Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos had a sobering message to deliver on April 2, following a devastating mudslide that hit the remote town of Mocoa located in the country’s southern region. He officially noted that there were no more people missing and all had been accounted for after mudslides killed at least 254. In recent years, researchers have collected data indicating that landslides kill far more people than previously thought – ten times more.
Predicting mudslides can be an expensive problem to solve in a rural area like Mocoa. Equipment is costly and terrain is often in areas of the world where sensor-related devices have no communications infrastructure.
This is what led three students from the Columbia University School of Engineering to create a prototype named Palmos as part of the Verizon Connected Futures Prototyping and Talent Development program.
Palmos seeks to improve landslide monitoring and prediction with a wireless network of vibration sensors and machine learning. The sensors are stake-like devices about six inches tall and intended to be scattered across areas where mudslides are a high risk. These clever devices sustain battery life for up to five years thanks to vibration-sensitive activation. They can also operate on a long range, lower power wireless platform referred to as “LoRa” to work in remote areas without a communication infrastructure. Most notably, they are significantly more affordable than other options on the market.
Verizon, in partnership with NYC Media Lab, created the Verizon Connected Futures Prototyping and Talent Development program to combine talent, technology and resources by collaborating with universities across New York City. This program creates the conditions for prototypes like Palmos to come to life.
The program is the answer to this question: How do you tap the next generation of talent and technology at just the right time and with just the right amount of support?
Putting it all on stage
It’s a cloudy spring Friday and I’m at the NYU Kimmel Center to watch the completion of the program as the team presenting the prototype named Palmos and 11 other teams demo their prototypes across a variety of industries.
The stage and most of the room are wrapped by floor to ceiling windows looking down on Washington Square Park as the rain starts to fall on the windows. But the excitement, creativity and enthusiasm each team brings to the stage easily drowns out the rainy exterior. Along the right side of the room each team has a booth to demonstrate their prototype. The teams watch one another as they each take their turn and come to the stage to present.
They worked hard to earn the right to be here as part of the program. These teams were brought together after a city-wide outreach process, where Verizon representatives visited university campuses for information sessions and a competitive application process to identify the best candidates for the program.
Using an award of $200,000 across the 11 university-affiliated teams, they developed across three specific prototyping tracks: augmented and mixed reality, conversational interfaces, and the Internet of Things. Meeting weekly with industry mentors at Verizon, they developed their concepts throughout a four-month prototyping process.
Paolo Rangel is a graduate teaching assistant with the School of Visual Arts and worked on a team that developed a prototype in the form of a mobile application scanner that enhances the experience of reading textbooks. Rangel shares, “Through the Verizon Connected Futures Prototyping and Talent Development program, we were able to bring our idea to reality. It started as a school project and today it is a minimum viable product (MVP) that has been validated and tested with actual users. Getting mentorship from industry leaders and technical support from people of other teams helped us take our project much further.”
I watch as each team presents solutions across a wide-range of industries. Tosin Adeniji, Priyal Parikh and Xia Li come from Cornell Tech and Parsons School of Design and they are here to provide an overview of Iris. Iris is a smart device that turns any flat surface into a screen, allowing personalized content to follow you wherever you are in your home. As you walk from room to room, your favorite show or your social newsfeed seamlessly follows you.
Tosin specifies how content consumption trends are creating the need for a solution like Iris, “Over the years we have gone from gathering around a television set to individually managing multiple screens at once. I believe there will be increased demand for screens to be anywhere. We have already seen some convergence of that with recent products on the market, such as smart tables and mirrors. Combining this behavior while solving the content overload problem is the true power of Iris.”
Another team comprised of talent from the School of Visual Arts & Columbia University Data Science Institute includes Elushika Weerakoon, Paola Rangel, Uijun Park and Kuo Zhang. They overview Kiwi, a mobile application scanner for physical textbooks that enhances the reading experience for high school students. The prototype design is intuitive and essentially bridges the gap between the experience of reading a physical textbook and leveraging the power of your smartphone. By scanning, students can highlight text easily and expand their understanding of the subject with instant searches and augmented content.
According to Paola, “With Kiwi, we aim to integrate technology in education and transform the way students learn. We want students to be interested in learning through the tech tools that they love.”
Other solutions presenting on stage include:
- Blend: A tool to curate immersive experiences on mobile phones using augmented reality. Prototype by Andrew Mendez, Xiaoyu Qu, and Jasmine Oh collaborating from Cornell Tech & Parsons School of Design.
- YOU ARE HERE: An immersive journalism experience that uses augmented reality to tell NYC stories, melding past and present from a street-level view. Prototype by Sandeep Jummarkar and Jere Hester from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
- Zer: A virtual reality game that aims to provide kids with the toolset they need to recognize fake news. Prototype by Katherine Wallace and Danny Dang from Parsons School of Design.
- Myx: A storyboarding tool for 360 film-making. Prototype by Mithru Swarna, Roi Lev, Ondina Frate and Joakim Quach from New York University Interactive Telecommunications Program.
- Felix: An end-to-end Internet of Things (IoT) solution for large-scale business conventions and conferences, including a smart wearable that supports and facilitates valuable face-to-face interactions, and a data analysis platform for vendors and event organizers. Prototype by Chumeng Xu and Clara Shim from Cornell Tech.
- Remo Haptics: Remo is a smart knee sleeve for sports training that helps adjust movement patterns for optimal performance using biosensing and haptic feedback. Prototype by Evan Huggins, Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman, Aaron Nesser and Caitlin Sikora collaborating from Pratt Institute & NYU Tandon.
- Kiko: A tool which helps users create a cartoon emoji based on the real-time face expression and movement of their faces. Prototype by Wanyi Xu of Columbia University School of Engineering Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
- Eyestyle: A visual platform for fashion discovery and shopping. Prototype by Jie Feng and Svebor Karaman of the Columbia University School of Engineering.
In its first year, the program found talent so appealing Verizon hired seven of the program participants. Now in its second year, several students have already accepted offers from Verizon.
What I found particularly interesting was an intrinsic passion so strong from the participants that most clearly felt they were on to something that needed to continue development after the program ended.
As the presentations ended, many of the attendees crowded over to the booths for direct demonstrations and conversation. While it’s always an accomplishment to finish a program and achieve a result, the experience itself seemed to profoundly affect the understanding the teams had from many angles. Business models, technological and legal considerations as well as time limitations were all key learnings shared by the teams from the program.
As I left the room, conversations buzzing around the demo tables, I couldn’t help but wonder what conversations were happening in that moment and how impactful they would be on the future of many people. Not just those in the room.
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