IT talent on display

Data-transmitting electric fences, a way for the public to view long-hidden museum artefacts and wearable computers were just some of the projects being showcased in Dunedin last night.

Data-transmitting electric fences, a way for the public to view long-hidden museum artefacts and wearable computers were just some of the projects being showcased in Dunedin last night.

The Industry Showcase displayed 19 projects from third-year Bachelor of Information Technology Students at Otago Polytechnic.

Students John Corkery, Graeme Youngman and Joshua Smith developed a data transmission protocol that allows messages to be passed down a live electric fence.

Polytechnic students have been working on the project since 1999. Polytechnic IT and electrotechnology acting head of school Dr Samuel Mann says electric fences cause interference and the aim was to turn the problem into a solution.

"We’ve got all this wire with electricity pulsing down it -- can we use it?"

A couple of years ago students tried sending a message in between the pulses but it didn't work. "The pulse was too slow to decay. We imagined it was like a spike and then wire for a while and then another spike. But it never got flat enough."

Another year they tried putting the data on top of the pulse.

"So, yes, you’re going to get this massive spike, but it’s going to be a spike with wiggles on it and the difference between the expected spike and the wiggly spike is the actual data."

Unfortunately, that didn’t work either. However, this year the students found success by using pulses as the medium but changing the frequency of the pulses.

"For the proof of concept, it’s sending data back from a thermometer -- real-time temperature data. As soon as you’ve done that you can attach anything that’s giving you digital values on one end and receive that on the computer."

Mann says it won’t be quick enough, in the medium term, to send video but it is suitable for any low data stream.

"One of the things we’re hoping to do, linking in with another project of ours which is sheep identification, is real-time monitoring of stock condition. Doing things like putting a weighbridge on a gate along with ear-tag monitoring and that sort of stuff so we can know what’s going on with the stock condition in real time."

Corkery believes the technology could be useful to build up a database of information about a certain piece of land -- such as soil temperatures, rainfall and grass growth -- over 10 or 20 years.

The students aim to set up a company to work on the idea, but Corkery says at present they are focusing on getting the technology working well.

He has been astonished by the attention the project has received from the media and electric fence companies.

"I knew Kiwis are mad about wire, but I didn’t think it was this bad."

Another project allows some of the 1.6 million items Otago Museum has in storage to be viewed online.

Students Justin McCormack, Chris Rosescu, Peter Garrett and David Youngman developed a system that captured 3D representations of the museum’s stored objects, which then go into a database and are sent out over the web.

The students built the system from beginning to end, including devising a laser-controlled turntable that objects sit on as photos are taken, writing the software and designing the website.

"Basically the whole thing is automatic and it allows them to capture an object every 30 seconds," says McCormack.

He hopes the site will go live at the end this month.

Another project -- wearable computers -- uses force-sensitive resistors.

Student Rene Smit is exploring a variety of potential uses, working with the Dunedin City Council’s economic development unit to find suitable partners for the technology.

One of the partners is Miles Rapley, the creator of the Shock Top worn by many New Zealand rugby players. Mann says the aim is to get real-time information from rugby players, such as scrum pressure or the size of a tackle."We imagine a Jonahometer; as they get tackled there will be a worm or something down the bottom of the screen showing the size of the tackle."

Smit is also working with Swing Thru International Container Handling Systems for potential application of the resistors on their cranes. Another idea is making a smart fridge.

Mann says the degree aims to produce students who can be productive from day one.

“It’s important that they can put all the theory and practical that they’ve had over the first two years of their degree into real-world experience.”

The project instructions are deliberately “pretty vague”. The projects must be real projects, for a real client and students must show traits such as competence and professionalism.

“We don’t specify that ‘we are going to be marking on these grounds’. The marking schedule is negotiated with the students according to the project that they’re doing.”

The degree has been running for about six years and Mann is proud of the feedback the polytechnic gets from clients each year.

“We’re not managing this thing as an academic exercise with the clients as an afterthought. Students are doing things for the clients.”

The projects have changed over time. Five years ago someone did a “fantastic at the time” e-commerce site. Such a project would not be suitable now because it is easier to produce such a site.

“A few years ago we had an awful lot of ‘computerise my uncle’s plumbing company’ [projects]….We hardly do any of those anymore,” says Mann.

Students deliver projects to clients in mid September so the polytechnic can get feedback before marking begins six weeks later.

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