Visualisation a focus for innovation finalists

The Optima Corporation, Biomatters and Straylight Studios are finalists in the Innovative Use of ICT category

The finalists in the Innovative Use of ICT category of the Computerworld Excellence Awards have delivered operations software for emergency services, visualisation of computational biology data and a 3D interactive training environment.

The common thread this year is a visual one. All three contenders have taken slices of reality, and used information and communications technologies in an innovative manner to present it visually for specific applications; the category promises to be a tough one for the judges to decide.

Auckland-based The Optima Corporation says complex mathematical algorithms are what make its SIREN products uniquely innovative. The name stands for Simulation for Improved Response for Emergency Networks and there are two products: Predict, which simulates and models scenarios and is used as a planning tool for decision-making in areas such as setting response times and staffing levels; and Live, which was specifically developed for emergency and ambulance service.

SIREN Live uses sophisticated mathematics to place ambulance crews near call-out hotspots, to improve reaction times. Executive assistant Tracy Jackson at Optima says the two SIREN tools are the only software systems in the word with this functionality, presenting a visually appealing graphical interface to its users for accurate emergency response planning — be it simulated or real.

Thanks to support from Auckland University’s Icehouse business incubator and Trade and Enterprise grants, Optima has been able to take SIREN into the international stage. SIREN is making waves not just in New Zealand, but also in Australia, UK, Scandinavia and North America, where emergency services are making use of it.

Biomatters, also of Auckland, had a different visualisation problem to solve: its bioinformatics application Geneious dives into raw genomic information over the internet, simplifying the searching, organising and analysis thereof for researchers.

With the world’s bio-information stores doubling every year since the human genome was sequenced, Candace Toner of Biomatters says that prior to Geneious, at least four discrete applications and a supercomputer were required for even the most basic aspects of comparative genomics.

The brainchild of University of Auckland student Alexei Drummond and IT project manager Daniel Batten, Geneious started life in a coffee shop, as a collaborative application that was capable of advanced genome and proteome research. Geneious of today is a Java 1.5 application, utilising SWING for the GUI, XML as the file format and open source libraries such as the Java Evolutionary Biology Libraries (JEBL).

It comes in two formats: the basic desktop application that is free, and has been downloaded over 50,000 times already, by scientists in universities, pharmaceutical companies and research institutions. A paid-for, Pro version of Geneious has been a huge success for Biomatters.

Geneious is presently used by the New Zealand Advanced Research Network KAREN, universities and research institutions in New Zealand, the United States, Japan, the Philippines, Australia and the UK, as well as major pharmaceutical companies worldwide.

Straylight Studios took a long, hard look at traditional training materials, and found them boring and un-engaging. Therefore, when it came to provide a training solution for food preparation, Straylight created a life-like 3D environment instead, with avatar instructors and professionally-recorded voiceovers.

Called The Kitchen, it is is very much like a computer game, but with a solid footing in the real world. Straylight CEO Timothy Nixon writes that The Kitchen provides the context needed to transfer the learning of the course effectively into the workplace. As a result, the course is absorbed much faster than a traditional one. Some people go through it in as little as one hour, Nixon says, compared to six for the traditional one.

The Kitchen is delivered via a touch-screen tablet PC, and is designed with a simple, easy-to-use interface to avoid scaring inexperienced computer users. The 3D games-like approach comes courtesy of the industry-standard Gamebryo graphics engine, from Emergent Technologies. This real yet virtual world has paid off for Straylight. The company is now seen as a specialist in the field of “Serious Games”.

Presently, The Kitchen is being trialled in Spain and Belgium by food hygiene companies. Otago Polytechnic has also embraced The Kitchen as a course supplement, and Straylight is working to develop the program so it can become a full replacement for a standard course.

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