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
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
The undergraduates working with ASG also expressed
"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
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.