An enterprising team of student innovators from the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department was the object of an admiring feature story on Yahoo! News (black-box-html). Though the UMass team did not win any prizes for its Personal Black Box as one of 30 finalists in the 2013 Cornell Cup competition during the first weekend in May, Yahoo! News judged that “The Amherst black box for humans was perhaps the most intriguing idea on display.” The team—comprised of Brett Kaplan, Jack Vorwald, Mike Burns, and Ryan Holmes, with assistance from advisors Professor David Irwin and Professor Tilman Wolf—presented its black box prototype at the annual competition hosted by Cornell University that challenges engineering students to create new technologies of their choosing using embedded Intel chips.

Almost 30 teams competed with wide-ranging projects that took advantage of the tiny, embeddable processor.

“Is it time for humans to get their own black box?” the article began. “That’s the provocative question behind an ambitious project by four undergraduate engineering students from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, presented at this weekend's Cornell Cup in Orlando, Fla. Over the course of a school year, the Amherst team built a prototype “black box for humans” that you could carry around wherever you went, and could be activated to record audio of your surroundings in case you ran into trouble.

As the UMass team described its Personal Black Box, “It is not uncommon for people to find themselves in dangerous or possibly life-threatening situations in out-of-the-way locations. Victims of crime and accidents need a trustworthy form of evidence to bring justice to those who have harmed them. Unfortunately, traffic and security camera networks can invade people's privacy and often have blind spots. To abet these situations, our team will provide the Personal Black Box, a portable, personal security device.”

The Personal Black Box would continuously record audio and video streams of the surrounding environment, without revealing its presence, and store recently recorded information on command. Ideally, this information will be thorough, tamper-resistant, and secure enough to be used as evidence in a court of law.

“Our solution will be different for the market in that similar products are much too expensive for the common person to afford,” as the UMass team description explained, “and most solutions do not have the encryption capabilities our product is designed to have. Hopefully this device will bring a greater sense of security and confidence to potential victims and act as a deterrent for potential criminals as it increases the chance that they will be held accountable for their crimes.”

The Cornell Cup USA, presented by Intel, is a college-level embedded-design competition created to empower student teams to become the inventors of the newest innovative applications of embedded technology. Students are given the opportunity to enhance their resumes and demonstrate their professional design skills, highly sought by today’s companies, as they transform their ideas into well-planned, robust reality.

The competition is an annual, academic, year-long experience culminating in an inspiring two-day summit event at Walt Disney World, where finalist student teams attend exciting and even entertaining talks, network with leading engineering company sponsors, and ultimately showcase their original innovative entries. (May 2013)