A fix for life

Haiyan Zhang’s flair with technology is helping to transform individual lives.

BY KATE STANTON

Haiyan Zhang changed someone’s life for the better last year. She sat alongside Emma Lawton, a 33-year-old graphic designer with Parkinson’s disease who suffered hand tremors so severe that she struggled to write or sketch, and watched as Lawton successfully drew a straight line.

The tool that allowed her to do this was the “Emma Watch”, a stylish-looking, wrist-worn device invented by Zhang, a 39-year-old innovation director at Microsoft Research. The device sent vibration signals through Lawton’s wrist to disrupt the tremor signalling going to her hands.

As Lawton wrote her own name for the first time in years, both women were emotional. They embraced, Lawton in tears and Zhang clearly moved by the impact her work had made.

“It’s just refreshing to be able to really focus in on a specific issue in someone’s life, and make a fix for it,” Zhang says.

Zhang was recruited for the series by a friend, and is filming a second season. Big Life Fix pairs designers and engineers with people who have a pressing problem, often related to a chronic illness or disability. It’s the job of these inventors – dubbed “fixers” on the show – to find a solution to the problem.

For Zhang, who leads a team of engineers focused on innovation at Microsoft Research, Cambridge, it presented a rare opportunity.

“It’s a little bit different from the general innovation process,” she says. “Generally when we think about innovation, we’re trying to reach a larger audience… It’s been great to work one-on-one and develop solutions that I can see firsthand being used and making a difference in someone’s life.”

She’s now collaborating with researchers in London to see whether the “Emma Watch” can help more people.

Zhang has always had a knack with computers. As a child in the early 1990s, she was already spending hours in front of a screen, discovering how she could wield technology as a tool.

I feel like there’s still a long way to go in terms of female engineers really being included, and really being treated equally in the workplace.

“My dad was actually a lecturer at Monash in the electrical engineering department, and since I was about 12 years old I’ve been playing on his computers, doing simple coding and various things on the internet,” she says.

She obtained an undergraduate degree in computer science at Monash, then worked as a software engineer for two years before deciding to work overseas.

“I decided to travel and see the world a bit more,” she says.

Zhang left Australia for Canada in 2000, and has lived abroad ever since, working in Toronto, Italy and San Francisco before moving to the UK.

Landing in London about five years ago, she began working for Microsoft’s Xbox studio, running an innovation team responsible for creating new play and gaming experiences – a role she describes as “a lot of fun” – before moving into research two years later.

“Microsoft Research is kind of the [research and development] arm of Microsoft, so there’s a lot of room to think about new technologies and how those technologies apply to people’s lives,” she says, adding that virtual and augmented reality and artificial intelligence are two fields that will play an increasingly larger role in everyday life as further innovations are made.

Asked whether she has experienced much change as a woman working in a maledominated industry for almost 20 years, Zhang says she’s “kind of used to being one of a few women in the room – or sometimes the only woman in the room”, but believes it no longer needs to be that way.

“I feel like there’s still a long way to go in terms of female engineers really being included, and really being treated equally in the workplace,” she says.

“But I’m really encouraged by this current movement of really talking about women in technology, and bringing more awareness to being more inclusive.”

Emma Lawton was 29 when she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. As a graphic designer, drawing is a huge part of her life but over the past three years the tremor in her hands has grown more pronounced stopping her from writing and drawing straight lines. View Haiyan testing the ‘Emma Watch’ online at youtube.com/watch?v=R6rAlFYDffQ