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Blasting Off

A team from Feeding Hills gets ready to put their robot to the test.

A team from Feeding Hills gets ready to put their robot to the test.

Seeing a group of middle-schoolers design, build, and program robots that perform specific, detailed tasks on cue is an impressive sight. But the impact of the FIRST LEGO League, which boasts teams in numerous schools throughout Western Mass., goes far beyond engineering training. It’s also teaching young people communication skills, teamwork, and confidence — all key traits to take into whatever career they choose, whether in the STEM fields or not.

As the robotic rover methodically navigated a landscape of obstacles, it relied on its programming to perform any number of tasks, from extracting core samples to angling a solar array to crossing a crater. If the programming — honed over months of diligent trial and error — failed, so did the robot.

That’s OK, though — this wasn’t a billion-dollar piece of outer-space equipment at stake, but a robot built from LEGO Mindstorm parts, and performing tasks on a colorful, space-themed table. And these weren’t astronauts or NASA engineers performing experiments, but area elementary and middle-school students showing off their prowess at the recent FIRST LEGO League Into Orbit Challenge at Western New England University.

Three dozen teams of students from Agawam, Brookfield, Chicopee, Greenfield, Holyoke, Longmeadow, Northampton, South Hadley, Springfield, West Springfield, Westhampton, and Wilbraham took part in the competition, reflecting a surge in growth for school-based robotics programs.

“It’s more than just the robots. Yes, the engineering is important — the math and the physics behind it — but more important than that is the teamwork, the critical-thinking skills, and the communication skills the kids develop.”

After competing head to head with each other, seven of those teams advanced to a statewide competition in Worcester a week later, and from there, the top teams moved on to championship events this spring.

“It’s all about taking your classroom lessons — the math, the science — and applying them in a real-world situation,” said Dana Henry, a senior mentor for the regional FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) program, who first connected students with robotics in Agawam 18 years ago.

“It’s more than just the robots,” he told BusinessWest. “Yes, the engineering is important — the math and the physics behind it — but more important than that is the teamwork, the critical-thinking skills, and the communication skills the kids develop.”

The FIRST LEGO League challenges kids to think like scientists and engineers. During this year’s space-themed season, teams choose real-world problems to solve and then build, test, and program an autonomous robot using LEGO Mindstorms technology to solve a set of missions.

Last months’s event, the Agawam Qualifier, is in its 11th year, moving to WNEU this season after outgrowing its previous space at Agawam Junior High School, Henry noted.

Dana Henry says FIRST LEGO League competitors are applying classroom lessons to real-world problems, and gaining a raft of skills while doing so.

Dana Henry says FIRST LEGO League competitors are applying classroom lessons to real-world problems, and gaining a raft of skills while doing so.

“We have four programs in Agawam, and we help other teams, at other school systems in the area, get up and running,” Henry said of his role with FIRST. “Western New England came in with the facility and some resources, and they are working with a couple of local teams themselves. It’s been a pretty great ride so far.”

Suleyman Demirhan, a science teacher at Hampden Charter School of Science in Chicopee who oversees that school’s robotics club, explained that the faculty coach’s role is to teach students the basics of building and programming the robot — and researching issues as they arise — but it’s important for students to learn how to accomplish their goals with minimal hand-holding.

“They learn a specific topic for their project, and how to design a robot and program it. The coach is there just to guide them, to provide the right materials and supplies for learning the robotics, and then we get to see their progress. We’re teaching them how to solve problems. It’s a learning process,” Demirhan said.

“Actually, they teach each other and learn from one another,” he went on. “I see it like working at a company, like being an engineer, but at the same time being a middle-schooler. They’re learning to solve all these engineering problems, and then they learn how to solve the programming problems.”

Values Added

The FIRST LEGO League, launched 20 years ago by inventor Dean Kamen and LEGO Group owner Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, now boasts 320,000 participants and 40,000 teams in 98 countries.

At the cornerstone of the program are a set of core values, through which participants learn that friendly competition and mutual gain are not separate goals, and that helping one another is the foundation of teamwork.

According to the league website, those core values include discovery (exploring new skills and ideas), innovation (using creativity and persistence to solve problems), impact (applying what we learn to improve our world), inclusion (respecting each other and embracing our differences), teamwork (understanding that we are stronger when we work together), and fun (enjoying and celebrating what we do).

The student-designed robots are all different, taking myriad approaches to tackling similar challenges.

So the goal is more than learning robotics, engineering, and programming. But even the tasks themselves extend far beyond the robots. Each year, teams are mandated to research a real-world problem such as food safety, recycling, energy, etc., and then develop a solution.

As part of this year’s Into Orbit theme, teams considered the challenges humans must overcome to travel around the solar system — such as extreme temperatures; lack of air, water, and food; waste disposal and recycling; loneliness and isolation; and the need for exercise — and research and present a project, not unlike at a science fair, that aims to solve one of those problems.

“With this year’s theme, they designed a project that helps astronauts in space travel improve their physical conditions and mental health, or it could be anything that supports astronauts,” Demirhan said, noting that his school’s two teams took on the problems of growing food in space and designing an effective trash compactor.

The competition itself centers around the LEGO robots designed and built by the students, he went on. “Each challenge needs to be solved by a robot which is running autonomously. So the students program the robots and make specific attachments that work with different challenges. They don’t only design these attachments, but design and write the programs.”

If the programming is off by the slightest margin, the robot will miss its target on the table — and miss out on critical points needed to post a high score and advance.

“With each one of these challenges, they encounter difficult areas with the programming,” Demirhan went on. “Some programs might work in a specific environment and might not work in a different environment, and they’re trying to write the best program that can work in many different conditions. For example, light could be a factor — robots have light sensors, and the amount of light in the practice room could be different than in competition. So the student needs to solve this challenge and write a really good, efficient program that can run in both these environments.”

For students inclined to this type of work, Henry said, it’s a fun way to learn to apply STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) concepts while developing critical-thinking and team-building skills, and even soft skills like how to talk to the judges about their robots in an engaging way — yes, they’re judged on that, too.

“Not only do they have to build a robot to compete on the table, but they’re also being judged on a project, and they have to adhere to all the core values throughout the FIRST program,” he added. “It’s about communication skills and critical-thinking skills. It’s much more than just robots.”

Time to Shine

Through the FIRST LEGO League, Kamen and Kristiansen always intended for young people to discover the fun in science and technology but also develop in a positive way as people. Henry said he has seen exactly that.

“We had one kid that came through the program who was very shy, ate his lunch in the corner all by himself at his junior high school, but he came into high school and absolutely bloomed. He got into college, and now he’s an engineer with NASA. I’m telling you, if he doesn’t go to Mars, he’s going to be one of the engineers that gets us there.”

Other students in the program have gone on to non-science fields, like teaching, music, and the culinary arts, he continued, but the lessons they learned about solving problems and working with others are applicable to any field.

For those who do aspire to a career in engineering or robotics, however, the FIRST program does offer a leg up, Demirhan said, both in the college-application process — schools consider this valuable experience — and gaining career skills at an earlier age than most future engineers do.

“They’re all doing real-world engineering. Once they go to an engineering school, they’re seeing problems like these and learning how to solve them. So this is really a tiny engineering program that has massive applications. We’re teaching real-world problems and coming up with good solutions to them.”

In short, students are creating ideas, solving problems, and overcoming obstacles, all while gaining confidence in their abilities to positively use technology. To Henry, that’s an appealing mix.

“The STEM part is important, absolutely, but it’s more than just that,” he said. “I can’t stress that enough. We’ve seen kids blossom in so many ways.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Creating Cyber Solutions

Tom Loper says the ‘supply chain’ project will benefit the region

Tom Loper says the ‘supply chain’ project will benefit the region and its manufacturing sector while also giving cybersecurity students a leg up on jobs.

