from the control system used to transmit the software to the coils, which was built by Mr Bailey and Victoria Masters graduate and staff member James McVay.

While music has been made with Tesla coils before, Mr Bailey’s software has taken things to the next level, with up to 16 notes able to be played simultaneously.

“As far as we know, there is no other system quite like this,” says Mr McVay. “Previously, the maximum number of notes that could be created was seven. Josh has more than doubled that.”

The whole performance is run from computers and, although songs can be played live, the compositions which make up Chime Red is programmed ahead of time. Computers, running standard music software, are connected to each Chime Red controlling a coil, which precisely controls the timing of arcs to achieve the desired notes.

“The faster you fire the coil, the higher the frequency you get. It’s hard to explain the sound. It’s very electronic, it doesn’t sound like any instrument I can think of,” says Mr McVay.

Along with an arc of electricity, Tesla coils also produce radio frequencies that can interfere with electronics. Each coil will have a cage on top of it to substantially reduce these frequencies but Mr McVay says other precautions will also be taken.

Radio New Zealand interviews James McVay, Jim Murphy and Jason Long:

http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/ourchangingworld/audio/20157713/music-for-tesla-coils-and-robotic-bass-and-drums

Teaching robots to see at Victoria

15 Dec 2014 - 15:28 in Research

Robots may soon see the world differently thanks to work being done at Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Engineering and Computer Science.

Syed Saud Naqvi, a PhD student from Pakistan, is working on an algorithm to help computer programmes and robots to view static images in a way that is closer to how humans see.

Saud explains: “Right now computer programmes see things as very flat—they find it difficult to distinguish one object from another.”

Facial recognition is already in use but, says one of Saud’s supervisors Dr Will Browne, object detection is more complex than facial recognition as there are many more variables.

Different object detection algorithms exist, some focus on patterns, textures or colours while others focus on the outline of a shape. Saud’s algorithm extracts the most relevant information for decision-making by selecting the best algorithm to use on an individual image.

“The defining feature of an object is not always the same—sometimes it’s the shape that defines it, sometimes it’s the textures or colours. A picture of a field of flowers, for example, could need a different algorithm than an image of a cardboard box,” says Saud.

Work on the algorithm was presented at this year’s Genetic and Evolutionary Computational Conference (GECCO) in Vancouver and received a Best Paper Award.

Now the computer vision algorithm is going to be taken even further through a Victoria Summer Scholarship project to apply it to a dynamic, real-world robot for object detection tasks. This will take the algorithm from analysing static images to moving real-time scenes.

It is hoped that the algorithm will be able to help a robot to navigate its environment by being able to separate objects from their surrounds.

Dr Browne says there are a number of uses for this kind of technology both now and in the future. Immediate possibilities include use on social media and other websites to self-caption photos with information on the location or content of a photo.

“Most of the robots that have been dreamed up in pop culture would need this kind of technology to work. Currently, there aren’t many home helper robots which can load a washing machine—this technology would help them do it.”

It’s early days but Dr Browne says in the future it’s possible that this kind of imaging technology could be adapted to use in medical testing, such as identifying cancer cells in a mammogram.

For further information contact Dr Will Browne at will.browne@ecs.vuw.ac.nz or on 04-463 5233 ext 8489.

The Victorias Awards - Celebrating Excellence at Victoria University

12 Dec 2014 - 19:59 in Achievement

The Postgraduate Student Association (PGSA) has a long standing tradition of recognising postgraduate excellence through the Victorias Awards which was hosted on Thursday 27 November 2014 in the Hunter Lounge. The Victorias Awards provide the opportunity to celebrate excellence in postgraduate research within Victoria University. They also recognise the support of postgraduate students, academic and general staff who inspire students with their verve and passion.

Congratulations to Engineering PhD student Henry Williams for being awarded the Landers Postgraduate Award.

