Grad Students Show Off Engineering Design Skills

By Maureen C. Curran

John Kooker
John Kooker ended his presentation of the winning project with a demonstration of his iPad-based interface on the new HIPerSpace installation in Jacobs Hall(fka EBU1).
[Photo Gallery]

San Diego, CA, July 8, 2010 — For their hands-on design course last quarter, graduate students in the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) department worked on projects ranging from developing applications for the just-released Apple iPad to FPGA implementations and prototyping to exploring software-defined radio.

The graduate course, ECE 291, had 14 masters of engineering graduate students who worked on eight projects. ECE 291 provides experience working on real engineering projects which originate from the actual needs of ongoing campus research, as well as industry partners. Students work with mentors from the sponsoring organization, with one or two students on each project.

"The design projects provide a unique opportunity to explore new ideas and concepts while at the same time engaging and challenging our talented students with a combination of hands-on design, research and development tasks," said Falko Kuester, discussing the projects he mentored this quarter. This is exactly the aim of the course. Kuester is an associate professor in both the Structural Engineering and Computer Science and Engineering departments at UCSD's Jacobs School of Engineering.

Nikhil Gajwani
Nikhil Gajwani

"It teaches you about time management and working on things that have less defined goals and to understand the extent of your own abilities," said Nikhil Gajwani, a student in the class who worked with mentor Bill Hodgkiss, associate director of the UC San Diego division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2).

"It also gets you to think about something that is often on the bleeding edge of technology," Gajwani continued, "I think Calit2 played a big role in that last point - providing the absolute finest technology so that students can better work on their projects. We had access to hardware that few students do and we got to use it extensively. I think this is invaluable for those planning to work in industry."

Calit2 UCSD is a longtime supporter of both ECE 291 and the corresponding undergraduate group engineering design course (ECE 191). Seven of this quarter's eight ECE 291 projects were sponsored by Calit2, including the winning project for the quarter, John Kooker's "OptiActor for iPad" project, in which he created a seamlessly integrated, intuitive, remote interface for Calit2's HIPerSpace-OptiPortal system, based on the newly released iPad device (released to the public on April 3, 2010).

Kooker was mentored by Kuester, who is also the director of Calit2's Center of Graphics, Visualization and Virtual Reality (GRAVITY) laboratory and Kai-Uwe Dörr, Calit2 project scientist. He also worked closely with Kevin Ponto of the GRAVITY lab. Calit2's HIPerSpace-OptiPortal system is a scalable, multi-display, high performance visualization system that uses cluster technology to support interactive visualization.

Mingdao Yang
Mingdao Yang

"My favorite part of doing the project is getting hands-on experience with this incredible new visualization technology," enthused Kooker, "Being able to contribute to that significantly in one quarter was really fun. Also, being able to play with brand new technology, the iPad, was just a thrill."

Kooker's interface ("OptiActor") supports the majority of existing HIPerSpace/OptiPortal applications (primarily visualization apps, including image and video viewers, maps and weather and scientific data visualizations). It has true multitouch and accelerometer-based interaction.

"You have multitouch in your hands, you can paint with your fingers, throw images around, and pinch to zoom, while watching the wall. It's really fun," explained Kooker. It also supports mouse and keyboard emulation, which enables use with older applications that do not support multitouch.

Kuester deemed the win "excellent news" and added that "As an interesting side note, John got to present a preliminary prototype of the project to Paul Jacobs [CEO of QUALCOMM] during his recent visit to Calit2, who turns out, is his future boss now that John has graduated and accepted a position at QUALCOMM."

Yue Qu
Yue Qu holding "Wiimote," another new interface for the HIPerSpace-OptiPortal system; this one based on the Wii remote control device.

