Tom Chau

Alumnus, Systems Design Engineering (PhD ‘98)

Deep in the heart of Canada’s largest children’s rehabilitation hospital, Tom Chau is giving disabled children a hand.

Tom, who earned his PhD in Systems Design at Waterloo in 1998, leads a team of researchers at Bloorview Kids Rehab in developing creative devices to help improve the lives of injured or disabled kids, who often struggle with so-called adaptive technologies. “We want to move the onus from individuals adapting to technology to the technology adapting to individuals,” Tom says.

A case in point: a “smart” prosthetic hand that gives children with amputated hands and forearms better fine-motor control. A miniature microphone embedded in the hand captures the vibrations of the arm’s contracting muscles. Another device interprets the muscle’s sounds, telling the hand to open, close, or grasp as a normal hand would.

Tom has also created a virtual musical instrument for kids with limited upper body movement. The kids see themselves among large colourful dots on a TV screen. Each dot represents a musical note, and when a dot is “touched” by an on-screen hand, arm, or head, a computer plays the note aloud. Kids can play from a score or create their own music.

Families who have benefited from Tom’s creations often write or call to express their gratitude. But this is only one reason he continues. “I know there are always unmet needs that are waiting to be addressed,” he says.

Abridged from the University of Waterloo Magazine.