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Oklahoma Christian Engineering Students Receive High Honor for Amazing Project

by: Stafford North | May 16, 2017

At the annual Oklahoma Christian Associates’ Dinner on April 6, OC President John deSteiguer closed the session by sharing a great story with the more than 700 in attendance including Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin and former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating.

Dr. deSteiguer told the story of how Ash Srinivas, an engineering student in the Master’s program at Oklahoma Christian, wanted to help a friend who was suffering from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).  The student, along with Steve Maher, OC Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering, defined a project to develop a system by which one could use eye movement to control a computer.  Functions desired were for the person to be able to use text-to-speech, typing in a notepad or journal, email, and web-browsing.  A team of three OC ECE students, Daniel Griffin, Allison Chilton, and Drew Harris, whose team name was eyePad, developed a prototype which was able to accomplish a good number of these functions.  His friend was able to use this prototype before he died.

This initial device, while workable, needed improvements and so a group of OC engineering students were chartered to upgrade the system in the last year.  The team, who called themselves VisuALS, was comprised of Josh Bilello, Aubrey Gonzalez, Preston Kemp, and Tyler Sriver.  In January of 2017, they demonstrated their system at an ALS support group meeting and met an ALS patient by the name of Carl Phelps.  Carl was highly interested in the text-to-speech, where the user can spell on a computer and then have a voice speak the words which the person had spelled. At that first meeting, Carl jumped on and used the system for forty-five minutes.  With it he could speak audibly for the first time in several months.  The first thing he said was to his wife—“I love you.”

In late January, the team installed the software and configured the hardware in Carl’s home in Chickasha, Oklahoma.  “Carl’s lively and witty personality was able to shine through thanks to the VisuALS app giving him the freedom to converse with us as he wished,” said Aubrey Gonzalez, a senior electrical engineering major.  “The visit ended in happy tears, with Carl and Janice saying a prayer for our future success in this endeavor.”  The Phelps are members of the church of Christ and have been friends for over 50 years with Joe and Lottie McCormack, long-time members of the OC community.

The team continued to refine the system, which also is now called VisuALS, with Carl’s desire to make more effective use of it as a big motivator for them.  Russ McGuire, the team’s business plan coach and OC’s entrepreneur-in-residence, said that “When finished, VisuALS will also allow a user to e-mail, browse the web, keep a journal, control lights, and sound an alarm.”  The story of what this development has meant to the Phelps family has been featured on local television and on national news sources.

The OC students entered their system along with an innovative business plan in a competition in the state of Oklahoma which used to be called the Governor’s Cup but which is now styled “The Love’s Entrepreneur’s Cup.”  The team, comprised of Gonzalez along with computer engineering majors Sriver, Bilello, and Kemp, plus accounting major Jevon Seaman and marketing major Kevin McGuire, were awarded first place among all entries in the Small Business Division.  The students plan to take the device into the market to sell for $3,000 in comparison to existing systems which cost in the range of $10,000-$20,000.

What good news that OC students, along with their advisors, have the capability of developing such a system and what good news that a project that can bring such joy to those living at a time of serious handicap motivated them to work hard to perfect the device.

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