The future is now

Jordan Nguyen shares his journey through the world of bioengineering.

Jordan Nguyen

At 31, Dr Jordan Nguyen is an over-achiever. He describes himself as "TV writer and presenter", "keynote speaker", "futurist" and "biomedical engineer". And that's just for starters.

The UTS alumni – who graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering and First Class Honours in 2008 before completing his PhD in Biomedical Engineering in 2012 – is also an inventor and entrepreneur.

He recently founded Psykinetic, a social business "aimed at creating futuristic assistive technology to improve independence and quality of life for people with disability". This continued on from his PhD project which saw him develop a thought-controlled smart wheelchair (ranked third that year in an Australia-wide innovations list as well as winning UTS's Three Minute Thesis competition).

We meet at UTS Hatchery+ (in Building 15 on Harris Street) – an incubation facility designed to provide start-up teams (founded or co-founded by UTS students or recent graduates) with a collaborative working space and a three-month program that includes mentorship with start-up experts.

Nguyen's team will soon be moving out of Hatchery+. Then he'll likely work from home, using virtual reality technology to liaise with the rest of his team who'll also be working from their homes.

Welcome to the future, now

And yet what makes Nguyen's meteoric rise even more remarkable is that – having postponed his original dream of becoming a professional tennis player – he describes himself as having been "an average student" who took his HSC not really knowing what he wanted to study at university.

People will find this hard to believe, given that his father, Professor Hung Nguyen (a finalist for NSW Australian of the Year in 2012) has been involved in researching biomedical engineering, artificial intelligence and neurosciences for more than 20 years and is now UTS's Assistant Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Innovation), having previously been the Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology.

Father and son are also tennis partners, with many doubles titles under their sweatbands (they've got another final looming when we talk).

Nguyen Junior has likened their tennis partnership to that of Daniel LaRusso and the inscrutable Mr Miyagi in the original 1984 movie, The Karate Kid – and that memorable "wax on, wax off" style of teaching. "Dad was my tennis coach for several years, but sometimes when I was younger he never told me anything on court," Jordan says. "He just kept hitting the ball into each corner where I couldn't reach it. That really frustrated me, but it improved my scrambling speed and eventually I was able to reach the ball and return it. There was intention behind his teaching method, but he made me work hard to understand it."

When Jordan showed serious promise as a tennis player, Professor Nguyen put him in a range of competitions and tournaments above his level, allowing him to build on his training to continue to push and improve himself.

And the father's reaction was much the same when, in Year 12, Jordan came to him and said, "Dad, I kind of like what you're doing... I might do the same."

Nguyen Senior has spoken about this moment: "I said to Jordan, 'Please go to Sydney University or to UNSW, they're very good there'.

"I thought there would be big problems because I was teaching and he would have to be in my class at some stage.

But Jordan came back and said he wanted to study at UTS.

"Maybe I was tougher on him than other students, but during that time I realised he could work very well independently, so after that I left him alone."

But Nguyen Junior already knew something about himself. "I'm not great at learning from a book, then taking a test," he says. "I'm better facing a problem, and trying to solve it. The UTS course suited me best because it gave me flexibility."

Finding his voice in the media

In May this year, Nguyen presented his two-part documentary on ABC's Catalyst. The program is about 13-year-old Riley, who was born with cerebral palsy and speaks only with the aid of a special computer. Nguyen suggests to Riley that he will create a device that could give Riley superpowers.

"I've known for a long time now that I wanted to make documentaries on science and technology," he says. "I'd watched people I looked up to, like Neil deGrasse Tyson (the American astrophysicist, cosmologist and author), Sir David Attenborough (broadcaster and naturalist) and Brian Cox (the British astrophysicist and TV presenter).

"They're people who can improve the world by sharing their knowledge in ways we can all understand. That can be a great and powerful tool for good. So I decided to have a go. I'm all about testing and validating ideas.

"I wrote a documentary last year about immortality, and the pathways to different types of immortality considering the ways that technology has been so rapidly advancing."

