Benedictine student's robot earns spot at conference
Jakub Jancek didn't like computers when he was in high school. Now he can hardly imagine doing anything else.
"I saw people working on computers and I was like, 'This is not me,'" said the Benedictine University junior from Palos Hills. "I wanted to be an engineer. It wasn't until I actually got into computers that I found that I really enjoyed them."
Jancek will take that joy to another level when he presents his project, "Optimizing Kinect® Depth Sensing Using Dynamic Polarization," at the 48th Association for Computing Machinery Technical Symposium of the Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education Wednesday through Saturday, March 8-11, in Seattle, Washington.
The symposium is SIGCSE's flagship conference and regularly attracts more than 1,200 computer science educators from around the world. Jancek will represent Benedictine alongside undergraduate and graduate students from the likes of Johns Hopkins, Maryland, Rutgers, Arizona State, North Carolina State, Alabama, Bryn Mawr, Virginia Tech, Clemson, Dayton, Florida, Bucknell and Davidson.
Jancek's project traces its roots to Benedictine's Natural Science Summer Research Program and an interest he had in doing something with Kinect, a motion-sensing device developed by Microsoft for Xbox 360 and Xbox One video games.
Kinect enables users to control and interact with their console/computer using gestures and spoken commands without the need for a game controller.
"When you plug it into an Xbox you can play sports like soccer, beach volleyball, bowling and tennis or dancing games and it will track your motion," said Jancek, who worked under the supervision of Grace Mirsky, assistant professor, computer science.
But Kinect had one drawback: It has trouble measuring distances of objects it sees in bright sunlight.
"When there is a lot of sunlight, the Kinect cannot work properly because the sunlight blocks its vision and depth sensors," Jancek said. "We decided to create a system that can act like sunglasses for the Kinect."
"Really fancy sunglasses," Mirsky said.
Jancek designed a system that autonomously adjusts a pair of polarizing filters to facilitate the use of the Kinect's depth measurement capabilities in different lighting conditions without the need to manually adjust the position of the filter. The system can perform these tasks periodically over time as light conditions change.
"We put these filters inside the spools and they turn based on how much light is coming in," Jancek said. "They will turn in a few angles and find the best one and choose that angle as the best angle for the Kinect to use, and then the Kinect can actually see objects in sunlight."
One of the biggest hurdles Jancek faced was adapting Kinect so it could be used with a PC.
"Kinect was developed by Microsoft for their Xbox," Jancek said. "It's not designed for a PC. So we had to find some different open-source projects from people who have actually figured out how to access the sensor on a computer.
"It was cool to be able to see how people actually did that and actually get the interface working so I could get a device that was never really meant for a PC to work on a PC."
The final step was adapting the system for use with a fully autonomous robot so it could navigate around objects, whether it's indoors in fixed-lighting conditions or outdoors where the lighting conditions are varied and unpredictable.
"It's a complicated system, and Jakub wrote a lot of software to connect all of these things together to actually make it work," said Mirsky, who teaches an Artificial Intelligence class with a robotics laboratory at Benedictine, in which students program a Raspberry Pi robot to accomplish different tasks such as navigating through a maze.
"He is downplaying how awesome this is," she added. "It's all autonomous and dynamic, and no one has ever done this before using a Microsoft Kinect®."
Jancek's project will be one of 24 presented at the conference, and one of just 20 presented by a college undergraduate.
"So few people can just take a problem that they have never worked with and just figure it out," Mirsky said. "Sometimes they want to look at it in a book or find it online and they want to find someone to tell them how to do it. Jakub demonstrates the true characteristics of a researcher. He is able to just figure things out."
Jancek credits his father, Rene, a former college professor who immigrated with his wife to the United States from Slovakia when Jakub was just 2 years old, for teaching him how to discover solutions on his own.
"When I was younger I would always ask my dad questions like, 'Why does this happen?' or 'Where does this come from?' and he would never give me the answer," Jancek said.
"I would do some research and come up with the answer, then ask him, 'Did you know?' And he'd say, 'Yep, yep, yep.' He would tell me that he wanted me to get into the habit of finding things on my own."
Jancek's Slovakian heritage is one of the reasons he chose to attend Benedictine, which was founded by Czecho-Slovakian monks who had come to the United States to take care of the spiritual and educational needs of Catholic immigrants.
"I thought it was pretty cool that it was someone who I share a culture with that founded this school," Jancek said.
The Natural Science Summer Research Program is just one of several programs offered at Benedictine that encourages and creates opportunities for hands-on learning and student discovery.
Students also can take advantage of internships, research at nearby national laboratories, study and service trips abroad, and faculty-guided trips to places like Cuba and China.
"I have found that students excel in research when they feel a strong sense of ownership," Mirsky said. "In particular, by giving students the freedom to select a project that strongly interests them, they are highly motivated to see that project to completion.
"I view my role as one of providing guidance and direction as well as encouragement, while allowing students to learn from their mistakes in order to develop into highly driven researchers."
Meanwhile, Jancek, who is majoring in computer science with minors in mathematics and physics, plans to attend graduate school and study robotics.
"My goal is to be that person who makes a difference, who has done something that no one else has done," he said. "To be able to say, 'I've done something that no one else has done,' -- maybe they thought of it, but I actually did it -- and now people have to reference me if they want to use my work, that's just a really cool feeling."