Engineering a Better World: Kinecthesia

Hacking is a good thing. Or can be a good thing. As defined by Eric Berdinis and Jeff Kiske, two Computer Engineering juniors, hacking is the repurposing of a system or a device. In the case of their project, Kinecthesia, the result was an award-winning invention that enables the visually impaired to navigate through open space.

A new major developed by André DeHon, associate professor of Electrical and Systems Engineering (ESE), Computer Engineering spans and mines the divide between hardware and software technology. Along with five other undergraduates, Berdinis and Kiske are helping to shape the program by the very choices they make among the rich array of computer science and electrical engineering courses. (They prefer the term"pioneers" to "guinea pigs.")

And pioneers they are. Kiske, a self-taught programmer from St. Louis who began creating and selling video games early on, and Berdinis, a self-described"tinkerer" from Houston, Texas, met as brothers in Penn's Theta Chapter of Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT). They soon found themselves in many of the same courses at Penn Engineering and their fate as collaborators was sealed in ESE 350: Introduction to Embedded Systems, taught by Rahul Mangharam, Stephen J. Angello Term Assistant Professor in ESE.

The Assignment

Mangharam's design challenge for the spring 2011 semester was to create a medical device that would improve the health and/or well-being of an individual. Berdinis and Kiske imagined their task at hand to be assisting the visually impaired to move about more easily. To that end, they set about hacking a Kinect, a motion-sensing apparatus used in video gaming. The result was Kinecthesia, which uses the belt-mounted
Kinect to detect objects in a user's path and relay the information by vibration.

Berdinis enjoys telling the story of a final-hour fail and a last-minute save as he and Kiske readied Kinecthesia for their project presentation to Mangharam. A down-to-the-wire purchase of a Kinect USB cable at GameStop was soldered onto the system as a last resort. Murphy's Law was finally thwarted and disaster averted.

Berdinis and Kiske's take-away lesson from the adventure was the idea of invention as a series of tries and retries ideally free from the labels of success or failure. The team of two is quick to point out and marvel at the specialized expertise, some of it bordering on esoteric, that they were able to find among their classmates. Their project found completion with a synergy and intellectual generosity that defines this group of Penn Engineers.

Kinecthesia ultimately did meet with success, and in unexpected ways—at least to Kiske. On a solitary mission, Berdinis entered their project into Google's Zeitgeist Young Minds Americas 2011 competition. Berdinis uploaded a minute-long entry video pitching Kinecthesia's potential positive impact on the world. When it came time to reveal his secret, the news was even better: they had won the competition.

National Attention

Google delivered: Berdinis, as the applicant, was flown to Arizona to attend Google's Zeitgeist Conference, an invitation-only "thinkfest" featuring speakers and notables like Ariana Huffington, Mark Cuban, and the executive director of Google, Dr. Eric Schmidt. Seemingly confident in their ability to improvise and think on their feet, Google notified Berdinis only on his arrival in Arizona that he would be on the Spirit of the Time panel moderated by Chelsea Clinton. Watch his impressive contribution on YouTube:

As they focus on refining Kinecthesia, Berdinis and Kiske are also involved in securing funding for its development. The entrepreneurial team will again be taking their show on the road in early May, when they will compete as finalists in the Cornell Cup, a national-level contest in which they have made the final cut. With their great working relationship and respect for one another's strengths and talent, Berdinis and Kiske are already winners.

Editor's Note: Additional congratulations to Eric Berdinis and Jeff Kiske for Kinecthesia's first-place finish at the Intel Innovators Competition!

Read the full article in Penn Engineering magazine, "Engineering a Better World" by Patricia Hutchings.

Interested? Learn more!

Kinecthesia website
mLab website
Computer Engineering website

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