Toronto startup ModiFace invests $4M to train U of T students in augmented reality

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Toronto startup ModiFace invests $4M to train U of T students in augmented reality

Imagine a touch-screen phone you don't have to touch.

The phone's camera tracks your eye movement around the screen. You just look at a button instead of tapping it.

"Gaze-tracking" isn't here yet, but could be very soon. It's just one of many new possibilities in the emerging field of augmented-reality technology (AR).

But to achieve those possibilities, tech companies need new talent, and that's why University of Toronto professor and high-tech entrepreneur Parham Aarabi announced a $4-million investment in U of T on Tuesday.

"The biggest limitation to how much we can grow is our ability to recruit and find augmented-reality engineers," Aarabi said.

Aarabi is the founder and CEO of ModiFace, a Toronto-based augmented-reality startup. His investment will fund student internships and research at U of T's engineering department.

AR is closely associated with artificial intelligence (AI). It involves computer-generated changes to images of the real world, such as Snapchat filters or the popular Pokemon Go smartphone game.

ModiFace specializes in facial visualization and skin analysis, which has medical applications and is used commercially by cosmetic companies.

Aarabi, a U of T alumnus, says that AR requires multidisciplinary expertise in computer vision, machine learning, computer graphics and software engineering.

"Finding engineers who are experts in all of these domains is actually quite difficult. The university provides an excellent academic base, but we often find they (students) need more hands-on experience," Aarabi said.

Fourth year computer science student Bronwynne Dawes, 21, a new intern working with ModiFace, is happy she can stay in Toronto.

"Going through school at first, a lot of people were telling me, 'You're going to have to go to the [United States] to do what you want to do.' And I was sure I wanted to stay here. I love Toronto. So the fact that I have this opportunity here is great."

Another student intern, Zoe Wang, says the opportunity has opened her eyes to AR and its potential applications in areas like healthcare and marketing.

"I think it's a really cool field," Wang said.

Aarabi, who got his Ph.D. at California's Stanford University, says the approach of a startup entrepreneurs investing in their alma maters to help generate new tech talent is common in the United States.

He hopes his investment will help U of T retain top engineering students, many of whom leave for opportunities in tech hotspots like Silicon Valley, and possibly lead to the creation of a centre for AR studies.

"In the future we hope there will be one. The steps we're taking today might be the first to make that happen," he said.

Tuesday's announcement follows the creation of U of T's Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence, made possible with funding from the federal government in the 2017 budget.

Shamitra Rohan, a fourth-year computer engineering student, is also taking part in a ModiFace internship and is happy to see more tech opportunities in Toronto.

"I'm looking forward to staying here so it's a great thing there is a lot of investment happening and a lot more startups here," Rohan said.

"I think AI in Toronto is going to be a big thing in the future."