Archive for July, 2020

Notes from a Virtual Capstone Expo

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2020

The Georgia Tech Capstone Expo is typically held twice a year, usually Spring and Fall. The event provides Seniors across a variety of majors the opportunity demonstrate projects and devices that they have designed and implemented. I’ve participated as a volunteer judge for the last few years. The Expo is normally held in the McCamish Pavilion, the basketball arena on the Tech campus, where it fills the main entry and service floor, plus the basketball court, much of the second floor, and even a large outdoor tent for larger projects which are not suitable for indoors. It is quite a spectacle, and always inspiring.

This summer, in acknowledgment of the challenges introduced on campus by the Covid pandemic, the Mechanical Engineering (ME) department hosted a “mini” virtual version of the Capstone Expo. A few weeks ago I signed up to judge, and was very curious how a virtual version would work, especially having participated in a wide variety of video conferences, telepresence meetings, virtual seminars, town halls, and corporate broadcasts over the last few years, and especially in the last few months.

The lead-up to the Expo used some familiar tools: Eventbrite for ticketing, a new vendor, rocketjudge, for the judges’ voting app, and a post-event survey application. The students all participated remotely, and they used BlueJeans for their planning and design meetings.

Obviously I was most curious about the tool they selected for the actual Expo interaction. The circumstances were challenging. The viewers and judges were told in advance that they would need to participate using a computer with microphone and camera, running the Chrome web browser. The judges were provided with a rubric to guide our assessments, and we were given a link to the list of participating teams. Each team created a single poster for display (just as in the face-to-face Capstones) and a short video describing and, if possible, demonstrating the problem and solution. (This took the place of the physical models and devices normally used in a face-to-face Capstone.) This information was made available to judges and attendees earlier in the afternoon of the the Expo.

We were allowed to log in starting at 3:30 PM, with the opening remarks and official kick-off scheduled for 4:00 PM. Following that, each team would do a presentation of their project every 15 minutes (4:15, 4:30, 4:45, etc.) until the conclusion at 5:45. The winners were scheduled to be announced at 6:00 PM. The teams left time for Q&A at the end of each presentation. This was more formalized than a face-to-face Capstone, in which presentations generally occurred on a more ad hoc basis, when one of more people stopped at a team and expressed interest. In some cases, there were also sidebar conversations going on between an attendee and a team member.

So how would this work considering we were all going to have to use a previously unseen tool to emulate a very dynamic environment?

The short answer is, “Much better than I expected.”

Here’s an overview. This is completely based on my memory, so some of the details may be off, but it should be pretty close. It made quite an impression on me.

When I logged in, a screen appeared in my Chrome browser window. I’ve drawn it out, below, for two reasons: (1) I didn’t realize until it was over how well it worked, and how much I wanted to describe it, so I didn’t take any screen shots. I was busy attending, and judging, a conference!! (2) I don’t want to post anything graphical that might be considered intellectual property, even though this write-up will only be distributed to a few folks.

Outline of Gatherly main page

The screen and the functionality were created by Gatherly (gatherly.io), which turns out to be an Atlanta-based start-up. Based on a quick web search, gatherly.io appears to be one of a very few tools designed for this type of application.

Due to my own schedule conflicts, I didn’t manage to get signed on until about 3:50. At that time, the large presentation window was mostly blank, and I could see myself (and the mute status of my audio and video) in the self-view window, The lower-right window was a scrollable list of attendees by name, and the room plan view had several types of icons scattered about, and was titled “Lobby.” In the lower left of the Room view was a wider gray area marked Elevators.

I could see the icon that represented me at the “entrance” to the room. I discovered that when I moved my mouse, a line extended from my icon to wherever my mouse was pointing to.

In addition to the small people icons, there were larger, numbered grey circles that I soon figured out were groups of attendees. Hovering my mouse pointer over a grey circle popped up a list of the people in the group. Clicking on the group was equivalent to walking up and “joining” the group. The large window showed video images of the group participants. I could “walk” around the lobby by simply clicking. There was a nice time delay that made it look like I was actually walking!

Not quite being ready to commit, I didn’t actually join any groups, but just hung around in the lobby. Eventually, the host appeared in the main screen and began to welcome us and explain how things were going to work. He directed us to the “News” tab in the lower right corner for generally applicable information. After some additional housekeeping announcements, he announced that we were free to begin.

