At this year's NYC Media Lab demo day, Cornell Tech students presented products that they created in response to a challenge from this year's sponsor, Verizon: push the boundaries of what's possible in the fields of the Internet of Things (IoT), conversational commerce, and augmented and mixed reality.
According to Andrew Mendez, Technion-Cornell Dual Master's Degrees in Connective Media '18, "[This] program was an amazing opportunity to engage with Verizon as they try to innovate in the mixed reality space. I learned a lot about the state of the industry and the problems that must be solved." Mendez is also co-founder of the product Blend, a mixed-reality app.
The event marks the culmination of the Verizon Connected Futures Prototyping and Talent Development Program which began in January of this year. It is run in partnership with NYC Media Lab, a nonprofit consortium connecting educational institutions with corporate technology firms. During the program, graduate students are matched with industry mentors and form teams to create products which solve a challenge set by the sponsor. 2017 was Verizon's second year as sponsor.
“For us, it's a give first mentality—we want to be supportive of innovation happening on local campuses," said Christian Guirnalda, a program mentor and director at Verizon's open innovation labs, adding, “This is the new Verizon."
The nation's largest telecommunications firm hopes that through these students, they can keep up with a pace of change that's ever accelerating. In a presentation video, the Verizon team stated, "We recognize, even as a Fortune 50 company, that we need additional help." Sometimes it takes fresh eyes and sharp minds to spot the next big thing, and this year's eleven teams did not disappoint.
The team behind Blend, including Mendez and his co-founders Iris Qu, Parsons Master in Fine Arts '17, and Jasmine Oh, Parsons Master in Fine Arts '17, presented their mixed reality app, which allows companies to append virtual animations and coupon offers to otherwise regular physical products to enhance the experience.
The fact that Blend and many other teams are comprised of students mixed from a variety of programs is deliberate. NYC Media Lab hopes that by combining diverse teams from educational institutions like Cornell Tech, New York University, Parsons, and more, they will enhance the creativity of what is produced.
Iris, another team made of Cornell Tech and Parsons students, applied their backgrounds in the media industry to build an IoT screen projector designed to liberate consumers from the confines of their desktop or TV. The students, Tosin Adeniji, Johnson Cornell Tech MBA '17, Lydia Li, Master in Operations Research and Information Engineering (ORIE) '17, and Priyal Parikh, Parsons Master in Fine Arts '17, envision Iris devices that will allow users to walk from room to room with video content following them, projected onto any suitable surface.
Reflecting on what prepared her for today's presentation, Adeniji mentioned her current graduate program. "What I've really loved about [Cornell Tech] is that it's great to have academic folks telling you where tech is going and it's even better to also be around those actually practicing it in the field."
Field experience can be important when identifying real problems to solve. Another product, Felix, was born out of its founders' frustration with conferences. It helps event attendees eliminate business cards and the unproductive time spent hunting for the right connections. Built by Clara Shim, Master in Computer Science '18, and Chumeng Xu, Technion-Cornell Dual Master's Degrees in Connective Media '18, Felix arms users with connected gloves that exchange information with a simple handshake.
Other projects demonstrated at the event included a virtual reality game that teaches kids to spot fake news, a wearable, haptic kneepad to coach cyclists, and a visual shopping chatbot. Nearly all these solutions were built using ThingSpace, an open source platform created by Verizon, and many are run on Verizon's 4G network.
From this deep well of investment spring occasional winners. Last year's program gave birth to three companies: Svrround, which has since taken on additional outside funding, Vidrovr, which has since completed the Techstars NYC program, and Teleobjects, which has since entered NYC Media Lab's accelerator, The Combine.
The journey for this year's students is far from over. Adeniji and Li from team Iris have both accepted offers to work at Verizon, on the innovation lab and data science teams respectively. Programs such as this one give organizations like Verizon a powerful school-to-industry pipeline for top talent. his year at least six participants will take job offers, up over last year's two. Several more are considering joining Verizon's accelerator program, where graduate students leverage their experience directly into careers.
According to Mendez of Blend, “Cornell Tech has been key to my career path. It's connected me to opportunities such as the Verizon Challenge, offers an education not taught at other schools, and has really opened up a universe of possibility."