Professor Tom Chau, U of T alumni, awarded Governor General Meritorious Service Decoration

Professor Tom Chau (left) and a team of interdisciplinary researchers, including two U of T Engineering alumni, have been awarded a Governor General Meritorious Service Cross (Civil Division) for their development of Virtual Music Instrument. (Photo: Vincent Carbonneau).

December 12, 2017

U of T biomedical engineering professor Tom Chau has been recognized with one of Canada’s highest honours—the Governor General’s Meritorious Service Cross (Civil Division). The decoration recognizes Canadians for exceptional deeds that bring honour to the country.

The decoration recognizes Chau and a team of interdisciplinary researchers from the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital for their creation of the Virtual Music Instrument (VMI).

Developed in 2003, VMI helps individuals with complex disabilities express themselves and experience the benefits of music therapy—including an increased self-esteem and sense of personal accomplishment. To date, the VMI has improved the lives of kids and families in over seven countries worldwide.

“We are deeply honoured by this recognition, and humbled that our work has impacted the lives of people with disabilities across the world,” says Chau, who is also Holland Bloorview’s vice president of research. “Our work in driving research discoveries into action means that technologies such as the VMI are accessible to the very people who would benefit most from them.”

Chau and his team, including U of T Engineering alumni Pierre Duez (EngSci 0T0, IndE MASc 0T3), Eric Wan (CompE 1T0, ECE MASc 1T3) and music therapist Andrea Lamont, began developing the VMI to create the opportunity for kids with disabilities to play music without having to hold or manipulate an instrument.

“What began as an exploration of the potential of technology in music therapy has become an instrument that has allowed kids with disabilities to engage more fully with music, even to the point of performing in concerts,” says Duez, a software engineer.

One of the VMI’s most unique features is that in contrast to current technologies and apps, it adapts to a child’s abilities and physical commands by acting as an extension of their body. For children and their families this is often a life-changing experience.

“Whether it’s making music through dance, finger movements, or even an eye blink, the VMI gives a meaningful musical experience for children in recreation, education, and therapy settings,” says Lamont.

The Meritorious Service Decorations (Civil Division) are an important part of the Canadian Honours System. They recognize individuals who have performed an exceptional and often innovative deed or activity that sets an example for others to follow, or improves the quality of life in a community at a local, provincial, national, or international level.

Her Excellency, the Right Honourable Julie Payette (CompE MASc 9T0), Governor General of Canada, presented the decoration to the team during a ceremony on December 12, 2017, at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.

A version of this story originally appeared on Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital news