The improvised pupil-tracker is still a work in progress for the developers as well as the first customer. Because it’s not easy for Grace to keep her head still, the students also hooked up a joystick. Grace’s mother, Jennifer Simon, is optimistic.
“It would be very exciting,” she said, “for her to put her own thoughts on to paper.”
At the moment, Grace is still getting used to all the tools that one of the students installed in her home in March. It will take time before she can use them proficiently. Though she’s an ace at driving her powered wheelchair today, she’s had ten years to practice.
For the tools themselves, Chesney is setting up a nonprofit incubator this summer to help turn them and other promising projects into viable products. He’ll involve U-M Medical School faculty, assistive technology experts and technology transfer mentors. After students take his class, they can be involved for either independent study credit or, in some cases, a paid internship.
Chesney, a lecturer in computer science and engineering, has had students who take this course develop software for people with special needs for the past three years. At first the assignment was general. The second year, students focused on autism. And the third, they narrowed not just to one condition, but one person – Grace. Concepts with commercial potential have come out of every cohort.
In 2012, there was PATH. Students designed the game to help autistic children improve their focus and gross motor skills. It’s a Kinect game, so players use Microsoft’s body-movement sensor and trace in the air the shape that they see on the screen. A neurosurgeon saw another possibility: Maybe it could work as a therapy aid for people with brachial plexus palsy. The condition is caused by birth damage to the nerves between a baby’s neck and arm, and its main treatment is regular exercise of the affected arm. Informal tests were promising, so in 2013, researchers conducted a clinical trial with patients to see if it’s actually effective. The results haven’t been published yet, but Chesney says they appear positive.
“I expect it to be the first product in the company store,” he said.
Also on the cusp is ASK Interfaces, an operating system for Android mobile devices. Several years ago students designed it as an app to bring email and texting to people with cerebral palsy or other conditions that make it hard to tap small buttons. Fairly quickly, they realized connecting it to email would be tricky because of proprietary issues. So they expanded it to become a new platform that could run behind all programs on an Android device. The system essentially turns the whole screen into a button and cycles through options.
The team has given away thousands of copies of ASK to people around the globe, said Chris McMeeking, a computer science undergrad who’s been on the ASK team from the start. It’s also the enabler of a lot of the apps and games students in Chesney’s class have made since.
McMeeking is excited about the incubator and the support it could give students. He understands how hard it is to move technology from the classroom to the marketplace. He’s been trying to do that with ASK for several years.
“The population of people who need these things doesn’t interest venture capitalists,” he said. “It’s not that they don’t care, per se. But your typical VC is looking for something that would turn a $100,000 investment into a million dollar company. The population is just not large enough to justify that investment.”
But McMeeking, who’s been a teaching assistant in Chesney’s class for more than two years, isn’t giving up. He’s wanted to run an assistive tech company since he was a teenager in Homer, Mich.
His mother cared for a young woman with special needs. She had spent years fine-tuning the speech recognition software and macros on her laptop so she could use it productively.
One day, the laptop crashed.
“She lost it all. And it just killed her will to use the computer again. It was heartbreaking.”
He remembers thinking that it shouldn’t be so hard.