Liveblogging the ECE capstone presentations

Photo via Thinkstock.

Photo via Thinkstock.

4:16pm: The awards are in!

First place: Page Turner

Second place: ICD and 4G^2

Third place: TRAQ and goCAD

Peo­ples’ Choice: ICD

3:44pm: Time to breathe and my fin­gers hurt

Well, the ECE cap­stone pre­sen­ta­tions are offi­cially over. It was a great day and the projects were all incred­ibly impres­sive. The last one might even be able to pro­vide some imme­diate utility for the North­eastern com­mu­nity. It’s called Husky IDEAS and aims to sim­plify the process of sched­uling meet­ings with pro­fes­sors. The team envi­sions a touch screen in the lob­bies of build­ings that house fac­ulty offices. Stu­dents would be able to easily access their pro­fes­sors’ sched­ules and sign up for avail­able appoint­ments, instead of slog­ging up to the office only to find it empty. One of the judges hap­pens to be a pro­fessor at Boston Uni­ver­sity and said he envi­sions some resis­tance among fac­ulty mem­bers. The team said they got extremely mixed results when they asked engi­neering fac­ulty mem­bers, whom they piloted the pro­gram with, what they thought. Some hated it, others loved it.

Now my fin­gers hurt from what has essen­tially been a typing marathon and I’m suf­fi­ciently stuffed to the top with infor­ma­tion.  There’s a pal­pable sense of joy in the room, as the stu­dents are min­gling and rejoicing the com­ple­tion of their last major accom­plish­ments as col­lege stu­dents. We’re all waiting for the big moment when the judges return to the room to announce the first, second, and third place win­ners as well as the peo­ples’ choice award which non-​​judge audi­ence mem­bers got to vote on. I’m on the edge of my seat!

3:07pm: Turning the pages of peace

One of the world’s largest books (THE largest book?) lives in Groton, Mass., con­tains 1000 pages that are each 10 feet wide by 20 feet tall, weighs 2000 pounds, and was con­ceived of by a group of fifth graders in Besty Sawyer’s class­room at the Groton-​​Dunstable Regional Middle School. The pages con­tain let­ters from people like Jimmy Carter, Nelson Man­della, and the Dalai Lama, all expounding on what they believe peace is and how it could be attain­able within the stu­dents’ life­time. Pages for Peace, the 501c3 asso­ci­ated with book, wants to take the recently com­pleted book on the road and across the world for people to see. But once it’s own there in the world, how are readers sup­posed to, well, read it? How can you turn a 20 foot page? What if you want to skip ahead to some­thing on the 879th page?

The Page Turner cap­stone team has your answer. They devel­oped a device that uses suc­tion cups and a “sled roller” to pick up the Tyvek pages and slide them across the book’s center. They also cre­ated a graph­ical user inter­face for people to engage with an e-​​version of the book at a kiosk dis­play set up in front of the book when it’s on exhibit.

2:39pm: Com­mu­ni­cating across frequencies

More than 100 fire­fighters died on Sep­tember 11, 2001 because they were using a dif­ferent radio fre­quency from the police offi­cers, according to the mem­bers of the cap­stone team that just pre­sented. A police heli­copter noticed the first tower falling and then trans­mitted a mes­sage to other city per­sonnel noti­fying them of the sit­u­a­tion. But the fire­fighters didn’t get the message.

The team designed a system called an Inter­op­er­able Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Device, or ICD, to allow users on dif­ferent fre­quen­cies to talk to each other. They demon­strated the system by allowing first the micro­phone they were using for their pre­sen­ta­tion and then a local radio sta­tion to transmit through a walkie talkie at the back of the room. It requires a dis­patcher to con­nect the two users via a “cha­t­room” that can com­mu­ni­cate with both fre­quen­cies. But two isn’t the max. With a straight­for­ward user inter­face, they can drag and drop var­ious chan­nels into the cha­t­room allowing mul­tiple users to com­mu­ni­cate con­cur­rently across mul­tiple frequencies.


The TRAQ quadcopter

2:31pm: Tracking the things you care about

So, your long­board was stolen by a devious gym­nast in red pants. It hap­pens to the best of us. As unique as that MO might be, tracking him down will likely prove dif­fi­cult as he deftly whisks away through the city streets. Never fear though, you were the smarty pants who equipped your board with an FM radio beacon. Now all you need to do is call TRAQ (radio tracking autonoo­mous quad­copter) head­quar­ters, which will launch the quad­copter, a mini heli­copter equipped with a four-​​element antenna array that picks up the exact loca­tion of the radio beacon. The team that devel­oped this solu­tion believes the “appli­ca­tions are nearly end­less.” They said you could use it not only to recover stolen goods, but also for search and rescue  mis­sions, dis­aster relief, ship­wrecks, sur­veil­lance, and “ama­teur radio sport” (did you know that was a thing? I didn’t).

