Build18 Gets Students Gadgeting

 

March 2, 2010

A robotic head that can track your face and move in time when you clap, or a sweatshirt for bicyclists with buttons on the sleeves that activate LED "turn signals" on the back of the shirt. Sounds like products that might be coming to a store near you, right? Well they might. Someday. But for now they're ECE student projects under way as part of the department's student-led Build18 initiative.

Launched as a pilot project at the end of the 2009 spring semester, Build18 is a week of "tinkering and gadgeting" that encourages groups of students to innovate and create solutions to problems of their own choosing, free from the threat of tests, formal exams and project reviews. With the help of corporate sponsors and additional resources of lab space, equipment and conference rooms supplied by the ECE Department, students at all levels can find a few friends and finally tackle the project that lack of time or resources once prevented.

The beginning of the 2010 spring semester marked Build18's first "official" week of activities, but it built on the momentum created by the program's 2009 pilot. When the 2009-2010 academic year began, ECE students from the department's IEEE student chapter sprang into action to keep the energy and excitement flowing for the program, which originated as an idea in the Student Advisory Council. IEEE officers, including Max Buevich, John Sexton and Steve Thompson, joined forces with Eta Kappa Nu officer Yush Gupta to form the Build18 leadership team. This group of gadgeting enthusiasts scheduled the first full-fledged event for January, created a wiki, held information sessions for other interested students and sought out sponsors - including Qualcomm (this year's platinum sponsor), Google and SparkFun.

Then the fun started. The 2010 edition of Build18 kicked off Jan. 9, when 16 groups of students picked up parts for their creations and met with their teammates. Intense tinkering continued that week, culminating in demos of progress to-date on Jan. 15. Projects featured in the initial demo included "Keep on Tracking," a robotic head that can track your face and move in time when someone claps; "Fun With WiFi," a device that will allow a user to gauge the signal strength of a network and communicate that information to a server over WiFi; LabRat 2.0, a system of cameras strategically placed in Hamerschlag Hall connected to a web interface that would allow people to see locations like the cluster (and free food hot spots!) and provide Twitter-like comments about what's going on; "BikeLite," a sweatshirt with buttons on the sleeves that activate LED "turn signal" lights on the back of the shirt; "Autonomous Mobot," a robot that can navigate a course on its own by following a white line; "Micro-Swarm Platform," a group of robots with infrared detectors and emitters that can operate both independently and as a group; "Glovinator," a glove communicator equipped with flex sensors that can detect movements like sign language or a virtual instrument and translate that information to a computer via USB; "Shadow Pad," an electronic drum set constructed from mouse pads wired with vibration sensors; a patient-monitoring system; and "Air Guitar Hero," a normal pair of gloves outfitted with sensors that allow Guitar Hero players to strum away - without the guitar.

In addition to setting student teams up with the parts they needed to tinker and gadget, Build18 also featured programming to inspire innovation, what the Wall Street Journal recently called "a prime factor in driving economic growth." Mid-week, students had a chance to hear from Eric Bilange, senior director for engineering and entrepreneur-in-residence at Qualcomm Incubator Lab. Bilange discussed exactly what innovation is - the introduction of anything new that has an impact - and offered tips for doing it successfully, from generating ideas and prototyping to product testing and taking the innovation to market.

Even though the week ended, Build18 isn't over. Just the opposite. Students will refine, retool and retinker all semester, coming together again on ECE Day at the end of April for final presentations of their work. Qualcomm will also return to campus that day and honor one team with the Qualcomm Innovation Award.

For more on Build18, see www.build18.org. For more on the origins of the program, see the article on page 14 of the most recent issue of Currents: www.ece.cmu.edu/news/currents/currents_f09.pdf.

Sophomore Nipunn Koorapati demonstrates his group's Air Guitar Hero (top); Juniors Kevin Li and Suyog Sonwalkar model their Glovinator project (bottom).