Engineers for people

Cynthia Lee (left) and Julio Alvarez (right) are part of a team developing the WaitMate, a restaurant pager that gives patrons something to do while they are waiting for a table. The device has an LCD screen where customers can read the restaurant’s menu, play games or read other information.
Juan Villa / The Collegian

In the near future you may find yourself flipping channels with a voice-activated remote control that was conceptualized and developed by students right here on the Fresno State campus.

Though it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the remote is the work of engineering students alone, anthropology and business students also played a role in its development.

The remote control was developed as part of Fresno State’s first initiative involving three academic colleges: engineering, anthropology and business.

Anthropology professor Henry D. Delcore, Ph.D., helped develop the interdisciplinary program as a new way to train students for life after college.

“It has become common for high tech companies to employ anthropologists to do research on human technology use so their engineers can design products that are more user-friendly,” Delcore said.

Universities across the country have interdisciplinary courses that bring together social science, business and engineering students.

By having students from all three disciplines work together, their projects have a more realistic, user-friendly quality that can potentially be taken into the marketplace, said engineering professor Gregory Kriehn, Ph.D.

This also teaches students from different disciplines how to communicate effectively with each other.

“The business world is very different from the anthropology and engineering worlds and this forces a lot of cross cultural discipline communication,” Kriehn said.

The Engineering for People and Markets initiative has also allowed for the development of the Bulldog Pager, designed to give customers something to do while they wait to be seated at restaurants. It utilizes an LCD screen on which customers can read the restaurant’s menu, play games or browse through other information as they wait for a table.

Senior engineering student Cynthia Lee worked on the team that developed the Bulldog Pager and said it is superior to others on the market because it incorporates users into its design.

“The interdisciplinary feedback provided a better feel and understanding as to how the product will be used by restaurant customers and how the marketing schemes and fields for restaurants themselves will work,” Lee said.

Senior history and anthropology major Jennifer Jones worked on human factors research for the remote control by studying the way people currently use their remote controls. She said that by including human factors research, her team was able to create a product that is more attractive to buyers.

“I think this is a really awesome experience and I think everybody should have some kind of interdisciplinary experience because when you get into the real world you work with all different kinds of people,” Jones said.

This week, the two teams are taking their inventions to two conferences where they will present their projects and compete with teams from other universities.

The voice-activated remote control will be presented at an engineering conference in San Jose, while the Bulldog Pager will be shown in Chicago at a design conference.

The conferences mark the culmination of the yearlong projects that students began in the fall. Both teams have a shot at getting their products onto the market and will present them to local business leaders for judging and advice at the end of the semester.

“As opposed to just being an academic exercise, we are trying to make this as realistic for students as possible,” Kriehn said.

Delcore has hopes that the projects will be used outside the classroom.

“Some of the projects turn out to be commercially viable and result in the launch of a new business by the students involved,” Delcore said.

Senior engineering major William L. Hyatt III said he hopes that may be the case for the voice-activated remote control that he helped develop.

“My hopes are that we can take this product to the retail mass market,” Hyatt said. “Regardless, my experiences in working with an interdisciplinary team are going to be valuable in any future career choice.”

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