A group of regional partners, led by Bay Path University, has been awarded a $250,000 grant from the Mass. Technology Collaborative for a pilot program that will address a host of identified issues — from a critical shortage of workers in the cybersecurity field to the need for smaller manufacturers to become more cyber secure if they are going to keep doing business with their customers in the defense, aerospace, and other sectors.

The project’s name is long and quite cumbersome.

‘Engaging Student Interns in Cybersecurity Audits with Smaller Supply Chain Companies to Develop Experience for Entry-level Positions While Improving the Cybersecurity Ecosystem in Massachusetts.’

Yes, that’s really what it’s called. And while that’s a mouthful — not that anyone actually recites the whole thing anyway — it really does capture the essence of an ambitious initiative spearheaded by Bay Path University and its emerging cybersecurity programs, and also involving Springfield Technical Community College, Paragus Strategic IT, the Economic Development Council of Western Mass. (EDC), and other area partners.

Breaking down that long title into its component parts certainly helps to tell the story behind the $250,000 grant awarded recently by the Mass. Technology Collaborative. The program, set to commence early next year, will indeed engage students in Bay Path’s cybersecurity programs in internships with smaller supply chain companies across the region. They will be working with employees at Paragus to undertake cybersecurity assessments of these small manufacturing firms, essentially identifying holes where intruders can penetrate and possible methods for closing them.

And the program will provide needed experience that is difficult for such students to attain, but very necessary for them to land jobs in the field. And it will put more workers in the cybersecurity pipeline at a time when there is a considerable gap between the number that are available and the number that are needed — a gap approaching 9,000 specialists in this state alone. And it will bring more women into a field that has historically been dominated by men and is struggling desperately to achieve diversity.

That’s a lot of ‘ands.’

Which helps explain why the Mass. Technology Collaborative, which was planning to divide $250,000 among several entities, gave that entire amount to Bay Path’s proposal and then found another $135,000 to award to two other projects, said Tom Loper, associate provost and dean of the School of Arts, Sciences and Management at Bay Path, who started with the small supply-chain companies, as he explained the project’s importance.

“These companies have a cyber vulnerability, in many cases, because they don’t have sophisticated systems and they don’t have sophisticated staff that can help create a cyber-safe environment,” he noted, adding that he took what he called a “Western Mass. approach” to the process of applying for the grant.

By that, he meant a focus on smaller businesses, as opposed to the larger defense contractors like Raytheon in the eastern part of the state, and also on schools like Bay Path (and its online component, The American Women’s College) and STCC that are graduating cybersecurity students but struggling to find them real-world experience to complement what they learn in the classroom.

Matthew Smith says that among the many potential benefits from the ‘supply chain’ project is much-needed gender diversity in the cybersecurity field.

Matthew Smith says that among the many potential benefits from the ‘supply chain’ project is much-needed gender diversity in the cybersecurity field.

Thus, the project is a potential win-win-win, with maybe a few more wins in there as well, said Rick Sullivan, president & CEO of the EDC, noting that winners include the individual students at Bay Path, the emerging cybersecurity industry, individual small manufacturing companies, and the region as a whole, which counts its precision manufacturing sector as a still-vital source of jobs and prestige.

“The large customers, the Department of Defense, the Department of Transportation … they’re really requiring, and rightfully so, very strict compliance with the highest cybersecurity techniques out there,” Sullivan said, referring to the requirements now being placed on smaller supply-chain companies. “When they go to the bigger companies, they have to certify their entire supply chains, and we have a lot of companies in this region that feed into that supply chain.”

Overall, the pilot program is a decidedly proactive initiative aimed at helping these smaller companies become aware of the requirements they will have to meet to keep doing business in such fields as defense and aerospace, and then help them meet those thresholds, starting with an assessment of their cybersecurity systems and immediate threats.

For this issue and its focus on technology, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Bay Path-led project, its many goals, and how, if all goes as planned, it will close gaps in cybersecurity systems as well as gaps in that sector’s workforce, while also making the region’s manufacturing sector stronger and more resilient.

Day at the Breach

The project summary for the Bay Path initiative, as authored by Loper and others, does a very effective job of summing up both the many types of problems facing the state and its business community with regards to cybersecurity, and also how this pilot program will address several of the key concerns.

“Entry-level job postings for information security analysts and related cybersecurity positions typically require one to two years of experience in the field, making it challenging for recent college graduates with cybersecurity degrees to fill these positions,” the summary begins. “Bay Path University, a women’s university in Western Mass., will lead a project that will engage 30 undergraduate and graduate cybersecurity students, primarily women, in a full year of challenging experiences as paid interns on cybersecurity auditing teams.

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan

“The large customers, the Department of Defense, the Department of Transportation … they’re really requiring, and rightfully so, very strict compliance with the highest cybersecurity techniques out there.”

“Teams will provide cybersecurity audits at a lower cost for small to mid-sized companies in the region,” the proposal continues. “Undergraduate cybersecurity interns from Bay Path University and Springfield Technical Community College will be assigned to auditing teams led by a graduate intern from Bay Path’s M.S. in Cybersecurity Management Program. Teams will be supervised throughout the audit process by seasoned cybersecurity specialists from Paragus Strategic IT. Through the internship, students will gain insight into the breadth and scope of challenges to the cyber ecosystem and hands-on experience working with employers to implement options for addressing these challenges. Project research and evaluation will be undertaken to confirm that the internship will meet the needs of employers who require prior experience.”

Like we said, that pretty much sums it all up — at least from the student intern side of the equation. In addition to classroom learning, experience in the field is necessary to break into the cybersecurity sector, said Loper, and such experience is difficult to attain. This pilot program will help several dozen students get it.

Meanwhile, the program will address the other side of the equation, the needs of small manufacturers in the supply chain — and this region has dozens, if not hundreds of them, who face many challenges in their quest to become safe (or at least much safer) from security breaches, a pre-requisite for being able to do business these days.

For an explanation, we return to the project summary:

“The majority of cybersecurity breaches occur in smaller supply chain companies, threatening the entire supply chain. Yet these companies often cannot afford the staff or resources to address ongoing needs for ensuring a cyber-safe ecosystem,” the solicitation notes. “Partnering with the MassHire Hampden Workforce Board, the MassHire Franklin Hampshire Workforce Board, and the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, the project will engage 45 small to mid-size supply chain companies in the advance manufacturing sector in western Massachusetts in cybersecurity audits. This strategy will be disseminated as a model for how other Massachusetts higher education institutions with cybersecurity programs can partner with employers and their regional planning teams to strengthen the cybersecurity ecosystem across the Commonwealth.”

Elaborating, Loper said the cost of a cybersecurity assessment (that term is preferred over ‘audit,’ is approximately $1,500, an amount that challenges many smaller companies and is the primary reason why relatively few are done.

The pilot program will pay roughly two-thirds the total cost of an assessment, thus bringing assessments within the reach of more companies, which need to ramp up their cybersecurity systems and methods if they are going to keep doing business with most of their clients.

“Things are starting to change,” said Sullivan. “Cybersecurity and the threats that are out there are real, and this pilot program is an attempt to get ahead of all that, to educate and assess the smaller businesses here, with the next step being to hopefully address those needs so they can stay compliant, because that’s an extremely important part of our economy here.”

Sullivan said the EDC and other agencies will work to build awareness of this program and sign on participants. There has already been interest expressed by many of these smaller manufacturers, and he expects it will only grow as awareness of the project — as well as the need to be cyber secure — grows.

What the Hack?

For the record, and as noted earlier, the Mass. Technology Collaborative came up with another $135,000 to award for other pilot projects to help prepare entry-level cybersecurity job seekers to both meet the needs of employers, and address the growing cybersecurity job crisis.

