Sophomore Cami Gomez, like thousands of other students, had an unconventional first year at USC. Her first year was completely virtual. But that didn’t stop her from finding the hands-on engineering opportunity of her dreams.
“My freshman year was completely online and I was afraid I wouldn’t get any research opportunities,” Gomez said. “But eventually I found an opportunity to develop my electrical and computer engineering skills through Professor Heather Culbertson’s HaRVI lab.”
Through the HaRVI lab, short for Haptics, Robotics and Virtual Interaction Lab, Gomez worked on the development of virtual button presses. The project combined VR graphics with 3D-printed models to simulate the feeling of pressing a button.
Gomez, an electrical and computer engineering major, spent 10 weeks working remotely on the project with the help of a graduate student mentor, Sandeep Kollanur, a computer science Ph.D. pupil.
“Both Sandeep and Professor Culbertson were and continue to be great mentors to me,” said Gomez. “They’ve helped me every step of the way with this project.”
Developing a mind for technology
Gomez’s interest in computer engineering began long before her work on the HaRVI project. She traces this interest back to high school.
“My high school math teacher was the first person to push me to try engineering,” Gomez said. “She even gave me the number of a technical alumnus I could contact. I was unsure at first, but I contacted them. I became very interested in their work at the Facebook Virtual Reality Labs, so I did an internship there during my freshman year of high school.”
During this internship, Gomez met a variety of mentors who helped cultivate her passion for engineering. As she continued to pursue this interest, Gomez realized how her other interests played into engineering.
“I feel like I have a wide range of interests. For example, I like visual arts and music, two things that are often seen as very different from technology,” explains Gomez. “But I’ve learned that engineering requires a creative mind. Engineering is about building solutions to problems, and my experience in creative fields has helped me solve problems.”
“Engineering is about building solutions to problems, and my experience in creative fields has helped me solve problems.” Cami Gomez.
learn something new
As she gained more experience with engineering, Gomez followed this interest to college. She joined USC in 2020 as a freshman in electrical and computer engineering. Gomez began work on the virtual button press project the following summer, via USC’s Robotics and Autonomous Systems (REU) program.
Gomez expressed an interest in working on this project due to the practical nature of the tests and applications. Haptics, the science of conveying and understanding information through touch, forms the basis of this project. In virtual button presses, tactile objects are just as involved as VR.
“I hadn’t worked with haptics before, so this seemed like a great opportunity to learn something new,” Gomez said. “And as I started learning more about haptics, I realized how interested I was in it.”
Simulate a button click
The project itself consists of two interactive devices that are worn on the hands of users. The user’s left hand presses the virtual button and the “click” button is simulated on the user’s right hand. The left device is called a Leap Motion controller.
Most VR devices, such as the Oculus Quest 2 and the Sony Playstation VR headset, are usually worn on the face. However, Gomez describes the Leap Motion controller as “VR goggles for your hands”.
On his right hand, the user carries a device containing an actuator and an amplifier. When the Leap Motion controller detects a virtual button press, the actuator on the right device moves. This simulates clicking a button.
During the duration of the REU program, Gomez primarily used items available in her home to create the system. However, with the help of Kollanur and Professor Culbertson, she personally began rebuilding the project during the Fall 2021 semester.
“The end of the project was also kind of the beginning of the project,” Gomez says. “My goal for the summer was to have the device detect a button press and simulate a click. I was able to achieve that goal. The plan now is to improve this system.”
She’s also thought about expanding this project beyond making decisions. Moving sliders, turning dials, and clicking other types of buttons all have unique sensations. By printing and interacting with 3D models of these objects, the team determines how to virtually replicate these sensations.
Experience the world tactically
Currently, VR is mainly used in the video game industry as headsets give gamers a much more immersive gaming experience than TVs or computer monitors. However, Gomez also sees VR in the medical world.
“VR can allow people to interact with objects they wouldn’t normally be able to see or touch in person,” Gomez says. “As VR technologies advance, virtual environments containing 3D-printed, interactive objects are becoming more and more realistic. This can be used to give hospitalized patients a chance to experience the world tactically. I hope to lay the foundation for that with this project.”
Published on July 5, 2022
Last updated on July 5, 2022