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Working in the Dark

As an undergraduate student I have been taught that science is conducted using the scientific method: you have a question, you research the topic and form a hypothesis, and then you perform an experiment to test that hypothesis. But what about the projects that don’t have a hypothesis? What about science that instead explores new ideas and discovers possibilities? This kind of science is not what we are taught about in the classroom. This is night science.

The term 'night science' was coined by Francois Jacob, a French doctor, biologist, and Nobel Prize winner. He wrote about the difference between day and night science in his 1988 book, “Of Flies, Mice, and Men,” describing day science as science which is certain of its future and progress, meanwhile night science “wanders blind.” He continues, writing that night science may never turn into day science. Day science is science which uses the scientific method, while night science is less structured and more focused on exploring new ideas, often without any particular question or hypothesis. Jacob’s analogy of day and night science is relevant to Tele-Rehab 2.0, which has only just recently become day science. Our turn in the spotlight has brought about funding opportunities, new partnerships and collaborations, more outreach and awareness, and immense progress, but the project spent many years in the dark before now.

This past week I sat down, virtually of course, with Dr. Martin Ferguson-Pell, the principal investigator and creator of Tele-Rehab 2.0. We discussed the beginnings of the project and how we got to where we are now. Every project starts with an idea. Martin had the idea for Tele-Rehab 2.0 nearly 5 years ago while watching a video on some research Microsoft was doing using holoportation technologies. Holoportation uses 3D capture technology which allows for a range of possibilities. One feature the video showcases is creating real time holograms of people which can be viewed from a remote location. This video was a spark of inspiration for Martin and as he researched more he learned about other technologies that now form the project’s “tool kit” for remote assessment. For years the project progressed as night science, with no funding, limited resources, and prototypes only. At this point the project needed a cohesive focus to bring all the elements together. The project found its focus in rural healthcare. Martin saw the need and opportunity to support rural and remote Albertans who struggled to receive the quality healthcare that patients in urban areas take for granted. With this, proposals were written, funding granted, and a team was assembled.

Pieces of the "tool kit" for remote sites can be seen here, in a mock clinic Martin has set up in his home.

With funds secured and the support of many healthcare advocates including clinicians and organizations, the project got its feet off the ground. We had come out of the shadows and began working towards testing our ideas. Before we could test these ideas though we needed to create the tool kit for each remote site. The tool kit is the result of Martin’s research on the relevant technologies that exist, the creation of others, and bringing them all together to make a program to enable accurate, quality rehabilitation assessments virtually. The tool kit includes basic equipment such as a computer, monitor, and webcam as well as more involved technologies including a 3D camera, Kinetisense markerless motion capture software, and the Double Robot (which is a self-driving videoconferencing system). The tool kit has been crafted with patients and clinicians in mind in order to offer the best care possible. As the tool kit came together, we networked with various rural communities and were set to begin trials in a few different towns. These trials were originally set to begin in March, however these plans were interrupted with the spread of COVID-19.

I’ve written before that while the pandemic originally seemed to put a damper on our progress, it also presented us with new opportunities. Despite work on Tele-Rehab 2.0 being under the radar as night science for many years, and the pandemic changing our plans, we have still been able to move the project forward through long term care facilities and rural sites where physical distancing permits. COVID-19 has shown the relevance of the project in a way we may not have been able to do without it. The current spike in providing care virtually is showing people that tele-rehabilitation can work, and work well. This trend has us hopeful that the technologies of Tele-Rehab 2.0 will be well received, truly bringing our work into the light of day.


Jacob, F. (1998). Of flies, mice, and men. Harvard University Press

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