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Computing for a Cause: UB's Geeks Help Disabled Veterans Talk, Surf the Web, Gain Independence

Release Date: December 21, 2010

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Computer science might not be the obvious major for students looking to change the world. But two teams of University at Buffalo students are proving that programming can translate into compassion.

Last spring, Austin Miller, Robert Rodenhaus, Leonard Story Jr. and Matthew Taylor, classmates in a computer engineering class, developed OmniSwitch, a software program that enables quadriplegics and other people with limited mobility to type letters, surf the web, listen to music and play computer games with a single button or switch.

Now, the UB students are bringing their OmniSwitch technology into the real world, working with Buffalo-based Applied Sciences Group (ASG) to develop the software for disabled veterans at the Spinal Cord Injury center at the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital in Tampa, Fla. The local technology firm has a $270,000 contract from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to develop an augmented communications network for spinal cord injury veterans at the Tampa center.

A second UB team -- this one comprising computer science master's students Ari Fogel and Praneeta Prakash -- is working with ASG to develop a speech-generating software system that will enable nonverbal veterans to communicate with each other and caregivers; e-mail; text message; call friends via Skype; and complete tasks such as controlling the lights or TV via their computer.

"This is the most meaningful computer science project I have ever done," Prakash said. "I've never worked on software that would help people out, so this was interesting and new. It's not just going to sit in some university database. It's going to be used out there."

The undergraduates working with ASG also expressed enthusiasm.

"It's really exciting," said Miller, a senior.

"What we've created could help someone use a computer who would never have been able to use a computer before," said Taylor, who, like Rodenhaus and Story, graduated from UB in spring. "It's satisfying, just to enable somebody to do what I take for granted every day."

Taylor is CEO of EclectiSystems Inc., a company he, Miller, Rodenhaus and Story formed to distribute OmniSwitch.

The four met in fall 2009 in an upper-level software engineering course taught by Michael F. Buckley, a teaching assistant professor and co-director of UB's nationally recognized Center for Socially Relevant Computing. Students in the class design technologies to solve real-world problems Buckley presents, demonstrating how the computer science and engineering professions can change lives.

A videotaped interview with Michael Buckley is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5zNLzarzxWc.

The OmniSwitch team members designed the single-switch computer navigation system in fall 2009, and built the necessary software in spring 2010 as classmates in a second course that serves as an extension of the first.

In place of a mouse and keyboard, OmniSwitch allows users to control a computer with a single switch that plugs into a computer's USB port. The switch can take the shape of a large button, a sip and puff tube that detects air flow, or an eye gaze device that detects a person's blink. These access devices accommodate a disabled person's capabilities, allowing him or her to use the computer like a full-functioning individual.

Here's how OmniSwitch works: The program employs a feature called "auto-scan" that scans through options on a computer screen, which includes launching programs, scrolling in an open window or using a virtual keyboard. When users see the item they want highlighted, they click on it using their switch.

Once an application or the Internet is open, a system of moving crosshairs enables users to select and click on any spot on the screen. Plug-ins enable users to control programs like Windows Media Player through auto-scan.

Fogel and Prakash, the master's students working with ASG, are Buckley's research assistants.

The speech-generation software they are developing is a "button builder," which enables patients to communicate by pressing buttons on a computer screen. Each button prompts the computer to speak or type a customized word or phrase, or to take an action that could include opening a user's e-mail or making a call on Skype. Patients and therapists can customize as many buttons as they want.

Though Fogel and Prakash are coding their program from scratch, their project builds on concepts used in Talker, a speech-generation device that students had developed previously in a class that Buckley taught with Kris Schindler, co-director of the Center for Socially Relevant Computing.

In addition to the VA, the UB Center for Advanced Biomedical and Bioengineering Technology (UB CAT), funded by the New York State Foundation for Science, Technology and Innovation, is helping ASG fund Fogel and Prakash's work.

"The VA's innovations program was instrumental in enabling us to take an idea from Mike Buckley's lab, engage UB engineering students, and produce a product that meets not only the VA's needs but will ultimately help a large population of handicapped individuals," said ASG President Paul Buckley.

"ASG has worked with the school of engineering for many years to provide lab equipment, work with student interns, support scholarship and share ideas. I'm pleased that New York State sees the value of this type of relationship and supports the ongoing effort," Paul Buckley added. "The university, with its depth of faculty and student talent, is underutilized by local industry. UB has a wealth of information and ability, and continues to provide ASG not only with very capable interns but also with our current and future full-time staff. Local industry should take advantage of this local resource whenever they can."

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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