App lights way out of pandemic darkness

An interdisciplinary team at Niagara College develops smartphone technology for an Ontario manufacturer

Walk into the dark hush of Notre-Dame Basilica in Old Montreal. There’s a glow from the dark recesses on the periphery of the central nave—hundreds of candles. Flickering golden flames lit by the faithful. A symbolic gesture lighting the way for others. Here it is Catholic, but the ritual crosses all faith denominations.

In the past two and half years, we have lost much. The pandemic has taken in ways unimaginable. We’ve grieved for people while being unable to bridge the distance. Have attended memorial services on our computers in our homes. Finding hope and connection while living under restrictions has been a challenge.

Now, imagine pushing a button on a smartphone from anywhere in the world, and a candle lights up for a loved one. That’s what the new app GABRIEL offers. After making a small donation, a user chooses a candle and a location from a growing list, including Notre-Dame in Montreal. “People can’t get to these places because of the pandemic, age and illness, or living at a distance,” says Derek Insley, president of Vendalite. “GABRIEL helps satisfy an emotional need.”

It’s a story about cutting-edge technology, interdisciplinary research and development, and a task with a whole lot of heart. Having a goal and engaging many minds in reaching it is the cornerstone of all good research.

Insley approached the Niagara College-led Southern Ontario Network for Advanced Manufacturing Innovation (SONAMI) in 2021 with an idea but no capacity to act on it. “Developing this app involved extensive knowledge and expertise in software development and electronic engineering,” says Amal Driouich, research program manager at the Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre (WAMIC) at Niagara College. “Teamwork was one of the main contributors to the project success.”

Vendalite began in the early 1980s, the first iteration version of their electronic candle stand used a button in front of each candle to light a simple Christmas tree bulb. Concerns about the threat of fire and rising insurance costs inspired the move to electric light. Then there were the costs, including labour, to maintain the traditional wax candles. Today, the company recycles glass votive globes used for the wax candles, cutting a hole in the bottom to accommodate wiring and frosting the globe for effect. At Notre-Dame the traditional wax candle stands have been reconfigured to accommodate an electronic motherboard. Onsite, a candle is lit by tapping a credit card reader on the stand to make payment. It has the added benefit of removing all cash from the church premises, while the donation goes to the church.

In Notre-Dame the electronic candle display is in front of an image depicting Marguerite Bourgeoys, the first female saint in Canada; a French nun and founder of the Congregation of Notre Dame of Montreal.

 

App development to date

Version one involved developing for Android and iOS and was complete in December 2021. GABRIEL is downloadable in app stores. In mid-February 2022, WAMIC began research and development on the next stage. “The technical challenges ahead involve more complicated electronics and cloud-based management,” says Driouich. It also involves mass-producing the boards to meet demand.

Version two will seamlessly marry the remote and onsite processes, and it will be translated into multiple languages, including French, Italian, and Spanish. There are also plans to include animation of GABRIEL lighting the candle and blowing his horn in thanks. Donors also receive an email from the site thanking them for their support. “Without the support of SONAMI, we would not have been able to do this,” says Insley. “The stuff the students are working on is so far beyond me, but it’s common sense to them.”

Ba Binh Luong is an international student from Vietnam studying computer programming and industrial automation. He helped develop GABRIEL for the webserver and mobile app. “I applied so much knowledge I learned from my programs at WAMIC,” he says, “Coding every day for a real-world project has improved my skills.”

Although Vendalite’s focus is mostly Catholic, other denominations are showing interest. Insley is prototyping a configuration for outdoor use. The company has sales representatives throughout North America, and interest is growing in Europe. The global potential is substantial. He says, “No one else in the world has this technology.”