Assistant professor Yu Xiao: Making daily activities easier with Extended Reality

Daily life is the ground for the research projects by assistant professor Yu Xiao and her group at Aalto University.
Assistant Professor Yu Xiao. Photo: Mika Vartiainen

Daily life is the ground for the research projects by assistant professor Yu Xiao and her group at Aalto University. One mainstream in her research field is creating innovative mobile applications to solve real life problems, such as crowdsourced indoor mapping, AR-based assistance for mechanical assembly and maintenance, and virtual stroke rehabilitation.

Her other research focuses on solving the performance, energy-efficiency and scalability challenges that the new applications, e.g. video crowdsourcing, autonomous driving, pose to the cloud and network architectures.

She finds it meaningful and exciting to do research that makes normal life easier and happier for people. She notices topics for example when searching for ingredients for dinner in a grocery store or observing how kids assemble Lego at home. She is very much into applied science.

Aid for the health care

Professor Xiao heads the multidisciplinary Wearable Systems Lab. The group develops systems that merge artificial intelligence and wearable technology. One of their visions is how wearable technology can be used as an aid for the health care. They are expecting results in a few years. The wearable tech in whole is expected to grow a huge business in the future, worth tens of billions.

Yu Xiao´s group is focusing in two main directions: on mobile edge computing in research for the EU and for the Academy of Finland. The other focus is on the future of wearable devices and applications. Business Finland has been a key financier for the research on this line.

The group has started a project with HUS, the health care district in the Helsinki area. They are developing and testing together equipment for exercises for the patients, for example to help the patients suffering from a cerebrovascular obstruction, like a stroke. On rehabilitation the patient is wearing virtual equipment such as tailored smart gloves, which guide the performing exercises and monitor how the patient is progressing.

“We are testing a sauna game, which is also a part of the virtual stroke rehabilitation solution. In a virtual sauna stroke patients can exercise. We develop smart garment for motion tracking, compensatory movement detection, and haptic feedback to make sure you exercise in the right way. In the future you sit virtually in a sauna and you can feel the steam – but this will be in use in 3-5 years”, Yu Xiao describes.

One of the biggest teams in Aalto

Professor Xiao runs a team of around 20, one of the biggest in Aalto University. Her group comprises 2 postdoctoral researchers, 10 doctoral students, and 5+ seasonal research assistants.

The group members have different technical backgrounds, including electrical engineering, computer science, mechanical engineering, mathematics, interaction design, and textile design.

According to Yu Xiao the group’s work starts from recognizing everyday problems and focuses on solving problems with innovative solutions that combine advanced AI, XR, sensing and cloud computing technologies and consider end users’ needs and acceptance of technology. The diversity in group members’ background has proved to be valuable and helpful for our research work.

“We are still looking for students to join the group. It is not easy to find qualified students. We get 50-100 applications a year. I interview maybe 5-6 of them and finally I have 1-2 who fulfill the requirements and fit the group”

To find the best researchers, Yu Xiao does not rely on one interview, but asks them to plan their research and discusses it with them. She also wishes to maintain it as a multidisciplinary group and encourages for example students with design background to join.

Most of the applicants are foreigners”, Yu Xiao explains. Her group is very international. Take doctoral students as example, only two are Finnish, the others come from various countries around the world, including from China, Brazil, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Vietnam.

Impact on the future

Yu Xiao came to Finland in 2007.  She spent a year in the USA in 2012, but decided to come back to Aalto, and she hopes to stay in Finland.

“I like it better here compared with the USA. I like the environment at the Aalto University. Here I have a lot of freedom to explore my interests and to work something that I believe would bring high impact to the society. We don´t have only traditional KPIs like number of publications or the amount of external funding. It is also quite easy to build collaboration with other researchers and the support provided by the university is excellent”, says Yu Xiao.

Yu Xiao got interested in programming as a teenager, because the field was very popular in China in the 1990's. It was very difficult to get into a university to study computer science, but she got in the year 2000 and completed her bachelor's and master's studies. Her supervisor encouraged her to study abroad. She got interested in Finland, because Nokia had such a good reputation as the largest telecom manufacturer at that time.

“Regarding the competence in general, I think critical thinking is the most important one. It helps me identify research problems through observation and analysis and be open-minded to multidisciplinary collaboration for solving complex problems together. I think entrepreneurial mindset is also useful for academic researchers, especially the ones doing applied research”, Yu Xiao points out.

“Technically, I am doing experimental system research. Besides basic skills like mathematical modeling and optimization, measurement and analysis, and software development, I often need to learn new techniques from different domains, depending on the problems I am trying to solve.”

Her background was in networking and cloud computing, but she started to learn computer vision in 2012 and then machine learning more recently, when she started to work on problems like mapping, localization and human activity recognition. She also learnt about human-centered design when she started to work on AR/VR and smart garment.

“I have been enjoying learning new techniques through practice. This makes my work a lot more joyful”, she says.

Multilingual family

Yu Xiao likes her job in Aalto and living in Finland. She lives with her family close to the sea in Lauttasaari, which is called The Island of Happy People. She has two children with her Finnish husband, a 7-year-old daughter and a 1.5-year-old son. Yu Xiao does not speak Finnish and her husband knows just a few words of Chinese, so their family language is English. Yu Xiao speaks only Chinese for the children, because that is a language, they cannot practice anywhere else.

Their daughter has just started school in a Finnish-German bilingual program. Before that she stayed in a Swedish-speaking daycare and pre-school for 6 years. She is already fluent in four languages and trying to learn the 5th one. The little boy still goes to kindergarten.

“Finland is very safe for family life. Children can go out safely and walk to school. In China parents are more worried about things, here life is more relaxed”, says Yu Xiao.

“Foreign students and researchers often ask me how it is to work as a woman in a high position in a Finnish University. I tell them about the Finnish day care system and maternity leaves, which are much better than in most other countries. I know many mothers in Finland take at least one year long maternity and parental leaves. As a researcher I do not want to leave my job for too long time, since the field is developing so fast. With each child I still managed to take a maternity leave of 7 months”, Yu Xiao says.

“They also ask about how the Finnish school system is, and will their children be fine in the school. I always tell them to follow my path. As a female professor I also think that the students talk with me more than with my male colleagues. We also discuss other things than research and that is useful also for the theme. Female students and researchers often have good points for the everyday situations they have experienced themselves.”

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