Since he became an electrical engineer in the early 1970s, Samy Mahmoud has spent his whole career dreaming of circuits and silicon chips. It comes with the job. By the late 1990s, however, his dreams had developed an intriguing new twist.
That's when Mahmoud began imagining something unique: universities, governments, and industry researchers in the Ottawa area working together—as never before—in shared labs to create the telecommunications technologies of the future. The seed of an idea had been planted and it wasn't long before his techno-dreaming had taken a leap towards reality. The result? The development of the National Capital Institute of Telecommunications (NCIT), Canada's first regionally based research and innovation collaboration—co-founded by Mahmoud, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Design at Carleton University, and University of Ottawa engineering professor Nicolas Georganas.
NCIT was launched in 1999 with support from the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation's (OCRI), and the Ontario Innovation Trust and the CFI. The Institute brings together researchers from a wide range of disciplines to conduct research and development (R&D) in four main areas: photonics, multimedia, networking, and broadband wireless applications. “NCIT is a novel approach to maximizing the R&D potential of the region,” says NCIT President Robert Crawhall. “Through collaborations, it provides large corporate research capacity to small- and medium-sized technology businesses.”
As part of its focus on collaborations, NCIT has helped to establish and equip six advanced telecommunications labs at Carleton University and six at the University of Ottawa where researchers at various stages of their careers work together. The labs are helping to drive telecommunications R&D in areas from network management to optical components. “We couldn't have dreamed of these facilities without CFI support. The impact has been really profound,” says Mahmoud.
There are presently about 40 NCIT research projects in progress, involving more than 80 university professors, 90 graduate students, 40 industry researchers, and about 35 government scientists. “Being able to have a mix of these people in a room together significantly cuts the research and development cycle time,” says Mahmoud. “You quickly discover that others have invented certain devices, and often these have other unforeseen applications that can make your job much easier.”
The research collaborations are also facilitated by the CFI-funded NCIT*Net, Canada's first high-speed metropolitan area advanced research network. NCIT*Net, is a “crash-and-burn” capable network, one that's purely for pushing research to its limits. It connects many NCIT member institutions in a ring around Ottawa and is used to develop advanced applications and the network services necessary to support them. “NCIT's impact will be lasting,” says Mahmoud. It's like an Olympic village. You build it for two weeks, but it actually lasts lifetime.”
NCIT has its roots in the Ottawa area's emergence in the early 1990s as Silicon Valley North. Today, the area still ranks as a world leader in industrial telecommunications and information technology R&D. NCIT's corporate members reflect the region's mix of multinational companies such as Nortel Networks, Alcatel Canada, Bell Canada, and small- and medium-sized companies such as QNX Software Systems. Much of this corporate growth was spurred by the region's federal government labs, primarily the National Research Council (NRC) and the Communications Research Centre (CRC), both founding members of NCIT.
Telecommunications researchers are mostly engineers, mathematicians, and hardware and software designers. But their research could one day save lives. While all the science talk these days is about integrated optoelectrical oscillators and packet classification algorithms, researchers definitely have health and humanity on their minds. The near-term products that could result from these new technologies include everything from medical diagnosis over the Internet to smart roads.
"A whole lot of applications could emerge from something you're working on that you couldn't even foresee a few years ago," says Dr. Samy Mahmoud, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Design at Carleton University. Mahmoud is contemplating long-term possibilities of the research done by the National Capital Institute of Telecommunications (NCIT).
One of NCIT's core research projects is in haptics, the science of creating the sensation of touch over the Internet. "We already have sight and sound on the Internet. It's not a big jump to realize that the next sensory frontier will be that of touch," says NCIT President Dr. Robert Crawhall. Although researchers haven't quite taken the big leap towards haptics, they have taken a small hop. In October 2003, NCIT facilitated a virtual hand-shake across the Atlantic Ocean—the first-ever live demonstration of fully interactive haptics over a broadband network.
As part of the demonstration, a participant in Geneva, Switzerland, was able to feel a simulated pulse sent from the Communications Research Centre in Ottawa. The project included Canadian corporate partners MPB Technologies Inc. of Montreal, and Handshake Interactive Technologies of Kitchener, Ontario.
But it doesn't end with a handshake. Researchers say, in the near future, haptic technology could have broad applications—ranging from the ability to remotely control vehicles in dangerous environments, to the enabling physicians to practice “telemedicine.” All of these would involve a complex mix of NCIT research on sensors, signal combining, and real-time Internet transmission.
Mahmoud believes that one of the major applications of NCIT-fostered research into sensing devices and broadband wireless transmission will be in the areas of smart buildings and roads, as well as wireless medical communication. The research could create powerful wireless monitoring devices that will enable patients to be at home or work while still under medical supervision.
Mahmoud notes that Canadian insurance companies are particularly interested in smart road technologies because they could be useful in reducing accident rates—and the companies' bottom line. The technology could possibly pave the way for a wireless road-monitoring network. The network would be able to warn drivers, well in advance, of changes in road conditions and could result in the creation of condition-based speed limits.
Through its Research Partners Program, NCIT has developed a series of strategic collaborative research projects with large and smaller companies outside of the telecommunications sector. There are currently ten partner companies: INCO, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), Peeta Consulting Inc, eXRAY Broadband Inc., NI Solutions, CSIRO Australia, EION International, Diatem Networks, and Industry Canada.
NCIT's operating budget comes primarily from the Ontario Research and Development Challenge Fund, which supports collaboration between the private sector and research institutions in the province.