The first, a $61,178 grant, involves an entity called STEMatch, which proposed a creative collaboration between community colleges, Massachusetts-based cybersecurity service and technology providers, and end-user businesses to expand the pool of potential cybersecurity to under-represented groups and displaced workers. The other, a $74,690 award, was given to the MassHire Greater New Bedford Workforce Board to advance a public-private partnership between the regional workforce boards of Southeastern Massachusetts, Bristol Community College, and the South Coast Chamber of Commerce, and employers in that region. The pilot is designed to help address the lack of skills and work experiences affecting Massachusetts employers and will utilize best practices developed in Israel to create training and work experiences for students in grades 10-12.

“The majority of cybersecurity breaches occur in smaller supply chain companies, threatening the entire supply chain. Yet these companies often cannot afford the staff or resources to address ongoing needs for ensuring a cyber-safe ecosystem.”

Those projects, as well as the Bay Path initiative, drive home the fact that there is not just a gap, but a real crisis when it comes to filling jobs in this emerging and now all-important sector.

“Companies are craving talent,” said Matthew Smith, director of Computer Science & Cyber Security Programs at Bay Path and assistant professor of Computer Science & Cyber Security in the School of Science and Management, as he attempted to qualify a problem that’s difficult to quantify.

That’s because while there are posted positions within this sector — many of them lacking candidates — many of the jobs are not posted, increasing the size of the gap.

Closing it requires not merely people with degrees in Cybersecurity, although that’s essentially a pre-requisite, said Smith, but individuals with what could be called real-world experience on their resumes, he said.

The pilot program will allow students at Bay Path and STCC to put five cybersecurity assessments on their portfolio, which should certainly help open some doors for them.

“Our students won’t just be getting a degree, but also the necessary talent to be contributing to the workforce on day one,” Smith told BusinessWest. “Once they have these assessments and use these tools that are industry standards, they’re going to be thrown right to the top of the application pool, because most of those are search-engine driven, so once they put these key words in there, they’re going to be very marketable.”

This marketability should only help further develop the graduate and undergraduate cybersecurity programs at Bay Path (both traditional and online) that are already seeing explosive growth, said Smith, adding that the industry needs not only workers, but gender diversity as well.

“Only 11% of the jobs in the field are held by women,” he said. “The gender imbalance is very real, and it’s our main mission to provide these women the skills and get them their degrees, so they jump into the cybersecurity workforce and start taking those unfilled positions and close that gender imbalance; many companies are craving diversity in their workforce.”

Securing a Better Future

As noted earlier, the name on this project is long and cumbersome. But it breaks the problem and one possible solution into one highly efficient and effective phrase.

The pilot program will set a high bar when it comes to potential outcomes and goals for achieving progress with the many significant challenges facing the cybersecurity sector and the cyber safety of individual companies.

But a high bar is necessary because the problems are real, they are growing, and solutions are needed.

This program was conceived to not only help this region clear that bar, but provide a roadmap for other regions to follow. If it can do all that, the state’s sizable investment will yield huge dividends.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Better Living Through Apps

Today’s smartphone apps are countless, with uses ranging from entertainment to enrichment. In the latter category, apps help users manage their personal finance, improve their fitness, and give their brains a workout. With that in mind, here are some of the more popular and well-reviewed apps available today.

It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time when everyone couldn’t access virtually all the world’s information in their hand at a moment’s notice. Besides the accumulated knowledge available on a smartphone, myriad apps are available to help users with a wide range of tasks, from managing their finances to tracking their fitness goals to getting an education in various topics.

For this year’s roundup of what’s hot in technology, BusinessWest checks in on what the tech press is saying about some of the most popular smartphone apps.

Money Matters

Smartphones have put a world of personal finance in people’s hands. For example, Intuit’s Mint gives users a real-time look into all their finances, from bank accounts and credit cards to student loans and 401(k) accounts. The budgeting app has attracted more than 20 million users, and it’s easy to see why, says NerdWallet, which identifies the popular service as one of the best budgeting and saving tools available.

“The free app automatically syncs to bank, credit card and investment accounts, pulling data with little effort on the part of the user, and provides free credit-score information. It’s a tool for reluctant budgeters — many people fall into that category, and they’ll be happy keeping tabs on their spending with this service.”

As its name notes, You Need a Budget, or YNAB, “makes no bones about the fact you need to manage your money rather than the other way around,” according to PC World, noting that the popular program, which started life more than a decade ago as manual-input desktop software, is now a subscription-based web app that can sync with users’ financial accounts.

“YNAB includes customizable reports that break down your income and expenses by category, account, and time frame,” the publication explains. “Its greatest strength, however, is its huge community of devout users who freely share their tips on the app as well as the larger enterprise of personal budgeting. The home site is also rich with support resources ranging from help docs to weekly videos to podcasts, all with the aim of helping you get and keep your finances in order.”

For people who find it difficult to track their expenses while trying to reach their savings goals, Wally might be able to help, by giving users a total view of their finances.

“Wally’s interface is simple and easy to navigate, which makes setting your budget and entering expenses a breeze. The app delivers plenty of features without crowding the screen,” Bankrate notes, adding, however, that “what you put into Wally is what you get out of it. The app makes it simple to track your expenses in the hope that you’ll stick to your budget and reach your goals, but it largely depends on the user being diligent in uploading every expense. If you can do that, Wally will be a tremendous aid in helping you reach your savings goals.”

Finally, Acorns is modernizing the old-school practice of saving loose change, rounding up the user’s purchases on linked credit or debit cards, then sweeping the change into a computer-managed investment portfolio.

“Acorns goes after its target market — young, would-be investors who have little money to invest — by waiving management fees for up to four years. College students are ripe for this kind of service and could wind up with a nice little pot of money after four years of rounding up,” Nerdwallet says. “We’re behind any tool that encourages mindless, automatic saving. If you don’t have to think about saving, you’re more likely to do it.”

No Pain, No Gain

What if physical wellness tops one’s priority list? No fear — there are countless apps for that, too, providing users with information on what they’re eating, how to exercise, and how to stay committed to better habits.

One of the most popular nutrition apps is MyFitnessPal, which offers a wealth of tools for tracking what and how much the user eats, and how many calories they burn through activity, explains PC Magazine. “Of all the calorie counters I’ve used, MyFitnessPal is by far the easiest one to manage, and it comes with the largest database of foods and drinks. With the MyFitnessPal app, you can fastidiously watch what you eat 24/7, no matter where you are.”

Added BuiltLean, “MyFitnessPal is not a one-size-fits-all app. Personal diet profiles can be changed to fit a person’s specific needs, whether they are on a strict diet or have certain recommendations from their doctor or dietitian. The program calculates caloric need based on height, weight, gender, and lifestyle.”

Seven-minute workout challenges have become popular for their ease of use, and the 7 Minute Fitness Challenge app is among the more popular apps promoting this activity.

“I like that the video instructions are led by both male and female trainers, and they do a great job guiding you through each exercise via video, audio, image and text,” notes a review in USA Today. “When you upgrade to the paid version, you can also track your weight and visualize your progress, which might help you stay motivated. It also shows a calendar of all of your workouts and lets you see them at a glance. I’ve had this app for three years now, and they do a great job of updating it regularly to add new exercises and respond to user requests.”

Strong offers many features found in scores of other apps — creating custom routines, logging workouts, and tracking weight over time — but does some things that are particularly useful, according to the Verge.

“Each time I start a new workout for my arms or legs, Strong notes how much I lifted the previous workout. It does so automatically, and it’s amazing how such a simple thing has had such a powerful effect on me,” the reviewer notes. “Bumping that number up over time has become a game to me, and it’s pushed me to gently ramp up the difficulty level on my exercise more than anything I’ve tried short of a personal trainer. The first time I successfully did 40 push-ups, I could scarcely believe it. Previous apps I used required me to update my routines manually; automating that has made all the difference.”

