The results of Software Engineering 481, an upper-level design class, go far beyond grades both for the students and their most promising projects.
"481 is a tech incubator," said David Chesney, Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) instructor.
In the course, he gives 50 juniors and seniors state-of-the-art tools and sics them on a tough and specialized problem. In winter 2011, the tools were Microsoft Xbox 360s and Kinect sensors. The Kinect replaces a game controller by recognizing players' body movements. The assignment was to design games that could help kids with autism improve their focus, communication or social skills.
Each of the 50 students submitted a proposal. Chesney, health professionals and the students in the class whittled the ideas down to 10 that teams of students would push forward. Here's a sampling:
- DJ Recess used music to help players recognize tone, as autistic people often struggle to understand emotion through a person's tone of voice.
- Tickle Monster helped players assign meaning to facial expressions. Players used hand motions to tickle an avatar until the look on its face suggested the player should stop.
- Jump Rope is a virtual version of the playground pastime that trains players to focus, even in the midst of distractions.
- Path challenges players to trace a particular shape in the air as a way to improve concentration and gross motor skills.
Roger Archbold, a strategic alliance manager for U.S. education at Microsoft, visited the class several times to witness the progress. The company had donated two Xbox 360s and six Kinect sensors to the effort.
"I was just amazed at how sharp these students were—how far and fast they'd come since our original meeting," Archbold said. "It was mind-boggling."
After some game trials and expert consultation, Chesney chose to advance Jump Rope and Path toward commercialization. A group of eight students from 481 and the more basic, freshman-level Gaming for the Greater Good course committed to the projects over the summer. CSE senior Devin Smith was one of the 481 students.
"Getting the chance to work on new technology with a professor who is just as excited as you are to see the possibilities that open up from it is a great experience for everyone involved," Smith said.
And each semester, the possibilities unfold in real time.
Two years ago, before the class was focused on autism, a student team created a solution that could enable cerebral palsy patients to use a tablet computer as a lower-cost device to translate typed text into audible speech. Individuals with cerebral palsy have trouble pushing small buttons, so they need alternatives to traditional keyboards to input text. The students' app turned the whole screen into an adaptive technology switch—a button with rotating letters and functions, explained Joe Kryza, executive director of infrastructure and system operations at the U-M Health System.
"This app would drop the cost of this technology by 90 percent. Otherwise, you have to buy a customized high-end PC," said Kryza, who started the Gaming for the Greater Good cascade several years ago when he approached Chesney's department with a proposal to work together to develop beneficial technologies for patients.
The students have received inquiries from all over the world about their app. They're refining it and hope to make it commercially available soon.
"It was a total surprise to us that the app was so good," Chesney said. "There were wonderful students working on it, but at the end of the semester, it was like, 'Holy Cow! We've pressed the right buttons, and there's a little bit of magic here.'"