On the move

Cambridge and Nokia Bell Labs are working together on next-generation mobile technologies.

PhD students Lorena Qendro (left) and Andrea Ferlini with Nokia Bell Lab's earable prototype.

PhD students Lorena Qendro (left) and Andrea Ferlini with Nokia Bell Lab's earable prototype.

If our eyes are the windows to our souls, our ears may prove to be the gateway to our minds and bodies. At least, that's what a partnership between Cambridge University and Nokia Bell Labs believes.

A new generation of devices worn in the ears - aka 'earables' - has the potential to transform our mental and physical health. And thanks to a generous donation to the University from Nokia Bell Labs, it is just one of the mobile computing projects these two titans of innovation are working on together.

Many of us spend more and more time plugged into headphones. What if those little pieces of plastic could be doing more than streaming music into our ears? What if they could be also be making us healthier and happier? 

Professor Cecilia Mascolo explains why this technology - and others like it - are so important: "In the future, we see earables supporting people with things like interaction disabilities, memory impairment or mental health issues as well as being used to diagnose and monitor disease and infections."

For Nokia Bell Labs, this is an area of such huge potential that it has developed a new platform for 'earable' technologies. In the same way that Apple - amongst others - encouraged a community of developers to create apps for it, Nokia Bell Labs has opened up its platform and prototype to promote rapid innovation.

And it seems to be working. Cambridge was an early adopter and is now one of around 70 universities working on the platform, with a focus very much on the data side of things: how to process and understand the information coming out of the earables and how to make mobile computing systems more efficient and - critically - more secure.

But working on earables is only one aspect of their collaboration. In 2018, thanks to Nokia Bell Lab's donation, the University was able to establish the Centre for Mobile, Wearable Systems and Augmented Intelligence under the joint leadership of Mascolo and Professor Alastair Beresford. Its broad aim is to harness advances in mobile systems, security, new materials and AI to underpin a new generation of technologies with a whole host of applications.

Devices worn in the ear, on our wrists or incorporated into our clothing are, the team believes, certain to play an important part in the healthcare delivery of the future. But there's still a huge amount of work to be done on the 'building blocks' before these technologies become part of our everyday lives.

In this regard, the Centre is making progress in a number of different areas, from how to combine inputs from multiple sensors to gaining a better understanding of how people interact with these new devices.

Ultimately, however, these devices will only work if their security - and their users' privacy - can be guaranteed. Beresford's research interest in this area, therefore, is mission critical and is already having a significant impact. His team recently identified a key vulnerability in smartphones which the manufacturer has now taken steps to address.

The close relationship between the Centre and Nokia Bell Labs has also encouraged researchers to find and explore other areas of mutual interest such as how wearable consumer tech could have an important role to play in detecting - and therefore helping to manage - certain types of compulsive behaviours such as nail-biting, skin-picking, fidgeting and hair-pulling.

The secrets of

Back in 2015, when the world-famous network of Bell Labs was acquired by Nokia (from Alcatel Lucent), it had a very strong foothold in the US and Europe but no UK presence.

Dr Fahim Kawsar, Founding Director of Pervasive Systems Research at Nokia Bell Labs in Cambridge saw this as a gap which, at his instigation, the company sought to rectify.

By 2016, Nokia Bell Labs had set up shop on Cambridge’s West Cambridge campus to focus on three core areas: materials, systems and data science. Cambridge had been top of Kawsar's list for a number of reasons:

"Of course, it's a wonderful place to live and work but it's much more than that. Being here means we can tap into Cambridge's talent pool and recruit people who have been trained in top-notch labs by top-notch researchers.

It also helps us make breakthroughs that mean we can leapfrog our competitors."

At around the same time that Nokia Bell Labs was contemplating a Cambridge office, Kawsar and Mascolo - with a shared interest in mobile systems - were starting to run into each other at conferences. Their collaboration naturally intensified when Kawsar moved to Cambridge and culminated in 2018 in the foundation of the Centre for Mobile, Wearable Systems and Augmented Intelligence.

The importance of IP and the power of proximity

For both Mascolo and Kawsar, the philanthropic model of collaboration is hugely liberating. For Kawsar: "It covers all the IP issues and logistical constraints which can otherwise strangle research. We don't have to worry about any of that and can just get on with it."

Another advantage of the donation is that it allows the Centre to be flexible in how it funds its PhDs and postdoctoral researchers which means it can make the money stretch further. At the moment, the Centre is fully or partially supporting eight early career researchers and is in the process of recruiting more.

Proximity is also key. Or at least it was, until the coronavirus pandemic intervened. Nokia Bell Lab's 20-strong team is - under normal circumstances - a stone’s throw away from the Centre for Mobile, Wearable Systems and Augmented Intelligence on the West Cambridge campus. In pre-COVID-19 times, the Cambridge PhD students would regularly shuttle between the two buildings as would those members of the Nokia Bell Lab's team with Visiting Scholar status - and access cards. 

For Kawsar, being able to work alongside each other is an essential part of the process, and something he is very much looking forward to returning to.

"Collaboration only happens when two people are physically next to each other and have the opportunity to talk in person. It’s a fact: it just wouldn’t happen if we were based somewhere else. Skyping is not the same thing as being in the same room and debating about your passion.”    

Mascolo agrees: "Being so close to each other has definitely had an impact on how we innovate, and not only in terms of ideas. Having an industrial partner nearby working on prototypes has helped us evolve our ideas and speed up development."

Another dimension of the collaboration both Kawsar and Mascolo consider to be hugely important is the connections it forges between the students and the company. From Nokia Bell Labs' perspective, it is an opportunity to recruit some of the UK's rising stars. For the students, it gives them first-hand experience of working in industry which means they are able to make more informed career choices.

But, ultimately, successful academic-industrial collaborations are all about the people.

"I've been involved in a number of industrial collaborations over the years," Mascolo says, "and, in the end, it's all down to the chemistry.

Note: the interviews for this article and photography took place earlier this year, before the outbreak of COVID-19. Photo credits: Stillvision Photography Cambridge