Tech Competition Encourages Student Creativity, Extends Outreach

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Students get a chance to display their innovation and creativity in the annual Tech Sandbox Competition, a team activity to develop new projects sponsored by the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE), an Engineering Research Center (ERC) funded by the National Science Foundation, with its headquarters at the University of Washington. CSNE held a second round of the competition in March 2014 that was won by the student-created “vHAB,” a virtual reality game that provides real-time feedback for patients undergoing stroke therapy. Tech Sandbox was featured on NSF’s Discovery website.


The 2013 competition winner, WrestleBrainia 3000, has been featured at numerous events where well over a thousand people have played the arm-wrestling game. WrestleBrainia measures performance and determines winners based on neuromuscular signal strength, instead of physical strength. The 2014 competition winner, vHAB, was chosen by the industry judges because it doesn't require much additional tinkering and is ready to be used in a hospital setting. The Tech Sandbox Competition has drawn considerable attention, including in 2014 an online photo gallery at the Seattle Times, showcasing the talents of CSNE students and raising public awareness of the potential of neural engineering.


The competition is a 10-week class at the University of Washington taught by a senior Fellow in neurological surgery and each year has drawn multiple teams battling it out in front of judges from CSNE industrial affiliates, including Microsoft, Intel, NeuroVista, and RTneuro. The student projects illustrate principles of sensorimotor neural engineering as exemplified by one of the CSNE research thrusts.

Besides inspiring students to be innovative and creative, the team projects encourage students to work collaboratively and to establish vertical mentoring relationships. The CSNE has made a significant investment in equipment made available to the teams, with the intention that after the competition, projects would be used for in-house and traveling demonstrations and available for research or educational use by Center members. Both years’ winners were encouraged by the industry affiliate judges to consider commercializing their product.