Alumni Services

Dr Tim Willis

Informatics graduate Dr Tim Willis talks to us about his academic journey to Edinburgh, how he commercialised his PhD and how this relates to this year's festival.

Name Dr Tim Willis
Degree Course PhD Informatics / MSc Cognitive Science and Natural Language
Year of Graduation 2008 (PhD), 2000 (MSc)
Dr Tim Willis

Your time at the University

I’d done my first degree and two research posts at Leeds University, and another RA post at Lancaster. I was working in sales in an internet firm in the late 90’s, and it was still a real struggle persuading people that it was more than a flash in the pan! I heard there were places on the MSc course, but couldn’t afford the train fare. Then I got an interview at St. Andrews for schools liaison work, which I’d also previously done. I stopped in Edinburgh on the way back and talked my way onto the course!

My MSc group were fantastic - from all over the world, apparently we were a particularly close group that year and many of us are still in touch. Most of us have PhD’s now.

I was a keen member of the conservation (Dirty Weekenders), canoe, and snowsports clubs, and did a lot of minibus driving as you needed to be quite old to be allowed to. I kayaked down some pretty scary whitewater, saw lots of beautiful but freezing Scottish countryside, and again made lifelong friends.

One very drunken evening I did a stand-up comedy routine in the Pleasance Cabaret bar as a Russian exchange student called Oleg. I had a routine prepared with some "borrowed material" and plenty of my own and had had so much Dutch / Russian Courage (vodka) by the time I went on that I was fairly relaxed. Afterwards I got taken off to another party by my tutees and then had to drag home a huge bag full of my costume (huge greatcoat, furry hat etc.) in the freezing cold. It only occurred to me to put them on when I was a couple of hundred yards from our flat.

Tell us about your Experiences since leaving the University

My MSc group were fantastic – from all over the world, apparently we were a particularly close group that year and many of us are still in touch.

Dr Tim Willis

I got various funding through the University to commercialise my PhD, which was aimed at helping people with motor disabilities to type more easily - it is slow and tiring for many. I looked at how people abbreviated text, and built a system to re-expand abbreviated input.

Then mobile phones came along and I saw that users had the same issues. Now it’s tablets - there are huge potential markets and we’re looking for partner software companies that supply professional software.

Our app, Flexpansion (Flexible Text Expansion) doubles people’s typing speed on Android touchscreens, and has really good ratings, against vastly better-funded competitors.

We have built a special version of our app, “Flexpansion Edinburgh Festivals edition”, which is available on Google Play, along with our main app - both are free.

We have preloaded the vocabulary and language patterns with the key venues, streets and show names for the Festivals, so for instance you only need type "Pl" then Space to type "Pleasance" and are then offered "Courtyard", "Dome", "Above" etc. to tap and insert (patterns alter a bit after it learns from your typing, but the phrases are all there).

The app is aimed at helping Festival-goers wanting to text, blog, tweet, email and update Facebook.

The main app does abbreviation expansion by default but we've got it switched off (easily turned on again) in the Festival version as some people might just want word completion and autocorrect. We've also added a special new purple keyboard theme named "Thistle".

The app was featured in this weekend’s Scotland On Sunday and we are really excited about the potential uptake at this year's Fringe.


Alumni wisdom

There are so many exciting things to do here, and not nearly enough time to do them all, so don’t stress about the stuff you never get around to - enjoy what you can fit in.