1:03pm: Lunchtime

I wonder if anyone has ever looked at the rela­tion­ship between infor­ma­tion over­load and nutri­tion deple­tion. This morning’s pre­sen­ta­tions were all won­derful and packed with con­tent — as pro­fessor Shafai just told me in between pre­sen­ta­tions, the judges have their work cut out for them. The last two talks were much more tech­nical than my hungry, non-​​expert brain was fully able to com­pre­hend. But they were both still amazing. PULSE is a system devel­oped to help locked-​​in patients com­mu­ni­cate with the world. It uses elec­trical encephalo­graphic input, which pro­vides a much lower cost alter­na­tive to other brain imaging tech­niques like MRI. It can also be portable and offers higher tem­poral res­o­lu­tion, the team told the audience.

The user wears a cap that detects EEG waves being emitted from the brain. They then look at a com­puter screen which is flashing through images of let­ters and words at dif­ferent loca­tions. The images are flashing at dif­ferent  fre­quen­cies which cor­re­late to dif­ferent EEG out­puts. As I under­stand it, if the user looks at the L flashing in one pat­tern, rather than a K in the other corner of the screen flashing in a dif­ferent pat­tern, the EEG detector can make the dis­tinc­tion. The system is cur­rently equipped for letter selec­tion and word com­ple­tion and pre­dic­tion to allow patients to com­mu­ni­cate with the world.

After PULSE we learned about smart-​​POD (for pill orga­ni­za­tional device), a system intended to pro­mote med­ica­tion adher­ence. Non-​​adherance is respon­sible for 125,000 deaths each year. The system this team designed not only reminds people when to take their meds, it can also be cus­tomized to tell exactly which meds to take at dif­ferent time points, it can tell the user whether they need to eat food with this par­tic­ular med, and one day they hope they’ll be able to imple­ment a wire­less data col­lec­tion system to track adher­ence trends for use by both patients and doctors.

12noon: Dyna­mite detective

Hunting down hit and run offenders is just as dif­fi­cult as those who commit this heinous crime expect it to be. Even a dyna­mite detec­tive would have a hard time finding one. This cap­stone team devel­oped a detec­tion system that could someday be inte­grated into stan­dard car pro­duc­tion. When the car is in “park,” it’s con­stantly col­lecting image data about the sur­rounding envi­ron­ment. If someone bumps into the car, it sets off com­pres­sion sen­sors which tell the system to save the data in the min­utes leading up to and fol­lowing the col­li­sion. The device isn’t avail­able just yet, but be careful — it’ll be out there soon and then you’ll have nowhere to hide.

The bouy can be as much as 22 miles away from the lobster trap and still deliver reliable information about lobster status.

The bouy can be as much as 22 miles away from the lob­ster trap and still deliver reli­able infor­ma­tion about lob­ster status.

11:30am: Lob­ster­comm delivers

I knew I was going to like this one! Believe it or not, cur­rent lob­ster trap­ping isn’t as effi­cient as it could be. Lob­ster fishers have to go around checking each trap indi­vid­u­ally, drag­ging it from up to 300 feet from the ocean floor only to find no lob­ster, sending them on to the next trap. This team cre­ated a three part system that allows the lob­ster fisher to “call” the lob­ster trap and find out if there’s a lob­ster present, saving loads of time and also min­i­mizing envi­ron­mental impact (drag­ging the traps up dis­turbs the ocean floor, so the little of that as pos­sible, the better).

When a lob­ster crawls into the trap, he sets off little sen­sors on the trap floor which send a signal to a bouy on the ocean sur­face. If there’s a lob­ster in the trap, or if there isn’t, the bouy knows. The lob­ster fisher calls the bouy with a ded­i­cated walkie talkie. The bouy tells them whether they should pull that par­tic­ular trap up.

Not only did this group create a cool product, they also etched their own sen­sors with ferric chlo­ride and a vinyl etchant. They 3D printed the water­proof box that pro­tects them and cre­ated an awe­some little video to demon­strate the system.

Brain Arcade

Brain Arcade

10:40am: Brain Arcade

When you’re thinking hard, the amount of oxy­genated blood going to the brain increases, and the amount of deoxy­genated blood decreases. That’s according to the cap­stone team that just pre­sented Brain Arcade, an inter­ac­tive arcade game intended to engage and excite kids — “or any­body really” — in sci­ence and engi­neering. They devel­oped the plat­form for a par­tic­ular learning con­cept, that of brain activity during thinking, but it could be adapted to teach all sorts of topics, they said.

