Student invention aids man

04/02/2007
By From the Republican

By ANGELA CARBONE

WEST SPRINGFIELD - Now Michael S. Nicora can channel surf with the best of them.

Nicora, 31, has cerebral palsy. His feet are strapped into a wheelchair, and he has limited use of his hands and arms. A voice-activated television remote control provides another little bit of personal freedom for him.

"This gives me more power over my life," he said.

The remote was made by Shakir Iqbal, another West Springfield resident. He designed and constructed the remote as his senior "capstone" project at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

With the device that Iqbal made, Nicora can turn the television on and off and switch channels. It may not seem like much to others, but to Nicora, it's heaven. Nicora loves watching television, particularly sports programs. "Football is my life. I love the Dolphins," he said. Visitors who know sports say his knowledge of sports is impressive.

Nicora has a live-in personal care assistant, Chester Martin, who has been with him for 10 years. In fact, it was Martin who made the connection with Iqbal. Iqbal's father owns the Corner Pantry, a variety store that is a couple of doors down from Nicora's apartment.

Martin is most often at home with Nicora, but he does leave to shop for groceries, for example. Before he got the remote, Nicora would be out luck if he wanted to change the channel whenever Martin was gone.

Martin calls the remote control "a little piece of freedom."

Nicora said, "It's funny. There's a lot of things I'd like to do. Piece by piece, I'm getting more independent." He mentioned a wheelchair van that he was able to purchase after a fund-raiser held for him.

Ten years ago, he couldn't have dreamed that he would now be living in his own apartment, paying his own bills and owning a van. "It's just amazing," he said.

It took Nicora only a day to learn how to operate the voice-activated remote. The device is geared to turn the television on and off and to switch channels by specific commands followed by the word "yes."

Iqbal explained that including the "yes" as necessary to complete the command prevents background speech from mistakenly triggering the device.

"I nearly have it down pat," Nicora said. "Channel down is the only one I have trouble with." He demonstrated the device, turning the television on, changing the channels merely by speaking.

Iqbal said most of the adaptive technology projects done at the school are for people living in the eastern part of the state. Out here, in what Nicora describes as "the boonies," disabled people have fewer resources than in Boston, Nicora said.

But knowing about Nicora, Iqbal said he figured he would help someone in this area.

He spoke with Nicora about several options, but chose the TV remote control mainly because of the time limitations. Iqbal pulled it together in just four months.

Not only did Iqbal research and design the prototype, he had to build and test it. He tried it out on two different television sets and on cable and dish networks. "It was a big struggle," Iqbal said. "I've learned a lot."

That is the ultimate goal of the senior projects, said Alan F. Rux, professor at UMass Lowell and technical director of the Assistive Technology Program. The program began in 1990 with only a few students. Now there are 100 electrical engineering seniors who participate in capstone projects, Rux said. The National Science Foundation pays for the parts.

Seniors must meet with the disabled person to talk about what kinds of device would be helpful. Students learn about a real process, and solving the challenges helps the students grow, Rux said. "We like to round out their education rather than just Ohm's law and calculus," he said. "The students are very creative."

Rux described one group of seniors who designed and built a baseball pitching machine so that a 15-year-old boy could participate in a sport with his brother. The boy chose what kind of pitches to toss by hitting a large switch with his fist, Rux said.

"The students really enjoy helping somebody, and it helps them when they enter the job market," he said.

Nicora is grateful to Iqbal and to the Assistive Technology program at UMass Lowell. "I can't put into words what it means to me," he said. "It's a marvel what (Iqbal) developed in such a short amount of time."

Iqbal said the project was a lot of work, but the look on Nicora's face when he tried it out made the struggle worthwhile. "I still think there are so many things I can improve. But this is the first product I've ever made," he said.

Nicora joked with him, "I can boast that I knew Shakir when he did his first project."

Iqbal plans to begin working on his master's degree in September in electrical engineering and business administration. His area of expertise is communications technology.

Nicora said he plans to write a letter to Iqbal's professors at UMass Lowell. "Maybe they can develop something else," he said.

His letter is likely to reach a willing reader. With 100 students a year participating, the program is always on the lookout for someone who needs some help, Rux said.