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Ara Announces BARJ – Joint Digital Development At Bosch, Ara, OTH Regensburg And Jade Software

On the 27th of July, Ara Institute of Canterbury Ltd announced the launch of a formal collaboration and research partnership with global brands Bosch, Jade Software and Regensburg University.

Lead Researcher Amit Sarkar, a senior tutor within the Enterprise and Digital Innovation Department at Ara, formed the common link between all of the global organizations.

“I wanted to look at how ‘digital assistant’ technologies can be developed for and made use of by big companies,” says Amit, who was working at Jade while on sabbatical from Ara. He then reached out to a contact at Bosch with a video compiled with Jade colleagues and a case study for a ‘digital barista’ that had been previously developed at Ara with Jade. This convinced the global appliance behemoth to team up with Ara, Christchurch-based software company Jade and another academic partner, Professor Markus Westner from OTH Regensburg .

“It’s all about collaboration and innovation; Ara has a strong partnership with OTH Regensburg, and they have a working relationship with Bosch, while Ara also has an exceptional working relationship with Jade. During my sabbatical there, I was tasked with finding innovative opportunities and implementing them.

So I reached out to my associate in Germany - I have previously worked with them on various projects including teaching - so they knew our research capability, and Bosch came back almost immediately, saying “yes, we’re already working on computer vision, text-to-speech, AI and augmented reality – but not from the concept you’re showing us!”

The concept at the heart of ‘the Internet of Things’ is the way in which humans interact with electronic systems and objects. The Applied University of Regensburg is already offering courses in Human Computer Interaction and IoT from within its vast Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Science, and Bosch is “constantly developing new ways of applying connectivity that will make all aspects of life easier.” The multinational company also now offers the ‘Bosch IoT Suite’, a software platform which has the capability to connect more than 10 million devices including vehicles, accessways and environmental sensors, as well as being home to Bosch Software Innovations, which has created more than 250 international IoT projects.

Not to be outdone, the School of Enterprise & Digital Innovation at Ara has an impressive track record of technological inventiveness, often working with start-up tech businesses based out of Te Õhaka, an innovation partnership based at the Christchurch city campus. In 2019, Amit and Eduard Liebenberger, then Director of Technology at Jade Software, managed to interest second-year Bachelor of Information and Communication Technology student Chris Wordsworth in the idea of a ‘digital barista’. The project saw Chris and some similarly-intrigued local industry partners taking an ordinary coffee machine and turning into an internet-enabled ‘smart’ coffee-making maestro, able to respond to individualised voice-activated orders.

During the following summer break in 2019-2020, Chris and three other students with help from Amit, Jade and Callaghan Innovation Grants, worked with Jade to further develop ‘Bella’ the digital barista’s capabilities and also create intelligent car parking solutions. “When my classmates came on board for the summer, we developed the augmented intelligence side of things and the user interface, which involved working with computer vision and AI chatbots” said Chris.

After these experiences, it was perhaps inevitable that Jade Software’s Chief Innovation Officer John Ascroft would become a champion for the creation of the wider partnership, with Jade taking the lead in technology development while Bosch focuses on integrating it with appliances from their product line – “waiting to see the magic” as Amit terms it.

Nick Leslie, who worked on the ‘Bella’ project, is one of the students tapped by Ara to take part in the BARJ initiative, along with Johanna Bartko, a Master's students from OTH Regensburg. As the technology development will be undertaken in Christchurch, Johanna will be joining the Ara team virtually.

“She will be shadowing and collaborating with us, doing some development, testing, and some UX interfacing work,” says Amit, who notes that three students have already visited Ara from Regensburg during last semester as part of the ongoing student exchange relationship which dates from 2017, when Amit was in Regensburg both teaching and researching.

Amit is hoping to eventually develop a working digital assistant, imagined as a LCD screen that will incorporate an avatar with whom the customer can interact. “The technology will change speech to text, then translate that into the hardware’s language. Users can therefore tell the device, ‘I want to increase brightness by 50% or find a recipe of tandoori chicken’ for instance, which would be helpful when working with kitchen appliances as your hands can get pretty messy!”

Amit sees a no-hands capability An important in a number of ways. “I think the contactless regime, begun under COVID-19, helped to raise interest in this kind of technology - it could be used in restaurants and within homes – anywhere people don’t want to unnecessarily touch too many surfaces. And it is also going to revolutionize the disability market space because if someone can't manually control the device, they can easily use this by talking to them.”

He goes to say that “The larger scope of this project is to ultimately create a kind of a centralised connection hub, where multiple appliances in households can all be controlled through the hub, via a mobile phone or other means. But the immediate focus is creating digital interaction capabilities for individual devices or appliances, which will act as the embodiment of the Bosch brand—a presence that will live and breathe Bosch and help countless people.”

For Ara students, the BARJ collaboration represents yet another means by which they can access professional work experiences while studying. “For every iteration of the project, students will be involved, doing work-integrated learning. All of our future students will be able to take advantage of stronger industry partner relationships, through having Bosch working with us as well as Jade. Plus our academic relationship with the Applied University of Regensburg will also be enhanced.”

The New Zealand Government recognizes the value of international collaborations such as BARJ, identifying Germany as a key research and innovation partner, and Amit has already been approached to document existing relationships and research with German institutions and organizations.

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