In SBS’s Simon Reeve’s Big Life Fix, designers and inventors work together to create ingenious solutions to everyday problems. The first episode features Australian inventor Haiyan Zhang, who changes the life of a young woman living with Parkinson’s disease with the Emma Watch.
We talked to Zhang about how she created the watch, the thrill of creating technology that actually helps people and what it’s like to be a woman and minority working in science…
You’re currently a Director at Microsoft Research, Cambridge. Can you tell me a little more about what this involves?
I lead a team inventing technologies for new kinds of play experiences called “Connected Play”. We’re exploring how to create magical experiences between kids, their toys and the digital world.
You’re originally from Australia. How did you wind up at Cambridge?
I left Melbourne in 2000, after finishing uni and working for a year as a software engineer. At first it was just to see the world and explore what was out there – 17 years later I’m still exploring. I’ve lived in Canada, Italy, San Francisco and have called the UK home for the last 9 years.
As a kid, were you always inventing things? Was it always your plan to go into the sciences?
I did my undergraduate degree at Monash University studying Computer Science and it was just something I fell into as I’d always been into technology and computers. I worked as a software engineer for a few years and then wanted to expand my horizons into design and thinking about what products we should be creating. I did a Masters degree in Design in Italy, which covered everything from designing products and services to tinkering with electronics.
Is it difficult being a woman in the world of computer science? Are there moments when you feel like you don’t get the same opportunities and respect as your male colleagues?
I’ve faced challenges both as a woman and an ethnic minority in the working world, I’ve also found those challenges shift slightly across continents. It’s not easy but in a 20-year career I’ve figured out how to just get on with things.
I remember in my high school years in Melbourne there was always an emphasis on the equality of genders in the workplace and it instilled in me a sense that I would be able to achieve anything and there would be no glass ceilings. I continue to operate with that mindset and I work very hard to draw attention to situations where that is not the case.
How do we encourage more women into a career in sciences? Is it about grants? Scholarships?
It’s a combination of all those things. We need to encourage girls from a very young age that they can do anything and pursue any career. Discrimination and moments where someone is put off studying science comes in many forms and at different points when someone is growing up. We as a society, as parents, as siblings, really need to nurture the mindset that girls can do anything.
Tell me about the Emma Watch. Can you explain in the most basic terms exactly how it works?
The Emma Watch sends vibration signals through her wrist and the signals disrupt and dampen the errant tremor signaling going to her hands.
When you begin creating a product like that was it more research based or a case of trial and error?
It was a combination of design and engineering. I did a great deal of research reading academic papers and medical journals on the topic. At the same time, I spoke with Emma and others with Parkinson’s to gain some insight into what specific challenges they faced and what ‘workaround’ solutions already existed, things like scissors that are easier to grip, a lid for your drinking glass with a straw so you don’t spill your wine.
What was the key to unlocking the science behind the watch?
I’d filled my head with a number of research papers, looking at ways to stimulate the brain in order to disrupt the tremor signals, and Emma and I visited Parkinson’s UK to look at the products out there that people were using to actually support them in their day-to-day lives.
One thing lying at the end of the table was a little digital metronome, the kind that musicians use to keep time. I asked what it was for and was told that some people with Parkinson’s suffer from freezing gait which is when their legs freeze mid-stride and they can’t seem to control them to move. In these moments the person will take out the metronome and turn it on and somehow the ticking sound will distract their brain into gaining control of their legs again. This was really a fascinating insight into what’s happening when someone’s brain is misfiring as a result of Parkinson’s and got me to start thinking about distraction or brain hacking as an approach.
The look on your face when it actually works - when Emma writes her name - is just amazing…
It’s really wonderful to see Emma use the device. I was totally blown away and continue to be awestruck every time I see her using it. I thought it would help but didn’t think it would work so well. It’s not often I get to see the impact of my work on a person and have that change the person’s life. It’s a really amazing opportunity… I feel very privileged.
What will happen with the product now? Are you planning to develop it further?
I’m talking with a neurology research team in London to do some trials with more patients, in order to validate the effects of the device and to scope out what range of people it might help. I don’t want to venture into unknown territory, but we have hopes it might treat other neurological conditions.
What’s next for you?
Shepherding further research on the Emma Watch. I also have a day job where we’re inventing some cool new technology that I’m trying to get out on to store shelves.
In general, just trying to make things in the world and have those things make a difference.
Simon Reeves Big Life Fix airs Mondays at 8.30pm on SBS.
Missed the first episode? Watch it right here: