Logo: University of Southern California

Viterbi Masters Candidate Rallies Student Coders to Aid the Disabled

Project:Possibility takes off, with support from the likes of Google and Mozilla
Eric Mankin
March 25, 2008 —

 A Viterbi computer science grad student has mobilized his classmates to work as volunteer programmers writing software to help people with medical problems.  One leading project is a system that will, it is hoped, eventually enable a paralyzed patient like the protagonist of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly to communicate more  easily than the eyeblink code seen in the film..

Project:Possibility which went into high gear November with a two-day, 24-hour contest, has continued to build momentum, gain corporate support, and attract industry mentors. It  has now led to a semester-long effort by 25 students developing five projects. Its website, http://www.projectpossibility.org, marked its first birthday March 21.

Let's Code!! SS12 gathering Nov. 17-18 brought out Viterbi student volunteers who spent a weekend writing software programs for the disabled under supervision of mentors from companies like Google

Christopher Leung, a young idealist from Contra Costa County who earned his BS at UCLA 1n 2004 and expects a Viterbi MS this May, is the sparkplug for the activity, which has attracted attention and support by a lineup of industry institutions like the Mozilla Foundation, Microsoft and mentors from companies like Google.

“The given,” he recounted. “is I have a passion for software. I looked around and found that there’s a lack of free – or any other software – for many needs of disabled persons.”

Leung’s first step was to form a group at JPL, where he works. “We got five people together in a room." The subsequent developments are  chronicled in detail on the Project: Possibility website news history(http://www.projectpossibility.org/news.php).

A key meeting took place in June, with the directors of Knowbility, http://www.knowbility.org/main/, an Austin, TX-based non-profit organization formed in 1999 "to make the Internet and other technology accessible to all people."

Knowbility was working, according to spokeswoman Beth Watson, on ATSTAR, an online course for teachers, administrators and parents of K-12 school age children with disabilities, helping them bring appropriate assistive technology into the classroom to improve the learning experience for children with disabilities. Originally funded by the Texas education agency, ATSTAR developed a whole set of tools.

"The logical “next step” for ATSTAR was to create a feature-match tool for ATSTAR graduates to use." explained Watson, "to allow ATSTAR users to plug in a students’ needs, and have the system return possible assistive technology devices that could aid this student. We are so grateful that our project was selected by Chris Leung and the group of students. We know they had several projects to choose from."

At the meeting, plans took shape for a Project:Possibility code-a-thon, at which programmers would over the course of a weekend, spend 24 hours crash-developing new applications.  And, but the time the event, SS12, "Code for a Cause," took place November 17-18, with participation by 30 grads and undergrads, organized in 6 teams, the focus had expande far beyond ATSTAR.

Projects included system to recognize currency (for the blind), video games that respond to simple yes/no controls, systems to help make existing websites more accessible to the disabled, and systems to allow tuning of musical instruments through simplified, accessible digital interfaces. (See photo galleries)

Industry judges reviewed the entries, and gave $200 cash prizes to each member of the four-person team who had created Word Predictor, an ingenious distant relative of the word processing programs that correct or complete words as they are typed. The team, made up of students Nitin Bhat, Ji Ma, David Richardson and Matthew Michihara, mentored by Michael Parker of Google.

The Word Predictor idea is to enable someone with  disabilities to write "with much fewer keystrokes. The technique was to prime
Word Predictors: from left: Michael Parker, David Richardson, Brad Fol, Ruoruo Zhang, Ji Ma, and Prateek Tandon,
the system with previous writing, ideally writing by the user, broken into one-word, two-word and three-word units, so that at every stage of composition the system displays guesses that, if correct, would be added to the words. 

The team put WP together from off the shelf open source components, the capabilities of which they increased by code they wrote themselves. And while the judges found WP the most impressive effort, they had high praise for others as well.

In early February, Leung and his collaborators announced the Semester Project. Teams would form to do projects. Industry would contribute both hardware and software: SunSPOT (Small Programmable Object Technology) software from Sun Microsystems; EyeTech TM3 eye-gaze tracking hardware by EyeTech.
On March 12, teams held a general meeting at USC to discuss their problems and kick off their efforts. "We had a guest board of six reviewers," said Leung - a group that consisted of an Assistant Program Manager from Northrop Grumman, two software engineers from NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a Ph.D student in EE and a Masters Student in CS from USC, and lastly, Murali Annavaram, a professor in the Viterbi School's Ming Hseih Department of Electrical Engineering.

"At the conclusion of the event," Leung continued, "we awarded prizes to four teams for their efforts over the past 4 weeks in the categories of best overall performance, best wiki page, most enthusiastic, and most improved."

Five teams are now working on projects including:

•    An assistive technology search engine (to help individuals locate specific technology that will address specific disabilities--currently no good search engine exists)
•    Mobile currency reader (continuing the same project from SS12 that recognizes value of currency after taking a picture of it)
•    Gesture Recognition Framework (using donated hardware from Sun Microsystems to capture movements or 'gestures' from a user that will ultimately activate some action on a PC or elsewhere)
•    Web captioning: universal closed captioning system for videos on the internet

And intriguingly, the Word Predictor team is back on its case — now armed with the EyeTech hardware.  And the vision is clear. Instead of eyeblinks, eye movements of a paralyzed patient like the one in Diving Bell and the Butterfly could code into computer word composition. If the patient happened to a journalist like the protagonist of the film, with a large corpus of existing written work to integrate into the software to guide word choices, the possibilities would be particularly rich.

Shanghai-bound: Project: Possibility founder Christopher Leung will maintain ties.
Meanwhile, Leung has continued his efforts - in the direction of institutionalizing the effort. "We are also planning to meet with educators to talk about getting this type of work into the university curriculum at USC and beyond, so that university students can not only receive credit for doing this type of work, but gain awareness so that they can make technology more accessible to disabled persons once they're actually working in industry. 

Leung will be leaving USC in May, when he's scheduled to receive his MS degree in computer science. "I will be moving to Shanghai, China in June and will be working to create awareness around accessibility and assistive technology there, while continuing my efforts and contributions to Project: Possibility remotely -- I will remain on the board of directors and contribute as a software developer to the organization.

"In the mean time, I am bringing new leadership into the project and building the community around this project.  This project was always meant to be a community project--driven by a community of software developers and disabled persons."

"I am very impressed at what Chris has achieved," says Carolyn Suckow, director of Student Affairs for Viterbi Master's and Professional Programs. "Project:Possibility is an outstanding example of engineering shaping society.  It would not be a success without his unifying efforts among students, faculty, and professional organizations."

Have an idea? Email <christopher.leung@projectpossibility.org>