What about emotional wellness? There are plenty of meditation apps available for that. For example, “the moment you open the Calm app, you might feel a sense of … calm. Relaxing sounds of falling rain play automatically in the background, but you could also opt to be greeted by a crackling fireplace, crickets, or something called ‘celestial white noise,’” according to Mindful.

The relaxation continues with Calm’s free meditations — 16 in total, lasting from three to 30 minutes. “Like many other apps, you can set a timer for silent meditation or meditate to intermittent bells,” the site notes. “For nighttime relaxation, Calm features four free ‘sleep stories’ — bedtime stories for adults on everything from science fiction to scenic landscapes to help you transition into slumber.”

App-lied Learning

Countless popular apps focus on education and learning for all ages. For kids, the Children’s MD blog recommends Khan Academy, which collaborates with the U.S. Department of Education and myriad public and private educational institutions to provide a free, world-class education for anyone.

“It’s incredibly easy to use, there are no ads, and it’s appropriate for any school-aged child that knows how to read,” the blog reports, noting that Khan Academy started as a math-learning site but has expanded to many other subjects, from art history to economics. “My kids will spend hours looking at computer-science projects that other kids have shared and incorporating ideas into their own programs. The Khan platform combines educational videos with practice problems and project assignments.”

Meanwhile, Brainscape promises to help students learn more effective ways to study with their classmates, while helping teachers track and create better study habits for students. “This app is a very effective way of using and creating flashcards in a digital manner,” Education World notes. “It’s not much different in terms of creating flashcards and learning from them; however, one cool feature is the ability to set up study reminders, which slightly deters you from procrastination.”

However, the publication notes, the paid content “is a bit of a turnoff from the app, but not to worry — it makes up for it with the ability to create your own digital flashcards. Once the cards are created, you can go through the questions and guess the answer before revealing it, just like normal flashcards.”

Meanwhile, Photomath focuses on, well, math, and does it well, Digital Trends reports. “For high-school students who just need a bit more guidance on how to isolate ‘x’ in their algebra homework, Photomath is essentially your math buddy that can instantly solve and explain every answer. Simply snap a photo of the question (you can also write or type), and the app will break down the solution into separate steps with helpful play-by-play, so that you can apply the same principles to the rest of your homework.”

For older students and adults, The Great Courses is one of the more venerable services out there, created by the Teaching Company during the 1990s with the goal of gathering educational lectures on a video format.

“What helped the Teaching Company to grow more and more famous is their strong ethic toward a lifelong learning, meaning that, for them, learning is not only a short-term journey with an end, but more of a lifelong adventure during which anyone should keep gathering knowledge,” Gria.org notes. “Users have access to an entire online digital video library, but they also get other supports, such as CDs and DVDs or hard-copy materials such as workbooks and guidebooks.”

In short, whatever you’re looking to improve in your life, as the famous ad slogan notes, there’s an app for that.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology

Call Forward

Brett Normandeau

Brett Normandeau says hot communication technologies like business texting are providing new opportunities for his nearly 30-year-old company.

Brett Normandeau recalls the early days of the company his father started 28 years ago, when installing telephone systems was simpler, and even voice mail seemed revolutionary. Those days are long gone, and companies, like NTI, that succeed in the world of business communication are navigating some fast-moving waters. But they’re also making work easier and less expensive for their clients, and those are goals that never go out of style.

After eight years in its headquarters on Riverdale Street in West Springfield, Brett Normandeau said he’s looking to move into a smaller space.

Simply put, while his company, Normandeau Technologies Inc. (NTI), is growing — to seven employees at present, after three recent hires — his space needs are shrinking, since technicians are performing more work remotely than ever before.

It’s one example of how NTI reflects the very business trends that impact the services it provides to customers.

The company has been been selling, installing, and servicing telephone systems for 28 years, with voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) technology — which uses the Internet to exchange various forms of communication that have traditionally been carried over land lines — serving as its main service focus over the past decade-plus.

It’s a technology that allows businesses to stay connected even when employees are far-flung — whether they’re working from home or in an office across the country.

Smartphones, however, are changing the game when it comes to phone systems, and newer developments like business texting and mass notification services — two niches Normandeau is particularly excited about — again evolving the way employers and employees communicate.

Kevin Hart is excited too — enough to return last year to the company he worked for many years ago, this time as director of business development.

“We’re looking to grow as a company. There’s a big market right now, and we’re ready for it,” he told BusinessWest, before noting that, as technology has evolved, so have client expectations. “We’re excited that we can do this more efficiently now than ever before. Customers appreciate that. They want their stuff fixed. The industry standard used to be two to three days response time, and now sometimes it’s within the hour.”

When my father started 28 years ago, all we did was run cable and service some telephone systems. That was even before voice mail. I remember that change, and thinking, ‘are we going to take this voice mail on?’ We started doing that, and it just progressed from there.”

So, while the company continues to make a name for itself in the fields of IP telephony, IP surveillance, data cabling, and cloud services, newer technologies continually shake up the game and provide plenty of opportunity for growth.

“What attracted Kevin to come back were the products and technologies we’re offering, and the opportunities he’s got to develop our business,” Normandeau said. “Business texting is huge, and so are emergency notification systems, as well as our traditional cloud and telephone systems, which have been the bread and butter of our business.”

While traditional phone systems are slowly changing over to cloud-based systems, plenty of companies are still behind the curve, he added, noting that such systems offer more integration, functionality, and control — and lower costs — than ever before. In short, it’s a good time to be in this business.

Beyond the Simple Phone

At its heart, Normandeau communications has been trading in phone systems since Ray Normandeau launched the enterprise in Florence in 1990, using money from an early-retirement package offered by a streamlining AT&T.

As Ray built his business on word of mouth and a few loyal customers, his son Brett started working alongside his father, having been licensed as an electrical journeyman shortly before Ray launched the company. He took over as president when his father retired about 16 years ago.

At the start, clients were mainly residential, but gradually, the emphasis turned to business customers, which today comprise the vast majority of the client base.

“When my father started 28 years ago, all we did was run cable and service some telephone systems. That was even before voice mail,” Normandeau said. “I remember that change, and thinking, ‘are we going to take this voice mail on?’ We started doing that, and it just progressed from there.”

NTI’s featured partners include LG-Ericsson, whose iPECS-LIK product further streamlines communication within any size business, from small offices to large corporations with thousands of users, managing all kinds of communication — phone calls, e-mails, texts, etc. — across multiple sites, under a single user interface. It’s a useful product for multi-site organizations, such as banks and their multiple branches.

Kevin Hart

Kevin Hart, standing in front of a phone from a different era, says customer expectations have evolved along with the technology.

Hart said businesses are starting to turn away from internal server networks that need occasional upgrading or replacing.

“Cloud-based systems today are effective, and they work, where 10 years ago they were heavily contingent on bandwidth,” he told BusinessWest. “The second-generation cloud-based systems at this point are not only reliable, but they’re usually cheaper than your current telephone bill.”

Added Normandeau, “it’s an operating expense as opposed to a capital expense, and that’s very attractive to businesses.”

On the business-texting front, Normandeau uses a platform called Captivated. On one side, a company’s contacts text it on a landline or published text number the business promotes. On the other side, a text comes into Captivated and the company handles it or easily transfers it to the right department or individual.

The benefit, Normandeau said, is that people don’t answer phone calls as often as they used to, particularly from numbers they don’t recognize, scared off by the proliferation of robocalls — but they will look at texts, especially if the sender’s number is familiar.

In addition, service providers in all kinds of industries can use the system to reach customers if they’re running late for an appointment, while an auto mechanic working on a vehicle who sees additional problems can quickly get in touch with the customer and start working on the second problem — all of this, again, predicated on people being more likely to respond to texts than calls. “It’s a huge scheduling convenience,” Normandeau said.