Henry’s past leadership and continuing mentoring of Victoria Engineering Club is particularly noteworthy as it provides not only a forum for postgraduates to interact/network/socialise, but also link with undergraduate students. This link is vital in research led teaching, setting aspirational standards and encouraging our students to become postgraduates researchers themselves. His leadership of the NI-ARC (National Instruments-Autonomous Robotic Challenge) team directly resulted in it winning the Australasian competition in 2013, which gave widespread credibility to our postgraduate programmes. Henry is a well-regarded first year tutor, where he engages and encourages students through his passion for the subject. His volunteering for FutureInTech has helped our outreach demonstrate to secondary school students that studying at university, including eventual postgraduate study, is an awesome goal within their reach. Henry is also the student chair of the IEEE chapter of the Computational Intelligence.

Wellington Security Defender Day

12 Dec 2014 - 16:12 in Event

The School of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS) hosted the first Wellington Security Defender Day.

Worldwide, the economic impact of cybercrime is estimated at $523 billion (http://www.stuff.co.nz/technology/digital-living/60096249/cybercrimes-cost-at-523b-worldwide) and as New Zealand ICT companies grow so does their exposure to cybercriminals.

Fighting back against cybercrime requires web security experts to share their expertise and Wellington Security Defender Day was organised to provide this opportunity.

Wellington Security Defender Day was organised by Mr Kirk Jackson who is a well known Wellington computer security expert, and the School was pleased to be able to support this initiative by hosting the day at our Pipitea Campus. Kirk who currently works for Xero is a former student and staff member of ECS.

Kirk timed the day to coincide with Kiwicon, an annual gathering of people from the New Zealand security community that takes place in the Wellington CBD on December 11th and 12th.

The day was a mix of informal presentations and discussions between computer security experts and academics. Activities such as this build upon and enhance the work completed by ECS security researchers. Since 2006, collaborative web security work at the School has resulted in the development of open source tools for academics and security professionals.

For more information please contact Dr Ian Welch: ian.welch@vuw.ac.nz

Google dream a reality for Victoria student

17 Nov 2014 - 13:02 in Achievement

Victoria University of Wellington student Valerie Chan will learn from the top tech minds this summer as she interns at Google's Sydney headquarters.

After a long and rigorous application process Valerie, who has just completed her first-year at Victoria studying computer science and mathematics, was selected for the Google STEP (Summer Trainee Engineering Programme) which runs from 24 November to 13 February.

Google encouranges those who are often underrepresented in in the technology industry to apply for STEP internships. This includes women, people with disabilities and ethnic minorities.

For Valerie, the opportunity to work for Google is not just a great way to spend her summer, it’s the reason she chose to study computer science. While still in secondary school, Valerie attended a talk at Victoria by Google representatives who mentioned the STEP internships.

“I had never written a line of code before and I’d been considering studying law but the chance to work for Google made my mind up.”

Valerie sent in her application for the paid internship months ago and later she completed technical interviews over the phone before her application went before the hiring committee.

“An engineer from Google called me and tested my coding skills. The first time I had no idea what to expect but the second interview went really smoothly.”

Valerie prepared for her interviews by seeking advice from her Engineering lecturers who helped her get a jump start on work she would be completing later in the semester.

The preparation, interviews and waiting paid off for Valerie who will fly to Sydney at the end of this week to begin work on one of Google’s products.

“I’ve heard the first few weeks are a bit of a blur with so much to learn. It’s a bit scary but mostly exciting.”

The intership is paid and all expenses covered. Valerie and her fellow interns will stay together in apartments near Google’s Sydney headquarters at Darling Harbour. Valerie hasn’t been there before but says was impressed when she looked it up on Google Maps.

She is looking forward to learning from the best and says even getting into the programme has changed how she sees her abilities.

“Just being accepted has already been a real confidence boost--sitting in my end of year exams, I felt like I knew what I was doing.”

Wellington institutions look to enhance the region’s digital economy

03 Nov 2014 - 17:01 in Administrative

Three Wellington tertiary providers are working with industry to develop a joint Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Graduate School that addresses the specific needs of the region.

Earlier this year the Government announced it was investing $28.6 million over four years in ICT graduate schools in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Victoria University of Wellington, WelTec and Whitireia have joined forces with a number of Wellington businesses to develop a bid to establish the school.

