Dr Prashant Pillai, a lecturer at the University of Bradford’s School of Engineering, Design and Technology, took time out from his busy teaching and research schedule to talk to Justin Richards about his group’s research.

Can you provide me with some more background information about yourself and your group’s work in general?

We actually belong to the Future Ubiquitous Networks (FUN) research group in the School of Engineering, Design and Technology at the University of Bradford. Our work covers a range of areas, but our primary area of expertise is in mobile and wireless communications and satellite communications.

Our FUN research group looks into a range of technologies including future networks and the use of technology for real-life applications. This means we do a lot of work with wireless sensors and radio-frequency identification (RFID) systems; again they do fall under communications, but demonstrate more day-to-day applications for this kind of technology.

We see these types of applied technology as being the future - over the next five years everything is going to be on what we call ‘the internet of things’. Your television or fridge will be connected via a system that allows you to access them remotely.

Now we’re looking at the application of these technologies into things like health care. We have lots of small products such as blood pressure/heart rate monitors that are particularly relevant in treating older people. By allowing medical professionals to monitor health readings at a distance you can save people the bother of having to see their GP for a blood pressure check.

Can you tell me about the eye-tracking technology project your recent MSc student, Suraj Verma, was working on?

Suraj was undertaking a MSc in personal mobile and satellite comms (PMSC). As a part of the course students have to do an MSc project. We pick up all kinds of different projects for different people, depending on their background. Suraj was from India: he’d done some programming before and he was interested in electronics.

We have been looking at using technology in healthcare for some time and when Suraj came through he wanted to do something health care-related too.

At that time I had a project in mind that looked at tracking eye-movement, so we decided to see how feasible it was to use it to control a robot. We built some head-mounted gear, which has a small camera on it and some infrared LEDs. Infrared light is shone on the wearer’s eyes and the infrared camera then picks up reflection within the eyes and focuses on the iris itself.

This means the camera can track the whole image, right down to the exact position of the iris and its centre. When someone looks left or right, the centre of the iris then moves accordingly. Hence the idea is to track that movement and see where the subject is looking and then convert that information into messages which you can then send to your robot to get it to do what you want, e.g. go left or right.

That was how the project started, but because it’s an MSc project, with limited resources, it was not developed past the robot stage. We’re now trying to enhance the mechanisms of what we have in order to build a whole wheelchair that you can control using your eyes.

What sort of applications do you see for this wireless robot? You’ve talked about healthcare and helping disabled people - what benefits would they see if it was developed a bit further, if you had further funds, which meant it could be developed for use ‘in the field’?

We’ve been looking at how sensors can help with assisted living. For example, say a person was paralysed from the neck down, even if they use a wheelchair they are still dependent on someone to go and switch on a light.

In the end what we wanted to do was try and use eye-tracking to build a fully assisted home, where, say, a person could just look at the TV and it switches on, they could look at a light and the light switches on, things like that. There’s a huge potential if we can extend this eye-tracking work.

We have already demonstrated that it’s possible to control a light using eye-tracking. We had a small program running on a computer and we had small icons for the lights and fan and things like that. So if you looked at those icons, you could switch a light or fan on and off. So we’ve already showed that it is possible.

It’s still very primitive; because you still have to wear the headset - in the future we would expect a paralysed person not to have to wear all that gear. But what it does show is there is potential for the technology, for the application.

What we’re now looking at is using eye-tracking technology from remote cameras - cameras that are not so close to your eyes, but far away. We’re now able to detect the head and the eye, but we are trying to pinpoint the iris so that cameras further away can track where you are looking.

Is that how you see the project moving forward in future?

Absolutely. Firstly, we’re trying to basically ditch the head gear and go completely remote so the cameras could be in different places, which keep tracking your eyes. Secondly, we have been looking at alternative applications, for example, being able to just look at a number on the screen of a phone and the number dialling, thus allowing the user to make a phone call.

However, existing applications are on computers, so we may need to move them to the TV, which has a bigger screen and is easier to look at. We’re doing tests to see if we can convert these ideas to the real word and trial them out with disabled people and see how they feel about it.

What is your opinion on the general state of robotics research being done in the UK, compared with the rest of the world?

Being honest is not as impressive as it is in some countries. The US has been putting a lot of money into the study of robotics and, within Europe, there are a lot of countries which also do robotics research well. There are certainly a lot of projects involving robotics that should be done and are really required and deserve funding.

Our funding is very limited and it’s often mainly focused towards what the government want us to look at, including topics like environmentalism and health, which is sometimes more a case of re-inventing the wheel than being truly forward looking. What we try to do is look at how the robotics can feed into some of these required projects to see if it helps. If you actually went round looking for pure robotics research within the UK, you’ll find it’s very limited.

With regard to communications what are your thoughts on the future of the communications industry?

Quite a few things have come about over the last few years - new technologies such as WiMax (a telecommunications protocol that provides fixed and mobile internet access) will become more common over the next five or six years.

This is because they can provide you with everything that a mobile phone does, but much faster and more efficiently. New technologies which interact with satellites, trying to provide users with coverage even in the remotest of areas, are coming too. So you don’t have to be bang in the middle of London to get coverage!

I think the next big thing in the future will be what we term as ‘the internet of things’, where we think everything is going to be connected to pretty much everything else. That will include pretty much everything you use in everyday life including fridges, washing machines, televisions and so on, in homes and offices.

