Catalin Voss wins Lemelson-MIT Student Prize

Catalin Voss
Catalin Voss

CATALIN VOSS,  who will complete his BS and MS in computer science in June, has won the $15,000 Lemelson-MIT “Cure it!” Student Prize. Voss developed the Autism Glass Project, an emotional learning aid for children with autism based on smart glasses like Google Glass.

Voss traces his passion for inventing back to his childhood in Germany, when he would tinker with LEGO robotics kits. He has been working as a software engineer since he was 14. At 15, he helped design, develop and co-launch a mobile payment platform, PayNearMe.

Voss  worked with StartX, Stanford’s startup accelerator, to develop Sension, the technology that laid the groundwork for his Autism Glass invention. Voss has also created Wecker – a box that attaches to the windshield of any car and uses an infrared face tracking system to measure driver fatigue by analyzing head movement, expressions, eye gaze and blink pattern.

One of every 68 children in the United States is diagnosed with autism.  These children struggle to recognize facial expressions, make eye contact, and engage in social interactions. Gaining these skills requires intensive behavioral intervention that is often difficult to access and inconsistently administered. The current standard of care primarily consists of “flashcard therapy” involving painstaking memorization of emotions. As a result, many children with autism fail to build core social skills and regress down a path of isolation. While computer-assisted treatment systems have been studied for years, few strides have been made to bring the learning process away from flashcards and into the daily life of children with autism.

Voss’ artificial intelligence system for automatic facial expression recognition delivers real-time social cues to individuals with autism in their natural environment. The current beta device is a combined software and hardware system built on top of Google Glass. An individual wears the Glass device and the software system tracks expressive events in faces using the outward-facing camera and a machine learning system trained on thousands of samples of expression data. The system automatically recognizes social cues and provides this information to the wearer.

The device also connects to a “parent phone app” which automatically curates video data that has been recorded throughout the day, giving children and parents a chance to review some of the most expressive events of the day.

Voss hopes this system can provide continuous behavioral therapy outside of clinical settings. This type of therapy enables dramatically faster gains in social acuity for children with autism and brings quantitative progress measures like eye contact to today’s behavioral intervention programs. Ultimately, after a limited and self-directed period of use, the child will no longer need to rely on the device.

The Lemelson-MIT Program recognizes the most inventive college students. The winners of this year’s competition were selected from a pool of students from 77 colleges and universities across the country.

“My husband Jerome always felt passionate about the potential of young collegiate inventors,” said Dorothy Lemelson, chair of The Lemelson Foundation. “The Lemelson-MIT Student Prize has evolved over the past 20 years to encourage and inspire students around the country to develop their ideas into viable products.” The Lemelsons founded the Lemelson-MIT Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1994.

Read more about Voss and his invention in Scientific American.