The player sticks their head in a light sealed com­part­ment in the arcade cab­inet where they see a screen cycling through ten second simple arith­metic prob­lems and a “relax­ation” period. Changes in oxy­genated blood flow in the brain emit very min­imal amounts of light through the skull (crazy, right!?), which is then detected by the system. After they “play,” the user can see exactly what was actu­ally hap­pening inside their brain during the activity. The idea is that this kind of direct engage­ment with one’s own phys­i­ology will be more inter­esting than reading about it in a textbook.

10:03am: SIGHT lets you see without sight

Whoa. Offi­cially mind blown. Remember when you were a kid and your friends would write mes­sages or draw pic­tures on your back and you’d try to guess what they were depicting? Turns out there are devices that do essen­tially that to deliver an under­standing of the visual world to the unsighted. SIGHT, or “sight in graph­ical haptic trans­la­tion” is a tee shirt with a bunch of “haptic actu­a­tors” embedded on the back. When pre­sented with a visual image, some­thing called a “rasp­berry pi,” or, I’m guessing, a mini com­puter board, trans­late the pixels into vibra­tional fre­quen­cies that the user feels on his or her back. The design is cur­rently able to trans­late let­ters and shapes but the ulti­mate goal is to trans­late any visual infor­ma­tion imag­in­able. They say it would require a little bit of training to be able to under­stand the infor­ma­tion being deliv­ered to your back, but I know from child­hood expe­ri­ence that it doesn’t take long to become an expert in this practice.

UPDATE @12:11pm: Another tool for the visu­ally impaired

Another team devel­oped a tool to add addi­tional pro­tec­tion to visu­ally impaired people above and beyond the stan­dard cane or seeing eye dog, nei­ther of which can help with items above the waist. Their system uses both a web­camm and IR detector to col­lect data about objects obstructing the user’s path, both on the ground and above the waist. A vibra­tion is applied to the user’s scalp to alert them that some­thing is in their way. The vibra­tion inten­sity grows as the user gets closer to the object. Then it stops and the user col­lects more spe­cific info using his or her can to tell things like is this a step up or a step down, for example.

9:34am: Go goCAD go!

My goCAD bud­dies just gave a great pre­sen­ta­tion about their ges­ture oper­ated com­puter aided design interface. Suppose you have some great 3D struc­ture you want to design and manip­u­late on the com­puter. If you know how to use CAD, you’re all set. But if you don’t know CAD, you’ll have to rely on other tools with much lower func­tion­ality (like Google Sketchup).

With goCAD all you need to know how to do is grab, zoom, pan, orbit — the four ges­tural com­mands it uses. goCAD would enable a range of new fea­si­bility for the pro­gram, from allowing doc­tors to use it to manip­u­late 3-​​dimensional MRI images, for example, to helping people with lim­ited motor skills to use CAD.

One of the judges piped up to say “thank you” because he’s in his third year of training with Turbo CAD, and it appar­ently requires a pretty daunting learning curve.

MIMO: the "many in, many out" wireless router, providing me 10x faster internet as I blog today.

MIMO: the “many in, many out” wire­less router, pro­viding me 10x faster internet as I blog today!

9:07am: Is it really that much faster?

Yes!  I’m on the MIMO wire­less router right now. While I can’t quan­tify the speed increase, I can say i’ts working a lot faster than the one I was on just a minute ago.

Here’s a fun quote from one of the judges:

I thought you were cheating them [internet providers] somehow, which would be cool.” Alas, they’re not. We’re all playing within the rules here today.

8:53am: The things you create

I’m at the Elec­trical and Com­puter Engi­neering senior Cap­stone pre­sen­ta­tions today. So far we’ve heard from the judges, pro­fessor and ECE cap­stone pro­gram director Bahram Shafai, a slew of North­eastern alums who are judging the projects, Col­lege of Engi­neering dean Nadine Aubry and pro­fessor and asso­ciate dean Dave Kaeli.

Thir­teen sep­a­rate teams are pre­senting work on every­thing from a hand ges­ture oper­ated CAD inter­face to a hit and run detec­tion system to MIMO, which is being pre­sented right now: a high speed wire­less internet solu­tion that uses eight (instead of one) antennas. It appar­ently pro­vides ten times faster speed than your run of the mill high speed internet.

I’m par­tic­u­larly excited about goCAD because I’ve been meeting with this team throughout the semester to get a sense of what it’s like to be a cap­stone stu­dent here at North­eastern, the kinds of chal­lenges they run into throughout the year, and the way they approach nav­i­gating those challenges.

Also looking for­ward to “Lob­ster­Comm: Rein­venting the Art of Lob­ster Trap­ping” — doesn’t that just sound like fun?! 

Throughout the day I’ll be updating this post with some of the cool stuff I see and learn about while I’m here