In addition, all texts are centralized and saved in the cloud, providing a permanent record that isn’t available when technicians use their personal cell phones to contact customers.

In the realm of mass notification — a related but different technology than regular business texting — Normandeau uses the StaffAlerter platform, which was originally developed originally for the K-12 market, for campus security and other reasons. It uses templates by which messages can be sent out quickly to an entire subscriber list with the touch of a button.

“In an emergency, a schook teacher can automatically send an alert, a mass notification to all staff, that can also tie into their paging system throughout the school, so teachers can lock down the classrooms,” he explained.

But the applications are endless, Hart added, from sending alerts to snowplow drivers during the early-morning hours as a storm looms, to contacting large groups of off-duty nurses or police officers if a shift suddenly opens up. “Before, you’d have to call 30 people to get someone to come over and cover.”

Growth Pattern

Staff growth at NTI includes its new operations manager, Lindsey McGrath, who has 20 years of experience on the carrier side of the business, and Russell Diederich, a technician who spent 30 years at Verizon.

Those are the moves a company that knows it has opportunities to grow, Hart said.

“The lion’s share of companies still use legacy systems,” he noted. “Especially after the economic downturn in ’08 and ’09, they held on to what they had and were reluctant to make changes, but it’s no longer cost-effective to do it that way.”

He said he recently sold a new system to a client he had services 21 years ago, noting that “he got his money’s worth.”

“Truth be told,” Normandeau was quick to note, “a lot of those old phone systems still work. There’s a New England mentality of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’”

That said, he added, there are plenty of opportunities for companies to streamline their communications and save money if they’re willing to look into them.

Especially companies like NTI itself, which is scaling up its staff while downsizing its space because working remotely is the wave of the future.

“It makes far more sense when technicians and sales staff don’t have to come to a central point,” Hart said. “It saves a lot of ‘windshield time’ for sales and service techs when we have this platform. It’s better for customers and better for employees’ quality of life.”

That said, NTI isn’t resting on its laurels, Normandeau said, noting that he takes part in IT networks and conferences with an eye on the next big thing in communications. “I’m going to the IT Expo in Florida next month to check out the latest and greatest,” he said — and bring that knowledge back to a company that has evolved significantly since the days when voice mail was all the rage.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology

Innovation at Hand

10-nintendo-3ds-xlAn on-the-go society demands on-the-go technology, and the array of smartphones, tablets, wristband health sensors, and portable game systems only continues to expand as the major players compete for their share of a growing pie. In its annual look at some of the hottest tech items available, BusinessWest focuses on those mobile devices, which are connecting more Americans than ever, 24/7, to bottomless online resources and, sometimes, to each other.

If it seems like everyone’s on their smartphone these days, well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration.

But not by much.

According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted last November, 77% of Americans (77%) now own a smartphone, with lower-income Americans and those ages 50 and older exhibiting a sharp uptick in ownership over the previous year. Among younger adults, ages 18 to 29, the figure soars to 92%.

The 2017 results won’t be available until later this year, though the percentage is expected to rise even higher, because, well, it’s been on an upward trend since 2011, when Pew first started conducting these surveys. That year, just 35% of Americans reported they owned a smartphone of some kind.

These numbers don’t include plain old cellphones (remember when they seemed like the pinnacle of communications technology?). If those devices are included, 95% of Americans can reach in their pocket to make a call.

But BusinessWest’s annual rundown of the hottest technology — which, this year, focuses on mobile devices — isn’t interested in what was hot a decade ago. Following are some the most buzzworthy new smartphones, tablets, wearable fitness devices, and handheld game consoles, according to tech media.

Smarter — and Bigger

We’ll start, as many lists do this season, with the Samsung Galaxy S8 ($749), which Gareth Beavis at Techradar calls “the best phone in the world for a few reasons, but none more so than the display: it makes every other handset on the market look positively antiquated.

The camera and screen quality are both excellent, he continues, and while the phone is pricey, it’s worth the cost. “With the screen, Samsung has managed to find some impressive innovation at a time when there’s very little to be found in smartphones.”

Eric Walters at Paste added that, while the Galaxy S8 isn’t perfect, it’s the best Samsung has ever made, and an easy frontrunner for phone of the year. “It not only pushes the company’s portfolio forward, but the entire industry with its elegant and futuristic design that prioritizes the display without bloating the size. It’s an impressive achievement of design and engineering, but the quality isn’t surface deep. The entire experience of using the S8 is a rich one.”

One of the hottest trends of the past few years has been a shift to ‘phablets,’ smartphones that boast a much larger screen size than their predecessors. The Google Pixel 2 XL ($849) “improves on the first in lots of ways, but mostly it just looks a whole heap better,” writes Max Parker at Trusted Reviews, praising the device’s modern display and large size in a package that fits the hand well.

“But it’s the software that really wins here,” he adds. “Google’s approach to Android is fantastic, and the Assistant is an AI that’s already better than Apple’s Siri. The camera is stunning, too. It’s a 12-megapixel sensor that takes stunning photos in all conditions, and it’s packed with portrait mode tricks, too.”

Apple continues to be a key player in this realm, too, of course, and while the iPhone 8 Plus ($799) isn’t a big change over last year’s model, it boasts some substantial advantages, notes Mark Spoonauer at Tom’s Guide, and may turn out to be the equal of the iPhone X, to be released in early November.

“The new iPhone supports wireless charging, and its dual rear cameras are dramatically improved,” he adds. “Coupled with Apple’s new crazy-powerful A11 Bionic chipset, those lenses deliver portrait lighting — a new mode that lets you manipulate the light in a scene before and after the fact. The iPhone 8 Plus also delivers excellent battery life, lasting more than 11 hours in our testing.”

For those who prefer full-size tablets, competition continues to be fierce in that realm, with Apple again drawing headlines with the iPad Pro ($599).

“With Apple’s fastest-ever mobile processor, the 10.5-inch iPad Pro is easily the best tablet out there right now,” says Lindsay Leedham in Lifewire, who praised its camera, speakers, 256 GB storage, and True Tone display. “The iPad Pro uses sensors to detect the light in whatever room it’s in to adjust the color temperature of the display to the ambient light. The effect makes the screen look more like paper, and is most noticeable when it’s turned off and the screen switches to a bright bluish light.”

Meanwhile, for those on a budget, the Amazon Fire HD 8 ($79) is the best sub-$100 tablet available, according to Sascha Regan at PC Magazine.

“While you shouldn’t expect to compete against the iPad at this price point, the Fire HD 8 fits the bill for media consumption and light gaming,” she writes, calling its battery life adequare but praising its dual-band wi-fi. “In several tests at different distances from our Netgear router, we often got almost double the speed on the HD 8 than on the Fire 7. That made a real difference when doing things like downloading comics.”

Health and Leisure

Wearable technology, which focuses on tracking health and wellness habits, continues to be popular, although Fitbit, far and away the dominant player in this market, may be reaching saturation in the U.S., while smaller competitors eat away at its global market share, according to International Data Corp.

Still, its new products continue to wow reviewers. “Guess what: Fitbit’s newest tracker is its best one yet,” raves CNET’s Dan Graziano about the Fitbit Alta HR ($149). “For me, it’s all about design. I’ve been wearing the Alta HR for almost a month and plan to continue wearing it even after this review. It’s comfortable to wear and doesn’t sacrifice any features, but what sold me was the seven-day battery life.”

For those looking to spend more, the Fitbit Surge ($249) is a satisfyingly sophisticated piece of machinery,” writes Jill Duffy at PC Magazine. “It not only tracks your steps and sleep, but also alerts you to incoming phone calls and text messages, keeps tabs on your heart rate with a built-in optical heart rate monitor, uses GPS to track outdoor activity, and has much more functionality, especially for runners.”

