Teams Share Top Honors in Electrical and Computer Engineering Capstone Presentations
Two student teams tied for first place in the 2023 Electrical and Computer Engineering capstone presentations. Capstone projects engage students in completing a two-semester team project that integrates the knowledge and skills they’ve learned at Northeastern. This year, in addition to sharing first-place honors in ECE, two teams shared a motivation to discover innovative new ways of letting people have fun through games. Both were advised by Canek Fuentes Hernandez, associate professor, electrical and computer engineering.
Modular Accessible Controller System (MACS)
Jarrett Anderson, E’23, computer engineering and computer science; William Freeman, E’23, computer engineering and computer science; Liam Kennedy, E’23, computer engineering; Michael McCooey, E’23, electrical engineering; Natalie Potapov, E’23, computer engineering; and Jeff Zhou, E’23, electrical engineering, worked together to design and build the Modular Accessible Controller System (MACS), a video game controller. While typical game controllers are mass-produced in largely identical forms, this team’s system consists of multiple interlocking modules, with input devices like buttons, joysticks, and triggers, that can be reconfigured by users into a combination of controls that suits their unique needs. This can make a significant difference for people who find it difficult to manipulate traditional controllers. For example, explains Potapov, a trigger could be swapped for a switch to help someone who has trouble pulling a trigger mechanism.
“The beautiful thing about the modularity of the controller,” she continues, “is that not everybody has that particular problem. They might have a different problem, so they don’t have to buy into one particular form factor. They buy into this ecosystem of modularity and configure it however they need to address their disability.”
The goal of broadening access to video gaming is important to the team. According to Potapov, nearly a quarter of people who play video games have some sort of physical disability, and close to 60 percent of those people say that their disability keeps them from playing the way they want to.
“We’re trying to invite as many people into the gaming space as possible—even people who were previously impaired from participating because the controllers in particular don’t cater to their disability,” she says.
The MACS project may have an even broader impact, McCooey notes, recalling one of the competition judges saying that, though she’d never been interested in video gaming, the ability to customize a controller got her more excited about the prospect.
“I think that’s an important part of the project that’s easy to overlook,” he says. “While this helps people with disabilities get into gaming more easily, it also helps able-bodied people that never got into video games.”
Both McCooey and Potapov share that the experience of working in a tight-knit team was the most impactful part of the capstone project for them—and also a challenge, as when the time came to combine separate subsystems that had been delegated to individual team members into a final product. That integration of multiple parts into a whole is itself a problem to tackle, Potapov points out.
McCooey echoes his teammate’s sentiment. “I think we definitely learned a lot about coordination, and about how you work as a team when you don’t know what your partner is doing in the nitty-gritty. That was a challenge, but towards the end we came together and tackled everything nicely. I’m very proud of how everything came out.”
Best in Kard Entertainment (BIKE)
Also taking first-place honors was the team known as BIKE (Best in Kard Entertainment), consisting of Jackson Heun, E’23, electrical engineering and physics; Adin Moses, E’24, electrical engineering; Connor Nelson, E’23, computer engineering and computer science; Tyler Passerine, E’23, computer engineering and computer science; Sharwin Patil, E’24, computer engineering and computer science; and Chris Swagler, E’23, computer engineering and computer science.
For their project, the BIKE team combined two of their shared passions: robotics and poker. They wanted to find a way to improve the experience of learning and teaching the card game. When people of different skill levels play together, Nelson explains, it can often fall to the more experienced players to run the game, playing and coaching their opponents at the same time, which can impact their enjoyment. Handing game-running duties over to an automated system can help people of differing skill levels play together.
While there are plenty of online and electronic options on the market for learning and practicing poker, the team wasn’t satisfied with a simulated solution; for them, it was important to preserve the real-world experience of sitting around a table with cards in hand. To that end, they designed and built a fully robotic dealer that shuffles and distributes cards while keeping track of the state of play and displaying game information on a monitor. Players perform actions like calling, betting, and folding using buttons built into the table. Though initially built to facilitate poker, the system could be modified to play other card games with relatively simple software updates, potentially increasing its usefulness.
Faculty advisors cautioned the team early on that their proposal could prove daunting, as it relied heavily on complex mechanical systems to handle physical cards.
“It’s so difficult to build manipulators to handle playing cards,” Patil admits. “They’re not slabs of plastic—they bend, they sometimes tear.”
Nelson concurs. “We had some prototypes in the beginning that we could kind of coax into working,” he says. “But when you have to deal 16 playing cards or shuffle 52 cards over and over again, your failure rate increases exponentially. If each individual card fails two percent of the time, all of a sudden you can’t shuffle a deck reliably.”
Fortunately, the team was able to draw on expertise built up through years of experience in the NU Robotics club, of which several of them are members. Though they went through many rounds of iteration in a mere four months before arriving at a working solution for their poker-playing system, when they did it was well worth it.
“Nothing’s crashed, nothing’s frozen, everything’s communicating correctly, it’s putting cards in the right places, and everyone’s smiling,” recalls Nelson. “It can’t be beat when everything comes together physically and software-wise.”
Like the MACS team, BIKE’s members found the experience of working on a project with multiple parts that are required to ultimately work together seamlessly to be challenging yet rewarding.
“A lot of us are talented in our own skill sets,” says Patil. “What we learned is system integration, which involves a lot of different parts. Communication and putting all the parts together is something you can only really learn from doing a project like this.”