"I wrote a documentary last year about immortality, and the pathways to different types of immortality considering the ways that technology has been so rapidly advancing."

The ABC held off giving it the green light, understandably. He was pitching an Attenborough-broad series, without any experience of appearing before a TV camera before (apart from a spot on Network Ten's popular news program, The Project).

What the ABC did offer him was two 30-minute spots in the Catalyst time slot. Could he slim down his idea to suit?

"No, I'll write a new documentary," he told them.

He'd met Riley, the subject of Becoming Superhuman, a year before while working for the Cerebral Palsy Alliance, and been incredibly impressed by the teenager's optimism and belief in science and technology.

So he proposed this new two-part series to the ABC, promising to both the broadcaster and – far more importantly – to Riley, that he could deliver two things:

Firstly, that his mastery of technology could allow Riley (whose eyes are the main part of his body over which he can exercise physical control) the independence to turn on the ordinary electrical appliances we all take for granted (TV, lights, fans etc).

Secondly, that the two of them could go even further in the second episode to see if Riley could fulfil his ultimate dream – of driving a car through his new eye control interface. (Yes, there's a happy ending.)

But Nguyen admits that a positive outcome was not a sure thing. "It was always going to be a challenge," he says.

"We already knew we were being ambitious putting all that development into one month.

"What I didn't realise – and this was just ignorance at the time on my part – was that as a presenter I'd be on camera from 7.30am to 5pm every day.

"And this was the time I had blocked in for development. So I ended up working on my parts of the developments you see in that documentary through the night.

"It was a very intensive month, but very rewarding. And it brought our team much closer too."

Inspired to change lives

In case you haven't seen what Jordan and his team invented in a month of high pressure, Riley (a keen brain who navigates a reluctant body) has been freed up to the point where he too can study at UTS if he gets the relevant marks.

But why would someone on the cutting edge of robotic, virtual reality and biomedical engineering devote so much time donating his talents to the disabled when there are so much more lucrative fields to be exploited?

In his third year at UTS, Nguyen had an accident which changed the course of his life. He was with friends, diving into a backyard swimming pool when he slipped on the diving board and Jordan's head smashed into the bottom of the pool.

"It was a terrible sound, a loud crack," Nguyen says of the noise when his body hit the concrete. Even while he was still underwater, he began to think how he would cope if he ended up paraplegic.

Luckily, he remained able-bodied (though with long-standing neck problems). However he has never forgot that underwater fear of losing control of his limbs.

"That's when I started to learn about disability and how technology can be used to help improve independence," he says.

His father had already been involved in the area of 'smart wheelchairs' for several years. If Jordan wanted to match his father's achievements, he needed to raise his marks.

"I'd always hated public speaking," Nguyen says. "But I had to improve my marks at uni. I wanted to do a PhD and had to lift myself out of a pass average." His first public speaking contest, he recalls, was "a disaster...I came dead last".

Yet he persevered: "Going into schools and giving speeches. I never had any training. I just threw myself into it".

Now public speaking is one of the four pillars of his livelihood. Take a look at his website and witness some of the tailored talks he delivers across a range of topics centred around the intersection between technology and humanity moving into the future.

But the core of Nguyen's philosophy and his practice is being at the forefront of how this and the next generation of scientists can find ways to improve the lives of others and improve our world.

So what's next?

He's got so many things: patents, devices, documentaries, business proposals on his plate that he's a little distracted.

See the inspiring work that Jordan did with Riley in his two-part documentary, Becoming Superhuman, on ABC's Catalyst, available to stream and download

Most of them, he can't really talk about now, but you'll definitely recognise his name by this time next year.

There are projects still to be signed off. Communication devices that could benefit not just 13-year-old Riley but also Stephen Hawking. "Just think how much wiser we'd be if we could find a way of hearing what he wants to say three times faster," says Nguyen.

Specialised music devices allowing disabled people to learn to play and compose music using nothing more than their eyes (see page 24). And further creations into how humans may exist in part through the virtual world in the future, both in life and in business.

It's a Brave New World out there and it's already here.

Story by Steve Meacham
Photos by Shane Rozario