Looking over the rest of the field, Marko Maslakovic at Gadgets & Wearables finds plenty to like about the Garmin Vivosport ($199), which is waterproof, comes with built-in GPS and all-day stress tracking, and counts reps and sets in the gym.

Though it’s slim and fits snugly on the wrist, “Vivosport has some pretty decent specs under the hood,” he adds. “You’ll get everything you could possibly hope for 24/7 activity tracking, including detailed info on steps, calories, distance, heart rate, activity, floors, and sleep. The GPS makes for more precise distance, time, and pace tracking, along with route mapping for your runs. It will track your swims in the pool, too. This is probably Garmin’s best fitness band yet.”

For technology enthusiasts whose tastes favor gaming on the run over, well, running, the portable-console market continues to thrive, with the longtime market leader making some new waves this year with the Nintendo Switch ($299).

“You can use it as a stationary console with your TV or transform it into a portable gaming device in literally seconds. You will keep all the data and can continue your game on the go,” Slant notes. “Nintendo Switch is light and feels comfortable in hand. It doesn’t cause any wrist strain. It also has a kickstand that folds out from the back of the console, so you can put it on the table.”

The publication also praises its graphics and controllers, but notes that it can be hard to find, lacks long battery life, plays poorly in direct sunlight due to screen glare, and doesn’t boast a wide variety of popular games — yet.

Game variety is no issue for the Nintendo 3DS XL ($199), which boasts two large screens, glasses-free 3D, and some of the best video games available on a mobile console, according to Top Ten Reviews. On the downside, battery life is not ideal.

Still, “thanks to its backwards compatibility with DS games and its huge selection of classic and new games in the Nintendo eShop, the 3DS XL is the best handheld game console available,” the site continues. “The 3DS family has the best games on a mobile category, and the Nintendo 3DS XL is the best handheld console available.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology

Human Touch

NetLogix President Marco Liquori

NetLogix President Marco Liquori

Information-technology solutions providers can easily get lost in a maze of technical jargon, but that’s the last thing Marco Liquori wants to throw at customers. Instead, the technicians at his 13-year-old company, NetLogix, are trained to communicate clearly with clients about their network needs — and then meet those needs, in the background, so businesses can focus on growth, not computer issues. A recent customer-satisfaction report suggests the Westfield-based firm is doing something right.

When Marco Liquori talks about how his IT company, NetLogix, sets itself apart, he doesn’t go right into technical jargon. In fact, he tries to avoid it.

“We have some business savvy; we’re a small business ourselves,” he told BusinessWest. “We take that knowledge to our clients, and, when we do talk to them, it’s not geek-speak, but business recommendations in plain English.”

That’s actually one of the points on a list he’s prepared called “10 Things We Do Better.” Some of them — delving into areas like network security, budgeting for IT services, and the difference between proactive maintenance and reactive response — get into the nitty-gritty of NetLogix’s services, but many are common-sense goals that wouldn’t be out of place in companies in myriad industries.

Take phone calls, for instance. “We answer our phones live and respond quickly,” he said, noting that callers will always get a human being, not a recording or voice mail, and those calls are followed up by a technician within the hour — actually, the average is 12 minutes.

Those touches are part of the reason why a third-party monitoring system, SmileBack, which tracks customer satisfaction for companies, reported that NetLogix scored a 99.4% favorable rating from clients in 2016 — the highest customer-satisfaction score it recorded last year.

netlogixbuilding

“That’s unheard-of in our industry; our competitors are unable to say that,” Liquori said. But it’s not a surprise, he added; it’s a goal the company works toward. “Our techs are incentivized to get high satisfaction scores; they’re compensated not on billable hours, but on efficiency and customer satisfaction.”

Of course, part of achieving high satisfaction scores is actually getting the job done, and this is where a shift in the company’s strategy several years ago has paid dividends and grown the Westfield-based firm — which Liquori describes as a network-management, cloud, and systems-technology integrator providing end-to-end solutions for clients — to a 12-employee operation, and why his plans to keep expanding the company look promising indeed.

Entrepreneurial Itch

Liquori had worked for several other computer and IT companies — “value-added resellers was what we called them back in the day” — but business wasn’t great in the years following the dot-com bust. In 2004, the firm he was working for decided to take his business in a different direction, focusing more on application development. In the transition, Liquori decided to set out on his own — even in that tough economic climate.

“I was on my own for a year, but we grew, slowly and steadily, and we’ve been growing ever since,” he told BusinessWest. “We were originally a break-fix service — when people had issues, they would call us, and we’d go out and fix them.”

During that time, he was developing a book of business focusing on a handful of industries in which NetLogix still specializes today, including insurance agencies, law firms, medical and dental practices, and professional services like accounting firms. But the business model needed tweaking.

We try to understand each client’s business need for technology and address it. We help them overcome challenges they may have with some new technology or new processes.”

“It was a more reactive model. As an issue occurred, we’d go out and fix the problem, and we’d bill for the time we worked,” he explained. “Over the past few years, we transitioned to a managed-services model that’s more proactive in nature. We’re constantly monitoring every system out there for our clients.”

That encompases everything from preventing cyberattacks and monitoring for malicious activity to installing Windows and third-party application updates to managing firewalls and developing disaster-recovery strategies.

“We try to understand each client’s business need for technology and address it,” he said. “We help them overcome challenges they may have with some new technology or new processes.”

Under the old system, the more hours NetLogix’s technicians worked, the more money the company made. But a managed-services model is a win-win for both sides on multiple levels, he explained. “With this, the overall objective is to make IT spending predictable for the client, which helps them them budget accurately. They pay a fee for unlimited support.”

That’s an advantage over many companies that hold fast to a more reactive model, he said, adding that clients like knowing exactly what they’ll be spending — no surprises — and can focus their energies outside the IT realm, on growing the core functions of their business.

defendingagainstcyberattacks

In fact, the fixed price, all-inclusive support plan includes a commitment to resolve any issues that arise in an expeditious manner. Since everything is included in one price, Liquori explained, NetLogix is highly motivated to use its time wisely and bring each situation to a successful completion — and clients aren’t nickel-and-dimed just at the time they need the most help.

“Our goal is to resolve issues as quickly as possible, and make sure their computers are back up fully and functioning normally as soon as possible,” he said.

But he kept coming back to the firm’s security-first approach. NetLogix’s first task is to evaluate a client’s network and explain any potential risks and exposures, and recommend adjustments to protect the network and client data — which is of massive importance for companies that store patient records or financial information, for example.

“With our full suite of multi-layered security in place, none of our clients were affected by the WannaCry ransomware attack — or any other ransomware,” Liquori said, referring to last month’s worldwide attack targeting computers running the Microsoft Windows operating system, encrypting data and demanding ransom payments to free it. Within a day of the attack, more than 230,000 computers in 150 countries were affected.

“We keep all our engineers constantly trained in the latest technology that’s out there, and constantly go to security seminars and network-security training events,” he went on. “Security is the biggest thing, and we stay on top of it.”

Growth Pattern

At the heart of NetLogix’s services, though, is its strategic IT planning. Liquori said he considers himself a strategic partner with clients, listening first and offering solutions second.

“I really enjoy a challenging technical issue and being able to provide a solution that meets a business objective and saves the customer money by improving efficiencies and improving security,” he told BusinessWest. “Customers may be losing sleep over these things. I enjoy the fact that we can take that burden off them so they can focus on their business.”

Liquori said he’s certainly looking to grow beyond 12 employees, and geography isn’t the barrier it used to be in the IT world. “Most of what we do is remote, so we can work in almost any geographic area,” he explained, adding that the firm covers most of the Northeast. But face time is important, too.

“For our managed-services clients, we will engage with them proactively — quarterly or semiannually, depending on the size of the organization. We will sit with the business owner or office manager for strategic IT planning. We’ll talk about areas where they’re weak or vulnerable, get those adjusted and up to speed. It may be making sure they have a backup recovery solution, or a computer may be out of date, so we plan together for updating their computers to help them stay atop the curve.”