“This is an excellent opportunity for Wellington based tertiary institutions to establish a school that will maximise the economic opportunities for our city and New Zealand,” says Professor Mike Wilson, Pro Vice-Chancellor of Science, Architecture and Design and Engineering at Victoria University.

“The Wellington region has the highest concentration of web and digital-based companies per capita in New Zealand and we want to ensure there are enough graduates with the skills and research capacity to help those companies thrive. Collectively we see great value in being able to leverage our existing networks, resources and education capabilities in the region to develop a school that will lead to a larger pool of ICT talent and collaborative research partnerships.”

WelTec Chief Executive Linda Sissons says the three tertiary institutions already have extensive collaborative relationships with each other, and the businesses and stakeholders that are necessary to make the School a success.

“We have been talking to a number of companies who are partnering with us to get a clear view of what the School needs to offer. We will be focused not only on skill development and innovative research initiatives, but also on blurring the traditional teaching boundaries by offering more educational delivery in real settings. This is an exciting direction for all of us.”

Whitireia Chief Executive Don Campbell agreed, noting the exciting possibilities that working together on this graduate school would bring. “The strength created by combining the longstanding vocational and applied research focus of polytechnic ICT programmes, including at Master’s level, to the postgraduate and research strengths of Victoria provides a compelling story.”

The consortium submitted its expression of interest on developing the Wellington Region ICT Graduate School to the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) and Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) today.

Two senior appointments for Science and Engineering

31 Oct 2014 - 12:08 in Achievement

Two new senior appointments have been announced for the Faculties of Science and Engineering.

Professor Dave Harper will take the role as Dean of Science for the Faculty of Science, and Professor Mengjie Zhang is the new Associate Dean (Research and Innovation) for the Faculty of Engineering.

Professor Mike Wilson, Pro Vice-Chancellor for the Faculties of Science, Engineering, Architecture and Design, says that he looks forward to working with Professor Harper and Professor Zhang in their new roles.

“I consider myself very fortunate to have two individuals of such high calibre supporting me in my role,” he says.

Professor Harper has taught at Victoria University in the School of Psychology for nearly 21 years and although he calls the Easterfield building ‘home’, is looking forward to taking up a new leadership role.

“It’s a time of change and I’m really excited to be part of things moving forward, both as a University and a Faculty,” he says.

Professor Zhang, a Computer Science Professor, has been Deputy Head of School and Chair of the Research Committee for the School of Engineering and Computer Science for the past three years.

The genetic programming specialist says that there are real opportunities to make Engineering at Victoria thrive in New Zealand.

“I’m looking forward to working with others across the Faculty and University to make our Engineering research programs innovative and unique.”

Both roles take effect on Monday 3 November 2014.

Idiot-proof computer programming

24 Oct 2014 - 15:34 in Achievement

A computer scientist at Victoria University of Wellington is part of an international team that has designed a way to overcome problems that occur when using multiple programming languages to write webpages.

Dr Alex Potanin, a senior lecturer at Victoria’s School of Engineering and Computer Science, has helped design Wyvern, a piece of software that allows many different programming languages to be used at the same time.

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Dr Potanin helped develop Wyvern while on sabbatical in 2013 at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

He and the rest of the research group set out to design a system which makes it possible to use a variety of targeted, domain-specific programming languages—such as HTML or SQL—within a single programme.

“When you programme for the web at the moment you use many different languages—it’s a bit of a mish-mash,” says Dr Potanin.

Wyvern can simplify the process by establishing which language is being used within the programme based on the type of data the programmer is using.

“Currently these different languages are designed without taking into account that the others exist, so you write a programme and you only find out there’s an error when you try to run it and it doesn’t work. We’re bridging this gap by combining this mish-mash into a single underlying language that is easy to use. Our design means on one hand you are writing in a language that is comfortable to you but underneath it translates to the core single language that is checked for errors.”

Dr Potanin says Wyvern also helps avoid major security threats that can arise when using a range of programming languages.

“A code injection is a common security bug which is caused by processing invalid data. In can be exploited by an attacker to inject code, with potentially disastrous results,” he says. “The only way you can avoid it is to manually inspect the code. But Wyvern will not allow you to mix the wrong things—it’s idiot proof.

