Students Use Texas Instrument’s New Innovation Lab to Dream Up Gadgets

A wearable device to help the deaf communicate and a 3-D printer that can make circuit boards are just some of the projects being developed

22 May 2015

What could a group of engineering students create if they had unlimited access to an array of technologies? That’s what Texas Instruments is trying to find out. The company has built a laboratory within the UTDesign Studio where students work on projects at the nearby University of Texas, Dallas, and have the freedom to create almost anything they can think of, including new smartphone applications and biomedical devices.

The T.I. Innovation Lab opened its doors in February. The 102-square-meter space is equipped with sensors, processors, a soldering station, and power electronics. More than 100 university students have used it for classroom labs and projects in its first few months.

“UT Dallas has a startup mentality,” says Rodney Wetterskog, assistant dean of the university’s Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science and the lab’s director. “The lab provides students with a space where they can work on projects of their choosing, which helps make them passionate about innovation. It also gives them the freedom to fail and try again.”

Among the student projects are a device that translates American Sign Language into words on a computer screen; a cellphone cover that measures users’ vital signs, such as heart rate and respiration; and a 3-D printer that can create circuit boards. “The sky is the limit,” says IEEE Member Roozbeh Jafari, an associate professor of engineering at the university. “Because students can create anything they’d like, their projects can be the seed for a startup company.”

INSIDE THE LAB

Jafari and three of his students are using the lab to develop a device that can translate American Sign Language into words on a computer screen to help those who are deaf communicate with others who do not know sign language. 

The system is currently set up as a glove embedded with sensors that can detect the movement of the fingers and hands when making signs. It uses six motion sensors to capture hand movement and four electromyography (EMG), or muscle, sensors to detect muscle activity in the fingers. Instead of placing the sensors along the fingers, which can be cumbersome, explains Jafari, the device will eventually house the sensors in a device similar to a wristwatch. The EMG sensors can detect muscle activity throughout the hand directly from the wrist.

When those who communicate in American Sign Language use the device, their hand gestures are interpreted wirelessly via Bluetooth through a software system that can currently translate 40 signs, including those for please, excuse me, and thanks. The translation then appears on a computer screen—and potentially on a mobile device—and is audible for the person that is being communicated to. The computer system can also translate spoken words into sign language on the screen for two-way communication.

IEEE Student Member Tim Cogan and his team have used the lab to design a tricorder—a handheld gadget inspired by the “Star Trek” franchise that can monitor and diagnose health conditions. The students created a smartphone cover with sensors that measure heart rate, body temperature, respiration, and even fat mass when fingers are placed on it. The case is made with stainless-steel electrodes as well as LEDs and photodiodes for monitoring biosignals.

The user’s metrics are then processed in a microcontroller located in the cover and streamed wirelessly to the product’s smartphone app via Bluetooth.

Another group is modifying a 3-D printer that can print with copper paste, which can be used to make circuit boards for rapid prototyping and will expand the possibilities for what people can create with a printer.

EDUCATING ENTREPRENEURS

Wetterskog points out that the university helps students wanting to start a business or launch a product while they’re still in school. To that end, the lab is partnering with the university’s Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship to help students create a business plan for their ideas. They must also complete a one-semester course that covers entrepreneurship, intellectual property, and creating a business model before presenting their ideas to potential investors. The university can also help form partnerships with companies to aid in developing student projects and bringing them to market.

To get funding, the school also encourages students to post their projects on sites like Kickstarter. Students, not the university, own 100 percent of their products, notes Wetterskog.

“Companies on their own are limited in what they can do because they have to focus on turning a profit, which creates a challenge for them to work on innovations that are high risk and far out into the future,” Jafari notes. “But academia is set up for this challenge.”

The lab, Jafari adds, is a great way to give students the experience of building out of a garage, only with the support of mentorship and funding. He believes labs like the one at UT Dallas represent the future of engineering programs in higher education.

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