And sleep better at night.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology

Banking on Breakthroughs

 

Three UMass Amherst campus research initiatives are among nine projects across the five-campus system that are sharing $735,000 in grants from the President’s Science & Technology (S&T) Initiatives Fund.

Announced by UMass President Marty Meehan, the projects showcase a range of cutting-edge faculty research being conducted across the UMass system, from enhancing clean-energy technologies to developing materials that can autonomously release drugs and precisely target tumors.

The Amherst campus projects include:

• The Center for Autonomous Chemistry, an initiative with UMass Lowell and UMass Medical School, and led by chemistry professor S. Thayumanvanan. The project will develop the molecular design fundamentals for autonomous chemical systems, inspired by the immune system. Fully developed, this will form the basis to develop materials that can autonomously release drugs in response to a specific trigger and precisely target tumors. The grant of $140,000 will be used to facilitate one or more proposed projects to federal research agencies.

• The UMass Unmanned Aerial System Research and Education Collaborative (UASREC), led by Michael Knodler of the UMass Transportation Center. A collaboration with UMass Dartmouth, UASREC is established to advance unmanned aerial systems, also known as drones, to advance interdisciplinary and collaborative research and education. With research already funded through the state Department of Transportation, $100,000 in S&T funds will help position UASREC to become the New England Transportation Center and develop other proposals to federal funding agencies.

• The Center for Smart and Connected Society (CS2), a project with UMass Medical School, is being led by Prashant Shenoy in Computer Science at UMass Amherst and David McManus in Cardiovascular Medicine at UMass Medical Center. The project, as part of the creation of the new interdisciplinary CS2, will focus on the advancement and application of smart and connected technologies. The smart-application domains include smart health and smart living, smart buildings and energy, smart and autonomous vehicles, and smart agriculture. The one-year, $25,000 S&T grant will advance the planning for CS2 and coordination with the medical school’s Center for Data Driven Discovery and HealthCare, which also received an S&T award.

Amherst campus researchers are also involved in another of the funded projects, the UMass MOVEment Research Center, which will explore the mechanics of movement and muscle function. Led by Matthew Gage of the UMass Lowell Chemistry department, the researchers will use the $25,000 grant to plan for a UMass system-wide research center for movement mechanics, focused on understanding movement in the aging population. Faculty from Lowell, Amherst, and the medical school will explore how to combine existing research strengths at all three campuses into a comprehensive program designed to approach research questions in the biomechanics of aging from a molecular to an organismal level.

“These funds empower our faculty, strengthen our research enterprise, and spur breakthroughs that boost the economy and improve lives,” Meehan said. “I’m proud to support our faculty while advancing our critical mission as a world-class public research university.”

Now in its 14th year, the S&T fund accelerates research activity across all five campuses, drives partnerships with state industry, and positions researchers to attract larger investments from external sources to expand the scope of their projects.

Since 2004, the fund has awarded nearly $12 million to faculty, helping to generate additional funding of more than $240 million in areas such as medical devices, nano-manufacturing, clinical and translational science, bio-manufacturing, data science, robotics, and personalized cancer therapy.

S&T awards have also helped to establish important research and development centers across the state, including the Center for Hierarchical Nanomanufacturing at UMass Amherst, the Center for Personalized Cancer Therapy at UMass Boston, the Center for Scientific Computing and Data Visualization Research at UMass Dartmouth, the Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center and New England Robotics and Validation & Experimentation Center at UMass Lowell, and the UMass Center for Clinical and Translational Science at UMass Medical Center.

“Since 2004, these grants have generated a tremendous return on investment to our campuses and to the Commonwealth, strengthening our engagement in key areas, including the life sciences, data science, climate science, and advanced manufacturing,” Meehan said. “This program underscores how critical a strong public research university is to the future of the state.”

The President’s Science and Technology Initiatives Fund is one of three sources of support that help advance the work of faculty members, along with the Creative Economy Initiatives Fund and the Technology Development Fund. u

Sections Technology

Virtual Breakthrough

Dr. Glen Brooks

Dr. Glen Brooks demonstrates how patients can adjust specifications on a screen before viewing themselves with virtual-reality goggles.

Dr. Glen Brooks, who runs a cosmetic-surgery practice in Longmeadow, says he was initially “awed” by a virtual-reality device that allows breast-surgery patients, using 3D goggles, to view their own post-surgery bodies — before the actual surgery — in a virtual-reality space. He says Crixalix, as the technology is known, has helped ease patients’ anxieties, while assuring him they’re getting exactly what they want.

Dr. Glen Brooks understands that preparing for cosmetic surgery can be an anxious time, especially for women unsure of what the end result will look like. Take breast augmentation, for example.

“The biggest fear of the patient is that she’s going too big. But the biggest fear of the doctor is that I have to reoperate because she’s gone too small,” Brooks said, explaining that, while the fear of choosing too large an implant is a common concern, the patient typically discovers she had nothing to worry about.

Still, he added, “I don’t want to do a revision, and the patient wants to get it right the first time. A revision costs someone money, takes time, and has risks. If we can avoid a revision, that’s an excellent outcome.”

If only there were a way for a woman to see the end result, on her own body, before the surgery.

Now there is.

Five months ago, Brooks, who owns Aesthetic Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery, P.C. in Longmeadow, started using Crisalix, a virtual-reality technology developed in Switzerland that allows patients, using 3D goggles, to view their own bodies — not just on a screen, but in a virtual space, as if they were looking down at themselves — exactly how they will look after the breast surgery.

“I was really awed when I watched a demonstration,” Brooks said of his first exposure to the device. “What it allows us to do is create a 3D image of someone’s chest. Then, we can image every single breast manufacturer, any size, any shape implant, and using 3D goggles, the patient can view herself from all angles.”

The result, he said, is a true ‘a-ha moment.’

“The first time they look down and see they have cleavage, they’re like, ‘oh my God.’ It’s an a-ha moment because they’re seeing themselves; it’s a real view of what they look like, not like in a mirror.”

Indeed, Crisalix markets itself as a way for doctors and patients to answer the common question, ‘how might I look after the procedure?’ The goal is to increase patient satisfaction and decrease anxiety, both during the consultation and post surgery.

brooksscreen1art

Crisalix markets itself as a leader in web-based, three-dimensional, virtual-reality simulations for plastic surgery and aesthetic procedures. The company is a spin-off from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, a fast-growing life-science cluster, and the Institute of Surgical Technology and Biomechanics at the University of Bern.

“It gives the patient a chance to see herself,” Brooks said, “and know precisely what she’s going to look like afterward.”

First Steps

But first, the patient sees herself on a screen. Brooks scans her chest and uploads the image to a tablet, where he can help the woman decide on which implant manufacturer to use and which volume and shape to use. They can test out myriad options on the screen, rotating the image to see the change from multiple perspectives.

When both doctor and patient are comfortable with a particular option, the patient dons goggles and enters a 3D, virtual-reality world where she can view herself with the new breast size and shape, and either approve the specifications or go back to the tablet for something else.

Brooks told BusinessWest that breast augmentation, reduction, and reconstruction — Crisalix is effective on all three — are more science than art, a matter of delivering precisely what the patient is asking for. What the VR technology does is help the patient clearly communicate that decision.

“The patient predetermines beforehand what volume they want to have — ‘this is what I am, and this is what I want to be,’” he noted. “It’s a very different type of technological advance because so much of the surgery is objective, but showing patients their size in advance in this way is more powerful than a verbal discussion.

“Most of the other technological advances in this field tend to be things like lasers and non-surgical devices to either remove fat or tighten skin,” he went on. “This is more on the side of patient awareness of outcomes than the actual outcome. It’s the first device that helps on the awareness side so well. There are other imaging systems out there, but this is the first true VR system, and it’s so simple to use.”

