Com­puter acces­si­bility has become an essen­tial part of human expe­ri­ence, according to North­eastern PhD can­di­date Jeff Breugel­mans. Still, a large subset of the pop­u­la­tion cannot take advan­tage of its ben­e­fits due to phys­ical limitations.

With a back­ground in human-​​technology inter­ac­tions, Breugel­mans is working with an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary advi­sory team, led by Col­lege of Engi­neering asso­ciate pro­fessor Yingzi Lin, to develop gaming devices and soft­ware that do not require the use of a key­board or mouse. His dis­ser­ta­tion research uses “inno­v­a­tive tech­nolo­gies to help those who are often over­looked,” he said.

Breugel­mans’ work earned him two awards at RISE:2012 — the university’s research, inno­va­tion and schol­ar­ship expo — last month: first place in the grad­uate level Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Research cat­e­gory, and the pres­ti­gious RISE award in the “research” cat­e­gory, which earned him a $1,000 grant.

Being hon­ored at RISE:2012, Breugle­mans said, “was one of the most rewarding expe­ri­ences of my aca­d­emic life. I have been a part of the research expo four times now, and I always looked up to the stu­dents who won.”

In pre­vious years, Breugel­mans’ work has focused on bringing com­puter access to people with phys­ical dis­abil­i­ties. More recently he has expanded his scope to include reha­bil­i­ta­tion by inves­ti­gating how the system can ben­efit a user’s health.

Our target pop­u­la­tion has dif­fi­cul­ties accessing com­puter sys­tems due to their phys­ical lim­i­ta­tions,” he said. “So we take the lim­ited ability they do pos­sess, and adapt the com­puter inter­face to grant them access.”

These adap­ta­tions include an eye-​​tracking device that allows users to con­trol the cursor merely by looking at the screen and a glove out­fitted with sen­sors that turn subtle finger and wrist move­ments into com­puter com­mands that are oth­er­wise made with mouse clicks.

These tools can be used to enhance pro­grams underway in the Depart­ment of Phys­ical Therapy, such as pro­fessor and chair Maura Iversen’s rheumatoid-​​arthritis research. “Users are per­forming phys­ical therapy, pos­sibly without even real­izing it,” explained Breugel­mans. Addi­tion­ally, clin­i­cians can use data col­lected by the sen­sors to track patient progress.

Breugel­mans hopes that the RISE Award grant will be a good start toward securing more funds to improve his pro­to­type. He is also plan­ning a clin­ical trial with Iversen to explore the system’s reha­bil­i­ta­tive capacity. “Run­ning usability tests can be expen­sive,” he said. The grant will allow him to offer com­pen­sa­tion for par­tic­i­pants’ time and efforts.

Ulti­mately, Breugel­mans wants his devices and games to pro­vide users with relaxing and enjoy­able com­puter expe­ri­ences. That these expe­ri­ences can also offer healing for people with dis­abil­i­ties is a bonus he is excited to con­tinue exploring.