Technology with a Social Purpose

Technology with a Social Purpose

Dr Vincent Lau (2nd from right, back row) at a workshop for secondary schools
Dr Vincent Lau (middle) and awardees of the competition

Dr Vincent Lau of the Department of Computer Science has been developing new technology products for more than 20 years and he is enthusiastic about the possibilities of today's advances to change lives for the better, especially among the impaired people. At the same time, he has been puzzled that many young people do not have similar enthusiasm. His KE project has tried to change that.

The project, Accessibility Technology Solutions Study for Secondary Schools, was supported by KE funding in 2012/13. It has introduced young people to the exciting potential of technology and, importantly, to the idea that they can create solutions in this field.

"I have two aims. First, to let students know more about the needs of impaired people, and second, to let them have the idea that technology can create useful products. Currently, not many young people want to create technology for new products or services. They want to play with it but not understand it and develop further," he said.

His interest in using technology to help others stems from long friendships with people who are impaired and a keen awareness that for many years, the technology was not advanced enough to develop good products for them. "Technology now is much easier to develop than 10 years ago. There are many tools, many open source projects, the hardware is cheaper and portable - there are many possibilities," he said.

To deliver that message to young people, Dr Lau and his team gave 10 talks and seminars to more than 900 young participants on the use of technology to help the impaired people.

He cited examples from his department's research, such as a system that "hears" signs for the blind through low energy RF (radio frequency) transmitters, which is being tested at the Arts Centre, a Link shopping mall and a housing estate. Dr Lau has also been involved in the development of an app that reads text for the blind, such as the expiry dates of food and medicines, and another app that helps the physically impaired to use eyes to turn lights and fans on and off.

The secondary school students were encouraged to dream up their own technological solutions for the impaired people through a competition organised alongside the talks.

More than 60 entries were received and the champion idea was a cup for the visually impaired that used a sensor to measure water level and temperature. "The students did not need to create real products because that takes a lot of time, effort and resources; they only need to draw some diagrams and explain the idea. I think this kind of activity can get them interested in making use of technology to enhance lives with creativity," Dr Lau said.