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I was a nerdy kid.

On the playground in elementary school, I was a target for teasing and bullying.  Soon, I discovered that I could spend recess next door, in the special ed classroom.  The kids there were always happy to play, and were never anything but kind to me.  They took care of me.

Many years later, while finishing my bachelor's degree in computer engineering, I had to choose a senior design project.  A hands-free wheelchair control system sounded like an interesting challenge, so my partner and I began reverse engineering an old power chair and investigating methods of tracking eye movement.  A year later, we had a chair that could be controlled through eye movements and sips/puffs on a straw... almost.  It occasionally drifted off course, breaking free from the user's control.

Our chair was featured in an issue of the campus newspaper, and that night I returned home to find a voice mail message.  The caller said that her friend had been struck by a car while riding his bike to school, causing a traumatic brain injury that left him with locked-in syndrome.  She hoped that our work could help him.  At that moment, something clicked.  I knew what I was going to do with the rest of my life, and I couldn't have been more excited.  I'm going to help people with disabilities.

I continued the project, and it became the subject of my electrical engineering master's thesis.  I ran into a wall when I finally realized that the steering drift of the chair was caused by a problem inherent in electrooculogram (EOG) based eye tracking.  As I searched for a way to circumvent this issue, I expanded my research to include other methods of eye tracking, and the expansive field of smart wheelchair technology.  There had to be another way.

I completed my master's, and found my way to Assistive Technology Partners in Denver.  At ATP, I had the opportunity to work closely with an incredible team of physical and occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists, who taught me about the equipment and techniques that are currently used in the field.  I obtained practical, hands-on experience with each of the commercially available eye tracking systems, communication devices, power wheelchair brands, and drive control methods.  I realized that I didn't know anything until I saw real people using established technology in their every-day lives.

I saw a better way to interface with all brands of power wheelchairs, allowing us to take advantage of preexisting computer access methods.  I saw a better way to track eye movements, through established video-based systems.  I saw how these ideas can be combined to finally produce a functional system.  However, I also saw that the eyes aren't always the key.  While eye tracking does amazing things for many people, others cannot benefit due to spasticity, decreased oculomotor control, positioning difficulties, infrared interference, and cognitive issues.  If I want to help as many people as possible, with the most severe disabilities, I have to go past the eyes, to the brain.

With this in mind, my next step was to get a Ph.D. from a program that would give me hands-on experience with brain-computer interfaces (BCIs).  I was offered a full fellowship at the University of Florida, so I moved across the country to join the Computational Neuroengineering Lab and work with Dr. Jose Principe.  There, I developed signal processing and machine learning methods to aid in post-stroke motor rehabilitation, using an EEG-based BCI and therapeutic robotics.

Now I have a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering, and a portion of the knowledge that I will need to make BCIs work for people with disabilities.  It's time to find the right collaborators and get to work.

Copyright © 2012 Gavin Philips. All rights reserved.