I was assigned to judge three teams, which would take at least 45 minutes to hear all three presentations. All three of my teams were on the “Upper” floor, so I “walked” to the elevator by clicking, and was presented with a choice (elevator “button”?!) of U or L. I clicked U, and the Room Plan view changed to show the six team locations in the room. (It turns out that there were 11 teams total for this ME “mini-Capstone” — five on the lower floor, and 6 on the upper.)

The only snag I hit was when I tried to listen to the first team’s presentation. I clicked on the space marked out for the team, but not on any of the other people who appeared to be gathered there. If I had been a little more sociable in the lobby I probably would have figured it out earlier, but eventually I clicked on the “group” that was hovering on the team space, and “joined” the team, in mid-presentation, I would note. But it was a little like walking up to a physical presentation already in progress.

Once I “joined” the presentation, the main window displayed their one-page poster, and the scrollable participant window showed all of the people in the group, presenters and observers. I had to scroll back and forth to figure out who was talking whenever they changed speakers, but that wasn’t a huge problem. The presenters were easy to spot because their names began with their project location identifier (U6, for example.)

At this point I remembered that they had asked those of us who were judges to start their names with a “J” when they signed in, but I never saw anyone who had remembered to do that in the directory.

The first project I visited was a team that had designed an automated way to swap out charged battery packs for delivery drones. I listened to their presentation, asked a few questions, and made my initial assessments on the judging app.

Then I virtually wandered over to the next team and did more or less the same thing. Their product, sponsored by a mining corporation, automated the preparation of test samples for analysis. Their design included a detailed stress analysis of their grinding apparatus, fluid flow calculations for the liquid distribution system, and outlining the computer code required to manage the overall automated system.

One of the things I enjoy about the face-to-face Capstones is getting to chat on an individual basis with some of the individual team members. They always have something interesting to say. This virtual version was no exception. The presenters were aware of who the visitors were, thanks to the display interface. (This is an improvement over the “trying to make out the name on the name tag” interaction of a face-to-face.) One presenter even acknowledged two of us by name when they started the presentation. The Q&A portion was very natural, with no noticeable audio delay, just like talking in person.

I repeated the process one more time for the third team. This project was about a robot test “track” for a legendary ME class which requires students to build and program robots to perform a specific task. Their design allowed the track to be reconfigured for each semester to introduce new challenges, and to take advantages of improvements in the robot products that the whole class uses. After some real Q&A, we shared a little humor about whether their design would accommodate robots which could levitate. “Oh yeah, we can handle a hoverbot!” one student quickly replied.

During one of these presentations, I figured out what the “local chat window” was useful for. When you join a group, a unique chat window for that group appears in the local chat tab. Team members posted notes, follow-up answers, web links, and so forth. It all felt very natural.

After I finished entering grades for all three, I looked over the list of projects and found one that sounded interesting on the lower floor. This was a project to help mobility- and strength-impaired persons do their laundry. It used a wheeled basket with a tilt mechanism to dump the clothes into the washer or dryer, as appropriate, and a power-assisted claw mechanism to remove the clothes from the washer or dryer.

When I joined the group, there was a judge asking some very good questions of the group. Since I wasn’t assigned to judge them, I just listened, and came up with a few comments. Rather than interrupt, I just began typing my comments into the local chat window. About the time I finished my first comment, the judge thanked them and “walked” away, and they began to respond to my first comment, which proposed community laundromats as a possible market as well. My second comment was that the claw looked like so much fun that you could probably get kids to do the laundry. And my third comment was about whether they had done a safety analysis.

I was fascinated at how natural the typed comments and verbal responses felt in this context. Almost as if I were standing there texting questions to them.

In summary, the design and implementation of the meeting tool was impressive. I can think of so many ways that the solution could have been awkward, or time-consuming, or unclear. But the attention to design detail seemed pretty obvious.

This is even more amazing when you consider the fact that Gatherly.io is a start-up, and that the ME department had to figure out how to pull this off in just a few months.

The Expo organizers posted a few statistics at the end of the session. In addition to the 11 projects and teams, there were 35 judges, 75 participating students, and more than 150 virtual attendees.

The first place winner was “Hive Deliveries”, the first group I visited. Second place went to Sanitation Assistance Machine, an automated ultraviolet surface de-contaminator. And the Laundry project I visited won third place in the People’s Choice voting.

All in all, I would consider it a successful event.