A simple example would be a sensor which could detect your mood as you enter a room, adjust the lighting according to that and start playing soft music. Or even your fridge could detect that you’re running out of milk and remind you to order some more. A lot of these things are going to be with us all very soon.

There has been an exponential level of growth in these kinds of devices in the last five years. Five years ago Bradford was actually one of the first universities that started a master’s degree in sensors because we knew that this technology was going to have a huge impact.

More or less every company has been trying to get into this technology one way or another. You’ve got some very big names that are making their own sensors like Sun Microsystems - they actually have small sensors that you can write Java programs on. The future will be full of technologies trying to help you in your everyday life in small ways that we never expected. It does make you wonder if it will take over completely.

I think it will only take over if we let it really. The trick is to remain technology’s master and not allow it to turn things around...

Yes, but to be honest, imagine not having a mobile or not having internet access for over a week...It’s just a bizarre thought. When I moved into my new house it took BT about two weeks to get my internet up and running and I started getting withdrawal symptoms! The technology just becomes a part of your life. I guess it’s just a matter of making sure it doesn’t take over everything.

How do you think the IT industry can improve its image and move away from the geeky one it currently seems to have. Do you think its negative image is discouraging students?

Sadly that’s true. If you look at any Hollywood movie, the guys who’re always cracking the codes look like nerds! But, to be honest, it’s not really like that. If you come to university these days, you can hardly find any geeky students. Perhaps they’re disguised geeks!

I’ve been in IT for quite sometime now, in India as well as in the UK, and the biggest problem when I talk to students is that they learn something, but by the time they get into the industry, their knowledge is obsolete. The industry is moving so fast it’s very difficult for them, or anyone actually, to keep up. That’s why I think a lot of people shy away from computer science or an IT-related subject, because they know it’s going to mean them having to continuously learn.

With more traditional subjects students know that once they’ve learnt the basics they can find a job and get experience to back the studies they’ve done. Subjects like electrical and mechanical engineering are easier in the sense that they don’t change quite as dramatically, or as fast as computer science does.

Ultimately, the government needs to be doing more to encourage study in these subjects, introducing basic concepts at school level to show children that, really they are not that difficult; otherwise it often sounds like blue-sky research, which it’s not.

The media have been quite bad at how they portray the industry and there seem to be very few role models for students to look up to. Who were your own role models?

I was educated in India where everyone wanted to be a computer engineer. To be honest I started programming when I was seven or eight years old. At school we were programming from class one or two, something like that.

I’ve been programming for a long time and have been through all the basic Pascal, C, and FORTRAN languages and so on. So by the time I got to an age where I needed to decide what I wanted to do, I knew enough about IT to make the decision that this was what I wanted to do. I didn’t have a specific role model; I just found it all very interesting.

I think the important thing for us to do is to show students who are thinking about which career path to take that IT is an interesting and exciting subject. They can write a few lines of code and something really magical happens.

BCS is trying to encourage professionalism in IT and encourages IT professionals to obtain further industry related qualifications - what are your thoughts on this?

I think it’s important for everyone to try to get at least a very basic degree first and then they can keep learning additional things. I’ve seen a lot of students who keep going off and getting all these extra certifications and qualifications and go on all sorts of courses.

While I think these are all helpful and won’t have a negative impact, I don’t think they are as useful or as tight as a formal degree would be. These should always be considered as add-ons, because one of the things degrees give to a student is a very strong knowledge base, not just ‘I know C, but I’ve no idea how anything else works’.

I think what the undergraduate and post-graduate degrees will do is to give you a very strong knowledge base, which you can then apply anywhere. This then allows you to better understand the add-on courses and get more out of them.

Over the years we’ve taken on a lot of students with these other kinds of qualifications, which say that they know x, y, z and then they end up struggling with quite a lot of things, because they didn’t have that base to their knowledge. So, for me, I would say that a university degree is crucial.

The alternative is these other qualifications, but these qualifications don’t last forever and there’s always going to be one more step to go - you’ve got a basic level, a medium level and advanced level and you end up doing them more and more.

Most of the companies we deal with won’t pick someone who doesn’t have a degree: they will always start there. Although, I guess, there might be some who’ll take them on without a degree. But I would always consider these alternative qualifications and certifications as add-ons to a student’s core learning.

If you just had one bit of advice to someone starting in IT what would it be?

What I tell all my students is to pick a great, interesting, but difficult project and then you will love what you are doing. If you pick a nice, difficult project, you’ll be able to apply what you’ve learned.

Actually, I tell my students, when they first come to me, to go and watch a movie; any of the biggest sci-fi blockbusters and to think about something they could do out of that. They come back having seen Minority Report and say ‘let’s do that’. I tell them ‘even if you only achieve 50 per cent of it, it’s going to be excellent’.

I think students need to start thinking instead of just being spoon-fed and thinking ‘I’ve been told this so that’s all it is’. If they come up with something that interests them, especially for a project, they will enjoy doing it and will enjoy the learning, otherwise it becomes a burden.

Quick questions

Open source or proprietary?
Open source, any day.

Apple or PC?

Smartphone or Blackberry?

Wii, Playstation or Xbox?
That’s a tough one. Xbox for me and Wii for my wife.

Geek or nerd?
Is there a difference? I would say I’m probably a bit of both. But I suspect I’d prefer to be called a geek since the term nerd seems to imply a lack of awareness of the world around them.