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April 29, 2004 • Volume 12 Number 16

(L-R) Undergraduates Andrew Logan, Daniel Scali, Joel Barciauskas and Greg Pavlov with their invention, Advanced System for Senior Information Surveying Technology (ASSIST), which could help families concerned about elderly relatives living alone. (Photo by Kris Brewer)

Providing ASSISTance

BC students' project aims to help ensure safety of homes, elderly

By Stephen Gawlik
Staff Writer

Thanks to some help from their professors and Microsoft Corp., four Boston College undergraduates have created a device that could provide peace of mind to vacationing home-owners and families of senior citizens.

Juniors Joel Barciauskas, Andrew Logan and Greg Pavlov and sophomore Daniel Scali, all computer science majors in the College of Arts and Sciences, were recently awarded second place in a competition sponsored by Microsoft that challenged students to develop a technology centered on the theme "Make the World a Safer Place."

Their response to the challenge was to build a product called ASSIST (Advanced System for Senior Information Surveying Technology) which, using some simple electronics and Microsoft software, makes it possible to monitor from a remote location conditions in a house such as air quality and temperature.

With their second-place finish, the students, who were aided by Carroll School of Management faculty members Assoc. Prof. Robert Signorile and Lect. William Ames, earned a spot in an upcoming international technology design competition.

ASSIST works through a series of inexpensive sensors with the ability to detect smoke, carbon monoxide and temperature changes that could be placed throughout a house. The sensors transmit information to a central processing unit, which is programmed to send out an alert - through text messages to an e-mail address or cellular phone - if there are any significant changes in the house environment, according to pre-set conditions that are programmed into the system. The students emphasize that the system does not take the place of a smoke detector or thermostat; it simply lets users know if there has been a change.

Through ASSIST, say its creators, a home owner traveling out of town could receive an automatic warning if the house temperature drops low enough to cause water pipes to freeze, or a family could keep tabs on its vacation home between visits.

Perhaps the most intriguing potential use for ASSIST is to help persons monitor conditions in the home of elderly relatives living alone, say the students. The team is planning additional sensors for the system that would indicate whether or not the person being monitored has gotten out of bed in the morning, or has been taking medication from their pillbox.

"There are a lot of directions we can go with this," said Barciauskas during a recent presentation of the project held in Fulton Hall. "This is just the beginning."

Barciauskas says the inspiration for ASSIST came from personal experience: a visit to his great aunt, who lived alone in western Massachusetts until it became too difficult for the family to make sure she was safe and healthy.

"Thirty percent of Americans over 65 live alone and that number is expected to go way up," said Barciauskas, citing Census Bureau figures. "With this project we hope to provide people with the peace of mind that their loved ones are safe.

"Obviously, this doesn't take the place of all the kinds of care a person needs. We hope this product adds an additional way to simply check in."

The ASSIST device costs $264 to build, a figure its creators say would drop if the system were to be mass-produced.

After spending many weeks to design the system, the students needed the better part of a month to put the actual device together. Along the way, the group had to learn some electrical engineering, including how to solder parts together.

"That took a few tries to get it right," said Logan.

In late March the four took the project apart and traveled to the competition held at the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Wash., the virtual Valhalla for computer programmers and technologists. Twenty-nine teams of computer science and engineering students from universities around the US took part in the competition. All projects were based on Windows CE, a variant of the Windows operating system in use on most personal computers. Windows CE is designed for use in small devices.

The winning team, from James Madison University, created an airport security checkpoint device that collects information from a passenger's boarding pass and uses a chemical sensor to identify possible risks posed by baggage or passengers.

Next month the top three winners, including the BC team, will take part in a more prestigious competition in Montreal known as the Computer Society International Design Competition sponsored by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

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