CMU, Pitt receive $15 million research grant

Patrick Pettibon Aug 27, 2006

Researchers in Pittsburgh are embarking on their first year of finding new ways to give sight to the blind, mobility to the handicapped, and independence to the elderly.

The National Science Foundation has awarded Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh a five-year, $15 million grant to establish the new Quality of Life Technology Engineering Research Center. At the center, members of the scientific, engineering, and medical communities will work together to develop technologies to help older adults and people with disabilities live more independently and productively.

The group of researchers is still working on the total concept of the project, said Cliff Brubaker, dean of the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. The National Science Foundation has a lot of requirements, he said, and there has to be something very fundamental to the work they do.

The focus of the project is to increase the independence, quality of life, and self-determination of people who are aging and people with disabilities.

“What should result from this is something that does not exist today,” Brubaker said.

According to Howard Wactlar, vice-provost for research computing at Carnegie Mellon, there is no requirement to put products into the market.

“We have a broader mission in our work,” he said.

Wactlar has pointed out four main thrusts for the research. The first is Monitoring and Modeling, in which researchers will try to capture certain aspects of human behavior and further understand certain aspects of machine learning.

The second thrust is Mobility and Manipulation. Researchers will attempt to develop technologies to make it easier for people with disabilities to get around and to allow new machines to understand the capabilities of the user.

One new machine in development is called an Intelligent Mobility Platform. The machine works much like a traditional walker, adding stability for the user, but can also help users find their way to their destination. Wactlar said researchers hope to develop a walker that could go up steps or could prevent the user from bumping into walls and obstacles.

The third research thrust is Human-System Interfaces, which aids in communication or helps in perception of the world. In 2004, the National Center for Health Statistics estimated that 35.1 million Americans have hearing impairment and 19.1 million have vision problems. This leg of the research initiative is aimed at making life easier for people with sensory deficits. One such project is Trinetra, a device which scans barcodes intended to assist blind people in the grocery store.

Priya Narasimhan, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and computer science, developed the device. She said she got the idea while watching how difficult it was for the blind to catch a bus on a snowy Pittsburgh night.

Dan Rossi, a staff member in middleware services, mentor for the project, and blind user of Trinetra, has used the device to shop at Entropy.

Human-system interfaces are also aimed at making life easier for those with physical or cognitive deficits that make communication difficult. EdgeWrite, a system originally designed for Palm Pilots and other handheld PDAs, could make writing easier for patients with Parkinson’s disease or those who might have suffered a stroke. The user traces letters around the edges of a square outline which steadies the tip of the pen.

The final thrust, Person in Society, focuses on how the new technologies can be used in the real world.
“Scientists often come up with brilliant mechanisms,” Wactlar said, “but the people who need them might find they can’t acquire them.”

Wactlar pointed out a few obstacles to the acceptance of new technologies by people with disabilities. Expense is one important obstacle, he said, and so is the plausibility of the use of new technologies.

“One of the things we’ve done here at the University of Pittsburgh is engaging people with disabilities,” Brubaker said. “This is probably a unique instance of the collaboration of people who are capable in science and technology and people with interest and value in production in the field.”

The biggest challenge for the first year of research, Wactlar said, is to work on machine understanding and to gain a fuller understanding of the technology.

In the future, researchers will break the larger problems of human behavior and machine learning into simple solvable problems. Wactlar cited, for example, the challege of getting people with disabilities onto a bus.

The final goal of the center is to build a broader community of researchers and to develop a new field of technology, Wactlar said. Currently, a total of 13 universities and colleges are involved in the research and in the application of new technologies to all groups of people.

“One needs to realize the challenges are many, and we’d love with time to build a community among others who are working in the field,” Wactlar said. “[We want to] help develop the tools and message that others can use.”