Liveblogging the ECE capstone presentations

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