RESEARCH & INNOVATION: ANNUAL REPORT
Research Associate, Digital Media & Web Solutions
It was a toss up between beer making and computer programming for Alex Davis.With a bachelor’s degree in English not being put to good use, he decided to head back to school. In the end, hard drives won out over hops (more accurately, there happened to be a program opening).
“Originally I was signed up for the Brewmaster program here, but I was put on a waiting list, so I looked for a back-up and computer programming accepted me right away,” says Alex, who graduated last year and has since worked as a Research Associate with Research & Innovation.
This scheduling happenstance proved significant given that, while on his co-op with R&I’s Digital Media & Web Solutions team, he worked on a revolutionary project for a medical technology industry partner. Studio 1 Labs invented an intelligent medical bed sheet with fabric sensing and non-invasive technology that wirelessly monitors vital signs for hospital patients and the elderly and can predict the onset of health decline and emergencies.
Alex helped develop the innovative user interface (UI) to allow medical professionals to view and interact with the technology.
“It was a very interesting learning experience, in terms of how to understand the flow of real-time data applications and manage a huge amount of information and translate it into something readable.”
“…things like organization and self-motivation that are not things that can be taught in class. I couldn’t begin to list the tremendous benefits I’ve had by working here.”
While he had a foundation from his schooling in NC’s computer analyst program, he says that this field is very heavy on “self-teaching.” When it comes to apps, the languages can all be rather new, he explains.
“I always find it interesting with these projects, when you get to learn a little more about a field that you don’t know anything about… the other thing is, with all the technologies I used to build the app, it was a complete learning experience on my end. I didn’t know any of it, prior to doing it.”
Through this experience, he says, he gained more confidence and developed plenty of new strategies for completing future work.
Some of that work now finds Alex developing a user-friendly interface for an innovative prototype developed by Keyframe Digital, an award-winning animation and VFX film company based in St. Catharines, Ont. In addition to the original X-Men movie and many others, the studio also worked on two television series – Penny Dreadful and The Expanse – both of which Alex half jokingly calls himself a “fanboy.”
Keyframe has created a visual effects digital tracking aid (software and hardware) to influence 3D tracking productivity; however, in order to make it less cumbersome in a film set environment, it needs to be wireless. So they looked to Niagara College to help develop the wireless, addressable “Blink” LEDs system to reduce green-screen reference point dropouts, complete with a powerful user interface.
No such product currently exists, so the success of this device opens the door for the film company to significantly increase their productivity and create a market with other production companies worldwide.
“One of the reasons I like this project is I get to work with the team at the Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre, as they’re managing the hardware components. They’ve got some brilliant people in the labs there,” Alex notes. “It’s a really fascinating project and very, very technical.”
All this technical, analytical and high-tech skills is a wide departure from his English roots, he admits. In fact, he says he majored in English not because of any deep passion for prose, or a desire to become a famous author, but because he always found his favourite teachers were in English.
“I didn’t want to be a writer; it was more about the possibility of teaching at the post-secondary level one day.”
However, the academics of literature did not translate into something more modern for him. “English was very strange, because it ended up being an area where I couldn’t express myself creatively… so with computer programming you can blend old and new technologies together to create something fun.”
He always leaned more towards the fun of the arts – music and pop culture. “Programming is the first sort of logical side that I examined of my brain, because before university, I was playing live music.”
Indeed, the creative, imaginative side of him would explain his background in the music world – and the rather unique tattoo on his inside forearm. It is a “Flying Victoria” illustration – essentially a phonograph with wings – and a nod to indie rock band Neutral Milk Hotel and its album cover artwork from the iconic “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” a record Alex grew up listening to… a lot. He would later take up electric guitar and compose music, and toured the regional circuit with his band for a while.
Today, just as in music composition, he contemplates his projects and industry partnerships with a critical eye, always seeking improvements for himself.
“Discovering what strategies work best for you in a working environment is probably the most important journey in one’s professional life.”
During his time at R&I, Alex says he has developed considerably in both his technical and his soft skills: “things like organization and self-motivation that are not things that can be taught in class. I couldn’t begin to list the tremendous benefits I’ve had by working here,” he explains. “Discovering what strategies work best for you in a working environment is probably the most important journey in one’s professional life.”
The department is also much more than the applied research projects, he insists: “There is a sense of community here that is unrivaled, and I’m very proud to continue to be a part of the team after graduating. The staff and faculty that help the students here are extremely committed to our professional development and seeing us succeed in our projects.”
When he’s not working on innovative technology, Alex is transferring his knowledge as a part-time teacher to the next generation of computer students in Game Design.
“I’m very lucky to have the opportunity of teaching appear to me now. I’m not sure as of yet if this will be a career path, I’m just along for the ride,” he says. “And so far, the ride has been fun! Hopefully the students are learning as much from the classes I’m teaching as I am in this new position.”
As of late, Alex’s earlier hopes of teaching one day at the post-secondary level have been realized on a part-time basis. He’s now into his second term of educating a new generation of computer programmers with two courses and close to 50 students on the roster.
While juggling lectures and marking assignments amidst working on innovative technology and software developing duties at R&I, Alex finds teaching surprisingly “relaxing.” Being able to sit and talk to others about programming – something he cares about a lot – is a great gig, he says.
“Having the social interaction is really nice,” he explains, adding he tries to keep his teaching style more of a “conversation” and less of just lecturing. He also keeps his classes active and works through the coding tutorials along with his students.
“I like to be very hands on because it encourages people to come to class and they might learn something.”
While he’s not ruling out graduate studies to continue teaching as a career path, for now he’s enjoying the ride.
Recently engaged, Alex and his fiancé call St. Catharines home. Both are devoted dog owners, or as he more aptly puts it: doggie parents. He still listens to a lot of music. – R&I