Creative and collaborative marathons for innovation in combining electrical engineering with brainpower

Every year the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) holds Hackathons — brainstorming and collaborative marathons designed to rapidly produce working prototypes. This weekend a team of Temple graduate students took first place in the IEEE Brain Hackathon, hosted by Temple university. The winning project was a car remotely controlled by muscle movements tracked through sensors on the driver's body, linked to a computer program they wrote.

Ph.D students Andrew Powell and Christian Ward, joined by Masters students James Kollmer and Robert Irwin, were best in a field of seven teams from five universities and took the $1,000 top prize. A team from Columbia finished second and earned $500, while a team from Penn finished third for $300. Another team from Temple finished out of the money. The event was judged by a field of experts, including Dr. Iyad Obeid and Dr. Joseph Piccone from the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department.

Powell was elated and attributed the victory to the team's preparation. "We knew that we had to come up with an idea before the event. We knew we wanted a car, have it remote controlled, but we also wanted to integrate as much of our creative tools as possible."

The competition pitted teams of undergraduate and graduate students in a weekend of innovation and experimentation. Using wireless EEG devices on the brain and surface EMG electrodes on the muscles, teams collected data and used it in various applications.

Dr. Obeid ran the event, funded by the IEEE, the professional organization of electrical engineers. He said the annual events give students a taste of the cross-discipline field. "I was happy that we got to expose students to the real challenges of making neural signals actionable, which can be very rewarding and very difficult. And developing something in a very short time frame, that's a good experience."

Last year the IEEE joined forces with President Obama to create the Brain Initiative, lending their expertise to find solutions to assist neuroscience in their pursuits. As part of the increasing cross-disciplinary endeavors of science, this allows engineers to design devices to collect data and unlock the mysteries of the brain. Dr. Obeid said before the event, "There are tool sets electrical engineers have that neuroscientists don't. They can build gizmos to scan the brain neuroscientists can't."

This idea is the impetus behind this competition. The IEEE Brain Initiative created three events for this fall to challenge members to create new ways to expand understanding through devices, apps, or any other way. Temple hosts the second in the series, following an event in San Diego and before the workshop in Budapest. All events will offer cash prizes to the best projects.

-- Marco Cerino