ECE professor innovates

Enthusiasm and creativity make up the backbone of any kind of research. Priya Narasimhan’s research reiterates just this. An assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and computer science, Narasimhan’s enthusiasm and innovative attitude have led to the development of a number of technologies, ranging from assistive technologies to aid the blind to technologies that can help avid sports fans view their favorite game more closely in the stadium.

Narasimhan’s most famous project has been Trinetra, aimed at developing technologies to assist the blind. As stated in a Carnegie Mellon press release, the project first started with the development of the “Grocery Assistant,” which was a barcode scanner that could relay the prices of different items via a cell phone to a blind person. Over the course of two years, the project has expanded and now a currency identifier and a transportation system that voices different bus schedules to the blind have been developed. Narasimhan explained the importance of the currency identifier by saying, “The U.S. is one country where all the [currency] notes are of the same size, shape, texture, and color. The way blind people cope is that they fold notes in unique ways.” The currency identifier simply takes a picture of a small part of the note with a camera, and by processing the received information, sends a message back to the user telling them what note it is.

Although the assistive technologies have been a source of pride for Narasimhan, what excites her right now are her sports-related projects. “I’m a huge sports fan,” Narasimhan said. “I think anyone who comes to Pittsburgh will eventually get addicted to the Steelers and football in general.” Narasimhan’s students agree that combining sports with professional work makes the work a lot more interesting. According to Michael Chuang, a Ph.D. student in ECE, “We all like sports. This is just a fun way to combine our hobby with academic work.”

Taking up a light subject like sports as a research topic is definitely an unusual step. As Karl Fu, a master’s student in ECE, said, “I didn’t know a professor would actually do ‘research’ on [sports]. All of Priya’s sports engineering projects never feel like research; instead, they feel like a chance to completely change the sports industry.”

Like the research topic, the devices being developed are very unique. “Smart” equipment is being developed to avoid incorrect decisions made by referees. Narasimhan explained this idea by saying, “What if you could build things that could automatically do refereeing?” Her idea was to embed a number of sensors in balls used in games like football so that it would be possible to figure out where the ball landed at various moments throughout the game. In this way, referees’ decisions as to who caught the ball, would not have to be ambiguous and could be automatically decided. “We’ve actually taken a football, ripped it open, and put sensors inside it; we’ve actually created a smart football,” Narasimhan said. They have also developed gloves with sensors that can detect who caught the ball what pressure was applied on the ball, and even with what force the ball was released. Narasimhan hopes that these “smart” footballs and gloves will be used in sports training sessions. Another exciting project related to sports is the Yinz Cam. The Yinz Cam consists of a number of cameras positioned all around the stadium that can be connected to the users’ cell phones and can relay close-up images from different angles to the viewers.

The team is currently deploying this technology in Mellon Arena, where the Penguins play, and plans to run pilot tests when the arena opens up. “The project presents a huge challenge in the sense that no one has attempted to wirelessly stream video to that many clients,” Fu said.

The Yinz Cam technology can be developed further in a variety of ways. Chuang proposed a possible extension to the Yinz Cam. “I’ve always griped about [the fact that] there are 10 football games going on at the same time. It’d actually be very useful if you [could] flip between games during those long TV timeouts,” he said.

These exciting projects are only half of the reason why students are attracted to Narasimhan’s labs; the other half of the reason is Narasimhan herself. “Priya always comes up with ideas or directions that make you say ‘Wow! I never thought about doing that before.’ Every day is a challenge, but an experience I’ll never forget,” Fu said.