Kuester and Dörr were first-time design course mentors with two graduate projects and another two projects in the undergraduate course, ECE 191. "While some of the design objectives were similar in nature, the diversity of results was great to see, nicely demonstrating that there are many different ways to look at a challenge and to engineer a solution to it," noted Kuester. "All four teams worked on different aspects of our OptIActor project, which explores innovative new ways to interact with collaborative digital workspaces and ultra-scale visualization environments."

The other graduate project they mentored was the "OptiActor-Edutainment," in which Zhao Lou and Yue Qu developed an interface for the HIPerSpace-OptiPortal system based on the Wii remote control device. The "Wiimote" can be used as an air mouse to control multiple existing wall applications.

Calit2's Hodgkiss, who is a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (Scripps) and an adjunct professor in ECE, is a long-time mentor of design course projects. He had two graduate groups and one undergraduate project group spring quarter.

"All three projects are related to our broader interest in software-defined radio [SDR] and our JTRS project," noted Hodgkiss, "They worked on SDR using GNU radio and the USRP hardware that we have here." Universal software radio peripheral (USRP) is a high-speed USB-based board for making software radios. Grad student Nikhil Gajwani noted the value to students of having access to high-tech equipment earlier in this story. Hodgkiss is also the principal investigator on the Calit2/JTRS SDR Project.

Douglas Choi, Minsoo Kang and Jungkyun Huh
Douglas Choi, Minsoo Kang and Jungkyun Huh watch John Kooker's demo of his iPad-based interface for the HIPerSpace-OptiPortal system.

For ECE 291, Douglas Choi and Jungkyun Huh implemented an SDR using GNU radio and USRP. The AM system and spread spectrum data modem functioned properly when connected to the USRP hardware. For the AM system an audio file was sampled, modulated, and transmitted from one laptop and received and demodulated on another. Also, Gajwani and Peter Shin implemented an FM and BPSK TX/RX and they worked on a basic 4QAM implementation.

Zhongren (Arnold) Cao, Calit2 senior staff researcher and project manager, mentored three 291 projects, with the help of Joshua Ng and Wenhua Zhao, Calit2 staff engineers. In addition to other projects, Cao and Zhao are researchers with the Calit2/JTRS SDR Project. All three grad student projects involved the field-programmable gate array (FPGA), which is an integrated circuit designed to be configured post manufacture.

Minsoo Kang and Sunhun Lee worked on an "FPGA Implementation of Scalable QR Decomposition for Broadband MIMO Systems." Jing Wang worked on "Fast prototyping of LTE Mobile Terminal Radio Transmitter on FPGA." Xin Dong and Renjie Yu did an "FPGA Implementation of MIMO Channel Estimation."

"In this class you have the opportunity to use in practice the theory that you've learned in earlier classes, like modulation schemes, said Yu, "I think it's really great." Dong agreed and added: "Now I know what else to learn to be able to do more things."

Pankaj K. Das
Pankaj K. Das

Yen-An Chiang and Mingdao Yang worked on a project "Interacting with computational TV using gestures" with mentor K.J. Yang of TVPC. Yang is a graduate of UC San Diego's.. In 2006, as an ECE grad student, he was the teaching assistant for the undergraduate group design course (ECE 191).

The ECE 291 winter quarter course projects were presented to the instructor, classmates, friends and mentors on June 10. A group of students from the undergraduate course videotaped the presentations as part of their ECE 191 project. Undergrads Dallas Dutcher, Christine Yang, and Jason Fox worked with mentors Sean Deshler and Mike Deshler of Utech on "Enhancing Interactivity of On-demand Video in STEM Education Applications." A link to the videotaped ECE 291 presentations is below.

The perennial graduate and undergraduate engineering design course instructor, Pankaj K. Das, was joined spring quarter for ECE 291 (albeit unofficially) by frequent design course coinstructor, Clark Guest. Both Das and Guest are professors in the ECE department.

Related Links

ECE 291 Spring 2010 website
Videos of the 291 Presentations (made by ECE 191 students)
Graphics, Visualization and Virtual Reality (Gravity) Lab