How Omas Abdullah is putting virtual reality to work in medicine

This jack-of-all-trades programmer has made a career out of uniting disparate fields with technology. Now he’s using VR to help bed-ridden medical patients

Omas Abdullah

Omas Abdullah.

Omas Abdullah was never a particularly good student. He earned Bs and Cs during his computer science degree at Wilfrid Laurier in Waterloo, Ont., and now says his undergrad self “definitely was not an overachiever.”

To his parents’ chagrin, Abdullah was more interested in going to the gym and playing video games. For Abdullah, though, it paid off. Today, at just 27 years old, he’s the lead iOS developer for OpenText Core, an industry leader in the digital information management sphere. His accomplishments earn him a spot on the inaugural Developer 30 under 30, unveiled on April 27 in Toronto.

While he graduated in the middle of his class, Abdullah’s extracurricular activities meant his CV could put any honour’s student’s to shame. He developed several video games and a chat system, along with participating in physics and computing club and dragon boat club. He was also the captain of the winning team in the Collegiate Starleague Dota 2 video game competition, beating out of 500 competing universities.

On top of that, he had doctorate level research experience. Like any serious gamer, Abdullah had become enamoured with virtual reality, but the cost of hardware meant the VR gaming experience was out of reach. “The Oculus Rift changed that,” says Abdullah. And, if the affordable headset could alter gaming, it could affect research, too, he thought. While finishing his degree, Abdullah started exploring research applications for the Oculus. “I tried to show the differences between using high cost material compared to low cost materials,” he says. “I found that the data I was able to gather with the low cost equipment was very, very accurate.”

That research caught the attention of Dr. Michael Cinelli in the Wilfried Laurier’s kinesiology department. Soon Abdullah was spending his spare time in the lab, converting physiotherapy treatment programs into a virtual reality.

“He was exactly what I needed,” says Cinelli. “I always thought there were two types of programmers: those that just do the work to get it done, and those who spend too much time worrying about the finer details. But Omas does both. He cares so much, and he also gets the job done. He goes above and beyond.”

It was that balance between perfectionism and efficiency that made Abdullah’s own brother want to work with him on his startup. The four-person company focused on a fitness app called Oneset (think Instagram for fitness fanatics) for Android and Apple devices. “Nobody on the team knew how to build an iOS app,” says Abdullah, who didn’t either. “But they said, ‘Omas, are you good to learn?’” He taught himself everything about iOS from scratch. Soon the app had 100,000 users, earning an invitation to Abdullah and the team to join the prestigious Founders Fuel program in Montreal, which included a $50,000 grant, mentorship, and office space.

Abdullah’s accomplishments are even more astonishing, given he lost time to chemotherapy treatments back in 2015. Just as Oneset was taking off, Abdullah started noticing an incessant pain in his shoulder, but couldn’t recall ever injuring it. When it wouldn’t go away, his doctor scheduled an x-ray and ultrasound, which detected a mass of cancer cells in his bone. He was eventually diagnosed with Diffuse Large B-Cell Lymphoma. “When I found out, the Oneset guys were actually out celebrating being accepted in the Founder Fuel program,” he recalls. “The next morning at work, I gathered everyone around and told them that I was going to start chemo and treatment immediately. After that, I put everything on hold.”

His time in hospital made Abdullah realize he wanted to create something that could have a tangible impact on people’s lives. He decided to keep working part-time with Cinelli’s lab, where he felt his work in virtual reality could help those who are bed–ridden, like so many people he met while in treatment, explore the world in ways they otherwise couldn’t. “There’s a part of me that really wants to help all those people that weren’t as fortunate as I was,” Abdullah says. Eventually, he hopes to give back through a company he’s created himself. “I always have small little apps I’m making here and there, but as soon as I do figure out a big enough project I would like to pursue, I would definitely think about going into that full time.”

The Developer 30 Under 30 is a new program celebrating Canada’s rising talent in the tech community. The selection committee included top executives from companies such as Plastic Mobile, RBC, Sun Life, Pizza Pizza, Indigo, Rogers and Canada Goose.