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Student Hackathon Builds Out Assistive Tech

An assistive technologies hackathon at MIT has kicked off development of a low-cost sip-and-puff joystick controller that allows the user to operate a smartphone, tablet or laptop. "Puffin," as the new device is called, won the top spot at ATHack, which took place earlier this year.

Seventeen teams met with 14 "clients," who are living with various disabilities, including paraplegia, diabetes, neuropathic facial pain and hearing and vision impairments. Each team is named after the client, who came up with the idea for the technology he or she needed. For Puffin that was Adriana Mallozzi, who lives with cerebral palsy. About two weeks before the programming event, she was teamed up with undergraduate and graduate students who specialize in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science and systems design.

During an initial meeting, the students learned about the project idea they'd be pursuing, and then they spent a week creating sketches and ideas and gathering together wheelchair details Mallozzi supplied. From there the team developed an overall design as well as the components they thought would be needed: something to hold the mouse, a physical joystick with pressure sensing built in, and a microcontroller plus Bluetooth modules to receive the signals from the joystick and send to the device being controlled.

ATHack 2015 was Mallozi's first hackathon experience. "I was in heaven that day and was so glad that the team won," she said in a prepared statement.

She worked as a tester alongside the team during the actual event. For example, said team member Ned Burnell, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering, Mallozzi vetted the pressure sensor to work for her sip and puff threshold, the length and shape of the joystick mouse, and the positioning of the device overall. "Her suggestions such as melting the plastic mouthpiece to be a more comfortable shape for her all made the process work," Burnell noted.

The prototype Puffin, which cost about $200 to make, is rainproof, fully positionable, can be mounted just about anywhere — whether on a bed, wheelchair or plane or train seat — and folds into a bag for transport. Settings of sensitivity are configurable for a given user.

The work continues on Puffin. Now members of the student team are pulling together grant money to make additional Puffin Joysticks to test this summer.

"If our goal was just to make something for Adriana, we'd be more than satisfied: after the hackathon she used Puffin to take a team selfie," the team wrote on its product Web site. But we'd like Puffin to be still smaller, cheaper and more configurable. We want to test it with more people, so we can make something useful in diverse situations. And we want to see how far we can go towards making interfaces tailored to people's abilities. We think this approach will work even outside those differences commonly labeled as 'disabilities.'"

This was the second ATHack held at MIT. The first one, held in 2014, was launched as a way to honor the late Seth Teller, who had inspired MIT students through a class he created in the fall of 2011 titled, "Principles and Practices in Assistive Technologies."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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