“Also, because this is a language that’s designed from scratch, we can build security into it from a fundamental level. With other programming languages it’s usually an afterthought and designers try to fit security policies retrospectively.”

The team’s work was recognised at an international conference recently – the research team won a distinguished paper award at the European Conference on Object-Oriented Programming in Sweden for their article ‘Safely Composable Type-Specific Languages’.

CMU is the top-ranked university in the United States for Computer Science, which Dr Potanin says makes for exciting collaboration prospects for Victoria students.

“We’re looking for students here to work on Wyvern—this is a great opportunity to join forces with such an internationally-renowned institution.”

To find out more about Wyvern, go to http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~aldrich/wyvern/

Fighting cyber-crime one app at a time

21 Oct 2014 - 22:25 in Research

This summer Victoria University of Wellington will be home to four Singaporean students researching cyber threats.

The students have been working with Dr Ian Welch, a lecturer in Victoria’s school of Engineering and Computer Science, as part of a partnership between Victoria and Singapore Polytechnic.

In their final year of the diploma in information security, the students have been working in groups to develop software to protect online programmes from malicious software or malware such as viruses or spyware.

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Singapore Polytechnic students show Open Bouncer to Mr Masagos Zulkifli, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Open Bouncer is the students' Final Year Project that detects malware in Android applications. PHOTO: Mabel Yap (Credit: Home Team News Singapore)

One of the group projects is a malware detection site called Open Bouncer which is used to test Android apps to see if they are secure and reliable.

This open source platform offers two levels of information. The first shows clearly if the application is safe or not and for more tech savvy users there is the option to expand on the results to show more detail and even add to the software themselves.

Open Bouncer has gone further than the classroom, with the group receiving the opportunity to show off their website at a high profile event in Singapore called GovermentWare, where they explained the software to a government minister.

Dr Welch has been remotely mentoring the students over the past few months through weekly Skype calls. He says he is looking forward to finally meeting them in person.

“They have been working on practical software projects, and this visit will help them get research backing for the work they are doing.”

As well as providing advice, Dr Welch helped the students to test their programmes to see if they would stack up against real cyber threats. Dr Welch says when it came to testing how effective their software was at fighting cyber criminals they used similar methods to the ones police use to catch regular criminals.

“The police will set up a ‘honey pot’ where a car is left unlocked in a rough end of town waiting for thieves to steal it. We did something similar by leaving a piece of software unprotected and waited for the malware to attack. When it did the students were able to test their programmes against a real threat.”

The testing paid off and Open Bouncer will soon be available for public use. A video demostration of the Open Bouncer system is now available at: https://openbouncer.catoace.com/drIan/Video/Trailer.mp4

For more information, contact Dr Ian Welch, phone 04 463 5664 or email Ian.Welch@ecs.vuw.ac.nz

Music and the Machine

16 Oct 2014 - 10:30 in Event

Musical machines and robots will take over Victoria University of Wellington’s Hub this Friday.

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Following the success of last year’s event, the Sonic Arts and Engineering Showcase brings together 20 collaborative installations designed by students from Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music (NZSM) Sonic Arts programme and Victoria’s Faculty of Engineering Electronics courses.

These projects include musical robots and machines which respond to changes in their environment, resulting in a range of mechanical and sonic responses.

Another project involves the use of ultrasonic sensors so that as observers move, the soundscape they experience changes dynamically.

A particular highlight of the showcase will be ‘Striker', a three-armed mechanical drum-playing instrument, that is able to predict where and how loud to play the drums in response to incoming musical events.

There has recently been an increasing overlap and growing potential for collaboration between NZSM and Electronics courses at Victoria, with a particular focus on interactivity and audience accessibility.

Check it out on Radio NZ: http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/nat-music/audio/20153916/musical-robots

Sonic Arts and Engineering Showcase 2014

When: Friday 17 October, 12–4.30pm

Where: Level 2, The Hub, Victoria University, Gate 3, Kelburn Parade, Kelburn, Wellington