Bala worked at CUbiC for a total of six years — two during high school and four as an ASU undergraduate. The semester before he graduated with his bachelor’s degree, Bala was offered a Thiel Fellowship. These competitive awards are marketed as an incentive for talented young entrepreneurs to drop out of school and pursue their ventures full-time.

Bala, however, was able to finish his studies and start the fellowship after graduating instead. Now, he’s continuing the assistive technology work he started at CUbiC, this time with a wearable wristband he hopes to patent and bring to market. 

The device is similar to a smartwatch, except it doesn’t have a screen. Instead, it communicates via sensations that move across the skin. For example, if the user is following directions and needs to make a left turn, the wristband can provide those cues entirely through the haptic feedback.

Like McDaniel, Bala was inspired to pursue research at CUbiC because he wanted to help people.

“I don’t think I would be as engaged with the research if I felt that the end product wouldn’t be contributing to someone’s life in a very tangible way,” Bala said. “It makes me feel much better about the work, and I really enjoyed working with people at CUbiC because everybody has that shared goal or shared enthusiasm for building projects like that.”

Do-it-yourself solutions

Other students at CUbiC have been motivated by a problem they were facing firsthand. That was the case for ASU student David Hayden, a double major in computer science and mathematics. Hayden is legally blind, and his impaired vision was hindering his ability to keep up in his upper-division math classes. He had an optics piece that made the board easier to see, but he would lose a lot of time between looking up and reading the board, then looking back down to write his notes.

“I was struggling with the assistive technologies that already existed, and at some point I realized they just weren’t solving my problems,” Hayden said.

Hayden approached Panchanathan to find out if the CUbiC team had a solution, but Panchanathan had a different idea.

“I said, ‘You’re a very bright student. Why don’t you come and work in my lab with the other students to see how we can solve this problem? Who better understands this problem than you?’” Panchanathan recalled.

Hayden rose to the challenge. Working with a team of mechanical engineers, electrical engineers and industrial designers, he conceived an idea and secured funding from the National Science Foundation to help bring it to fruition.

He developed a device that combines a custom-built camera and a tablet computer. The camera can zoom and tilt as needed to capture a classroom lecture. It uploads video footage to the tablet, which has a split-screen interface. That way, the user can watch the video on one half of the screen and make typed or handwritten notes on the other half simultaneously.

Hayden called the device NoteTaker. After he graduated from ASU, his team formed a company to make the invention widely available. Today, about 50 people ranging in age from 7 to 55 are using NoteTaker. Hayden’s team also won first place in the Software Design category of the Microsoft Imagine Cup U.S. Finals, and then went on to take second place in the same category of the Imagine Cup World Finals.

Hayden is now a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, working on computer vision and machine learning projects. He wants to use technology to improve social interactions for people at all levels of the ability spectrum.

“I imagine wearable computers that stay out of our way, that don’t interrupt us when we’re engaging with others, but at small points in time can give us little bits of useful information just in the moment,” Hayden said. For him, disability has been a personal “call to arms” to create solutions. Hayden credits CUbiC for providing the tools he needed to solve his own challenges.

“CUbiC was really a nurturing space for me to build a worldview that enabled me and continues to enable me to work on technological solutions to everyday problems, whether they’re for people who are disabled or not.”

Allie Nicodemo

Communications specialist, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development