The reasons women ask for augmentations varies greatly, Brooks said, but there are a few common categories: early-20-somethings whose breasts are mismatched in size; women in their late 30s or early 40s who want a “mommy makeover,” feeling they’ve lose some volume and gained some sag after having kids; and women of any age who feel more attractive or confident with a different look, to name a few.

“This gives them a really great education in what I need to correct,” he said, adding that the technology is just as effective with reconstructions, typically after mastectomies with cancer patients, in that it can formulate a completely symmetrical look to the patient’s specifications.

According to data from the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the most common cancer among U.S. women after skin cancer, representing nearly one in three cases. Furthermore, the ACS notes, seven out of 10 women diagnosed with breast cancer who are candidates for breast reconstruction are not aware of their options. As a result, fewer than one in five American women who undergo a mastectomy go on to have breast reconstruction.

“Many women are able to get an immediate breast reconstruction performed at the same time as the mastectomy, but that option depends on what treatment is necessary after surgery,” Brooks said. “Patients with breast cancer have numerous options to help them restore a breast to near-normal shape, appearance, and size following mastectomy or lumpectomy.”

Seeing the Future

Crisalix is only the latest option to reach that goal, and Brooks said patients have been pleasantly surprised at what the virtual images tell them. The technology to convert 2D images to 3D virtual reality is currently being used on five continents.

Dr. Glen Brooks says he was “awed” the first time he used the Crisalix technology.

Dr. Glen Brooks says he was “awed” the first time he used the Crisalix technology.

“Months ago, they asked whether I would re-up next year for the software license, and I said ‘absolutely,’” he told BusinessWest. “It makes what I do so much more precise, putting together the right outcome by showing exactly what we’ll provide to patient. It’s absolutely a home run.”

And it’s far from the only potential use of VR in the surgical world. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on others, such as GE’s early-stage testing of technology that will allow a doctor wearing a Rift headset to take a virtual tour of a patient’s brain and perhaps determine how surgery might affect various parts of it, and pediatric surgeons at Stanford University Medical Center who have used a virtual-reality platform from EchoPixel, a California startup, to plan surgeries on newborns missing pulmonary arteries. Another promising use of VR may be in medical training, as universities that can’t afford to store cadavers for education may be able to rely on virtual reality instead.

Even in cosmetic surgery, Crisalix isn’t limited to breast surgeries; the company also touts its use for eyelids, faces, and other body parts, though Brooks says the impact on patients’ expectations isn’t as dramatic.

“For breast surgeries, it’s absolutely fantastic,” he said. “It’s a great feeling, seeing the change for themselves.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology

View to the Future

By Janet Lathrop

With a new cluster of specialized graphics processing units (GPUs) now installed, UMass Amherst is poised to attract the nation’s next crop of top Ph.D. students and researchers in such fields as artificial intelligence, computer vision, and natural-language processing, said Associate Professor Erik Learned-Miller of the College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS).

“GPUs are critical for modern computer-science research because they have such enormous computational power,” Learned-Miller said. “They can address extreme computational needs, sol­­ving problems 10 times faster than conventional processors, in days rather than months. They can run neural network algorithms that are prohibitively slow on lesser machines. Our new network of 400 GPUs is unusually large for an academic cluster.”

UMass Amherst’s new GPU cluster, housed at the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke, is the result of a five-year, $5 million grant to the campus from Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration and the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative last year. It represents a one-third match to a $15 million gift supporting data science and cybersecurity research from the MassMutual Foundation of Springfield.

Deep-learning research uses neural network algorithms to make sense of large data sets. The approach teaches computers through trial and error to categorize data, much as human brains do.

“Deep learning is a revolutionary approach to some of the hardest problems in machine reasoning, and is the ‘magic under the hood’ of many commercial products and services,” said Learned-Miller. “Google Translate, for example, produced more accurate and natural translations thanks to a novel deep-learning approach.”

Andrew McCallum, professor and founder of the Center for Data Science at UMass Amherst, added that “this is a transformational expansion of opportunity and represents a whole new era for the center and our college. Access to multi-GPU clusters of this scale and speed strengthens our position as a destination for deep-learning research and sets us apart among universities nationally.”

He noted that the campus currently has research projects that apply deep-learning techniques to computational ecology, face recognition, graphics, natural-language processing, and many other areas.

The state funds must be used for computing hardware at UMass Amherst, its Springfield Center for Cybersecurity and for terminals at Mount Holyoke College and the UMass Center in Boston, the researchers noted.

Learned-Miller says he and colleagues are now in the first year of the grant, during which about $2 million has been spent on two clusters: the GPU cluster dubbed ‘Gypsum’ and a smaller cluster of traditional CPU machines dubbed ‘Swarm II.’ Gypsum consists of 400 GPUs installed on 100 computer nodes, along with a storage system and a backup system. It is configured with a leading software package for deploying, monitoring, and managing such clusters.

Not only do the researchers hope the GPUs will accelerate deep-learning research and train a new generation of experts, but an important overall goal is to foster collaborations between UMass Amherst and industry. For example, if MassMutual data scientists design a practical problem with high computational needs, they can collaborate with sponsored UMass faculty and graduate students to solve it on the Gypsum cluster.

Janet Lathrop is associate news editor and science writer for the UMass Amherst Office of News & Media Relations.

Sections Technology

The Best Defense

By Sean Hogan

Hogan Technology recently announced it is educating small to mid-sized businesses (SMBs) on password-protection policies to help safeguard their businesses from a variety of threats.

Sean Hogan

Sean Hogan

Password management has become increasingly important, with daily attacks from hackers specifically targeting SMBs. For example, some 6 million LinkedIn account passwords were compromised just few years ago, and the list of breaches has grown dramatically since. Anyone who has been using major social-media sites, like LinkedIn, may have received a notification forcing them to reset their passwords. This is the result of colossal breaches in Internet security, and Hogan Technology has been advising businesses on how to protect themselves.

As the Internet continues to expand in complexity, so do its vulnerabilities. In order for business owners to protect their organizations, they need to utilize best practices in password security. Here are some steps that business owners can take immediately.

1. Never use the same password twice. One of the most effective ways to prevent breaches is also the simplest: never use the same password for multiple accounts. Strong, unique passwords, with symbols, numbers, and capital letters are usually far more effective than anything else.

2. Enable two-step authentication and verification. This is one of the other simple ways a business can instantly upgrade the security of its entire network by simply passing a company policy. Two-step password authentication essentially means that, when a user logs into their account, they’ll be required to confirm that log-in attempt by replying to a text message or phone call. This best practice makes it much harder for hackers to impersonate the true account owner because it requires them to have access to multiple accounts before their hacking attempts can be effective.

3. Stay vigilant against phishing. Hackers have long relied on phishing, a common strategy in which a hacker attempts to defraud an online account holder of financial information by posing as a legitimate company. For example, a hacker will gain access to your account information by purchasing your e-mail and password on the black market, and then they will log into your e-mail and send a desperate note to one of your contacts, posing as you, something like, “John! My transmission just blew, and I’m stranded out here. My phone is about to die. Can you send me $2,000 to this account? I’ll pay you back as soon as I get into town.”

Users need to constantly remain vigilant against attacks like this because they are prevalent and have proven effective over the years. While these are a few proactive steps a company can take in the right direction, they are only a mere shadow of what is possible if they work with a true managed IT services provider. Hogan Technology partners with SMBs that need to secure a competitive advantage with advanced technology and want to remain focused on growing their business, instead of keeping up on the latest in online security.

Sean Hogan is president of Easthampton-based Hogan Technology, a business-technology company that specializes in increasing customer profitability and efficiency through the use of technology; (800) 929-5201; teamhogan.com