ECE: Electrical & Computer Engineering
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Making Assistive Technology Engineer-Friendly

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Jason Grieves (Photograph by Christina O'Connor)

Jason Grieves (ECE ’08) loves a challenge. Legally blind for his first 16 years, Grieves and his family were told he’d never function without his thick lens glasses and that getting his high school diploma would be extremely difficult. He enlisted the help of friends, family, faith, and assistive tools – and graduated first in his Chesapeake, Va., class.

Wearing contact lenses but still with limited sight, Grieves decided upon a career perfecting assistive technology for students with disabilities and enrolled at Virginia Tech. He majored in computer engineering, although some warned that visually impaired students aren’t built for engineering and math – complicated equations and block diagrams seem inherently visual and aren’t easily translated by computerized assistive technology.

“But I knew tools could be developed,” Grieves said, “and I have a passion to help others.”

Jason Grieves (Photograph by Christina O'Connor)

Grieves did a joint internship with Microsoft and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, working with students with a variety of disabilities. Then he worked with IBM and, finding their AIX servers had no assistive tech support, worked to remedy that. He also served on the Virginia Tech’s Americans with Disabilities Act board and trained students with a variety of disabilities at the university’s Assistive Technologies Lab.

“I had a vested interest in assistive technology,” he said. “So I decided to do my undergraduate research project in this area.”

Assembling a team of five undergraduate cohorts with strong communication and engineering skills, Grieves set about investigating existing solutions for students with disabilities, particularly learning disabilities. Lynn Abbott, a faculty member with a strong image-processing background, was their advisor. Although their initial goal for the research was focused on the interpretation of printed mathematical functions, after research, the group decided to develop a broader prototype.

They brainstormed ideas for new software. The group found the most useful technology employed bimodal learning, allowing students to hear and see printed material. Concerned with the lack of user-friendly materials for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, they decided to develop a graphical user interface (GUI) that provided several features including scanning, OCR, and organization integration.

 (Photograph by Christina O'Connor)

“Also, the commercial software was extremely expensive,” Grieves said. “We felt it was important to develop a new solution. Hence, OSR (Open Scan and Read) was born.”

The group worked on an open source and free software project that anyone could experiment with and modify. They agreed to provide bimodal learning in math and technological formats, with a time management component.

“The ultimate goal of our project is that our software can simply take any scanned images (with text characters, math symbols and other symbols) and convert them into descriptive expression. The software would have a TTS (Text to Speech) feature where the text can be read to the users using a speech engine,” said team member Tran Pham, (CSE ’09) who realized the tools would also be useful to ESL (English as Second Language) students for improving their articulation.

Team member (ECE ’09) Katherine Smith continued the project with a new team of students this year. “I believe that a pilot program created by students, targeted for students is the ultimate design and prototype opportunity,” she said.

Grieves and his team (Photograph by Christina O'Connor)

From left: Bill Holbach, director of the Assistive Technology Lab, Jason Grieves, Derrick White, Hal Brackett, Lynn Abbott, Katherine Smith, and Tran Pham

Grieves, who graduated in May, is now working at Microsoft as a program manager in their accessibility group. He’s still learning about various disabilities and he’s still working on the design and testing of new software. It is still a passion for him.

—by Su Clauson-Wicker