What were you doing in your first year of university?
For most, the freshman year is often dubbed the 'honeymoon year', because all the modules taken are 101s, newfound friends and seniors can't wait to welcome you with open arms into their clubs and cliques, and the dread that comes with keeping a decent GPA still isn't whacking you repeatedly at the back of your head.
But it's not a bad thing, because before the sleepless nights and general fatigue of the latter years, the freshman year usually comes with unbridled enthusiasm about the possibilities that the last lap of formal education can bring.
And 5 SUTD (Singapore University of Technology and Design) students have taken that enthusiasm, and turned it into something that could potentially save the lives of many.
Needless to say, the idea and team caught our attention for their commitment to solving a pressing problem that has taken many lives, and we decided to find out more.
We got in touch with Aiden, one of the team members, and got more insights on the school project that recently caught the attention of the local media, which he confessed, was "quite a surprise".
"I thought there were many other projects which were fantastic."
5 'Freshmore' Students With A Plan
With an average age just shy of 21, the 5-member team, made up of SUTD 'freshmore' (the unique university's term for undergrads still in their first 3 terms) students Aiden Chia (21), Jason Swee (23), Laura Ong (19), Odelia Tan (20), and Loo Jun Wen (21), met during their Introduction to Design Module.
As compared to being brought together by fate (aka grouped together by their professors), the formation of the team was actually rather strategic.
"We chose so that we had a healthy mix of diversity and skills. Odelia and Jun Wen are great at aesthetic design, Jason is great at hardware and software design, while myself and Laura's strengths are in the academic [and] writing components. Coming from different backgrounds [Jason and Odelia came from Polytechnics, and the rest were from Junior Colleges] and different genders gave us more diversity of opinions as well."
Then came the next, and most important step - reaching a mutual agreement on what to work on.
Their minds each brimming with ideas after intensive brainstorming sessions, Aiden revealed that they "had many considerations" before settling on a common goal.
"We thought of working on a noise-cancelling device that could allow people to isolate themselves from the noisy environment when they needed to concentrate or sleep. We were also thinking of solving problems that the elderly faced, seeing how important it is considering how Singapore and many other places in the world are facing an ageing population."
Eventually, it was the hope of solving problems Aiden and Jun Wen experienced on a personal basis that got the final vote.
For Jun Wen, he recalled when his late night patrols during his National Service were ridden with episodes of sleepiness, especially in the early mornings.
"Thankfully, he (Jun Wen) did not get into any accident in his two years, but he was always worried that something may happen one day if he was not careful."
Aiden echoed the sentiment, albeit not experiencing it first-hand.
"My dad is a taxi driver who drives late nights. I was worried for him as well as he drives long hours and he is advancing in years, and it would be great if there was some kind of device that could help keep him awake."
"It Was Never A Straightforward Process"
With the final goal pat down, questions on how it would be achieved soon came about, as the team engaged in many discussions, back-and-forth, to find their answer.
"Would the device work by vibration, light, sound, or all of them? How would the device detect sleepiness? By heart rate, eye blink rate, brain activity, or breathing rate? It was never a straightforward process."
Not ones to dismiss a possibility without first trying it out, they initially wanted to detect sleepiness using an individual's heart rate on their wrist, explaining that it was "the 'standard' model for many existing products like Fitbit, Apple Watch, etc".
However, after purchasing a generic heart rate monitor and testing it, they realised that noise also got picked up by the monitors, thus making the readings inaccurate.
They then considered measuring the eye blink rate of the driver, but they too encountered problems - this time with interfacing with the rest of the device's components.
Going back again to using a heart rate monitor, they decided to do a little tweak - by placing it at the finger instead.
"We designed a wrist-band with a silicon-glove in order to house the heart rate monitor."
However, while this setup gave them accurate readings, they realised that "it would be uncomfortable for the driver to have something on his finger all the time. It also makes it difficult [for drivers] to pick up items and grab the wheel."
Eventually, they switched the design into a watch with a ring - one which was eventually fine-tuned to the Risk Watch we know them for.
"The ring would house the heart rate monitor, while the watch would house the rest of the electrical components: Arduino, light bulbs, vibration motor, battery etc. We felt that it was the best compromise between all the constraints in the end."
Like every school project, the team too had to undergo a few more challenges before the Watch's final iteration.
From needing to reprint the Watch's hardware multiple times on 3D-printers when they came out wrongly, to having to test out a large variety of materials to ensure that it would be comfortable for the wearer and yet sturdy enough to hold the Watch's electrical components, to writing code for its software, the team still held on with a stubborn determination, refusing to compromise on any aspect until the result was satisfactory.
"It was a process of small discoveries, failures, and trying again. We worked fast so that we had plenty of chances to fail and try again, knowing what worked and what didn't."
And after 12 weeks of trial, error, and success, the Risk Watch was finally unveiled.
Being Shortlisted, And Risk Watch Version 2.0
Going back to the reason as to why they even got the media's attention in the first place, the Watch was actually one of 87 other SUTD student projects featured at the university's The Technological Body exhibition, which involved first-year engineering and architecture students teaming up to create wearable technology.
The exhibition would cumulate in SUTD shortlisting 6 projects, and the teams behind them will get to attend a workshop to produce enhanced versions of their prototypes.
And as expected, the team's effort was shortlisted, and Aiden reveals their plans for the Watch with the opportunity:
"We were thinking of incorporating a AI device like Siri/Alexa that can 'talk' to the driver to keep him her awake. We can work on making the heart rate monitor able to accurately 'discover' each person's baseline heart rate accurately, as well as possibly some machine learning that can 'learn' when any particular driver's sleepy patterns."
"Our future plans [also] include using industrial-grade prototyping to make the product even better."
And their future hopes for the Watch?
"[We hope that] it can be used by any regular driver so that it can possibly save lives, even one life and one less accident is worth saving and preventing!"
An Inspiration For Undergrads Wanting To Make A Difference
Definitely an inspiration for undergrads (and even us!), we asked if Aiden had any words of advice for freshmen and students like themselves:
"I think all Uni students should make the most of their university time to get out of their comfort zone!
Remember at the end of the day your grades will only get you through the door.
What you want to develop is a unique value proposition to the market!
What makes you more employable or skilful over another person?
Which skills or contacts will serve you well if you want to start your own business?
What stories can you tell to people once you leave university?"
"I think as long we are persistent about it, all of us can make our uni experience an amazing one!"
With them already showing so much promise at the start of their university life, I think we can only imagine to see even more from them in years to come.