Computer Engineers Help Disabled Veterans Gain Independence

Last spring, Austin Miller, Robert Rodenhaus, Leonard Story Jr. and Matthew Taylor, classmates in a computer engineering class at the University of Buffalo, developed OmniSwitch, a software program that enables quadriplegics and other people with limited mobility to type letters, surf the web, listen to music and play computer games with a single button or switch.

Now, the UB students are bringing their OmniSwitch technology into the real world, working with Buffalo-based Applied Sciences Group (ASG) to develop the software for disabled veterans at the Spinal Cord Injury Center at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, Fla. The local technology firm has a $270,000 contract from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to develop an augmented communications network for spinal cord injury veterans at the Tampa center.

A second UB team – this one comprising computer science master’s students Ari Fogel and Praneeta Prakash – is working with ASG to develop a speech-generating software system that will enable nonverbal veterans to communicate with each other and caregivers via e-mail, text message, Skype. This same software would also be applied to tasks such as controlling the lights or television via the computer.

“This is the most meaningful computer science project I have ever done,” Prakash stated in a press release. “I’ve never worked on software that would help people out, so this was interesting and new. It’s not just going to sit in some university database. It’s going to be used out there.”

The undergraduates working with ASG also expressed enthusiasm.

“What we’ve created could help someone use a computer who would never have been able to use a computer before,” Taylor, who, like Rodenhaus and Story, graduated from UB in spring, stated. “It’s satisfying, just to enable somebody to do what I take for granted every day.”

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