Written by: 
Erin Cristales

nside a small, unassuming room at UNT’s Discovery Park, four senior computer science and engineering majors — David Woodward, Juan Ruiz, Tim Stern and Nickolas Bratsch— are refining an augmented reality program for space helmets they developed last year as part of the NASA Spacesuit User Interface Technologies for Students (SUITS) Design Challenge.

Clockwise from top, David Woodward, Nickolas Bratsch, Juan Ruiz and Tim Stern.
Clockwise from top: David Woodward, Nickolas Bratsch, Juan Ruiz and Tim Stern.

Though the team knew virtually nothing about AR when they started, they stretched their wings through mentorship from engineering faculty like Robin Pottathuparambil, user feedback captured via “space walks” in the halls of Discovery Park, and several rounds of trial and error. That inspired them to up the ante this time around — now as part of their senior design project, they’re developing a glove with attached cameras that will provide astronauts a helmet view of their more delicate, hands-on work.

“Iterative design is so important,” says Woodward, who in January was offered a full-time position with Lockheed Martin working on the displays for their F-35 Lightning II aircraft. “You can do research up front, but until you get your hands wet, you have no idea of what’s actually going to work.”

The team’s current iterations were born from feedback they received during last April’s SUITS challenge, which took place at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. There, they presented their AR programming to computer scientists, engineers and astronauts, and their program was tested by a NASA astronaut at the agency’s mockup of the International Space Station.

Engineer and retired astronaut Steve Swanson told the team that one of the most challenging aspects of spacewalks is for astronauts to see what they’re working on because the suit is so restrictive. That’s why, using their computer science and engineering expertise, the team decided to create the glove that would send a live feed directly to the headset.

“With computer engineering, you program but you also build,” Ruiz says. “We have to not only program, but create the hardware as well.”

And though it’s challenging, Stern says computer science and engineering faculty have fully prepared students for how to tackle even the toughest tasks.

In the team's AR interface, transparent windows overlay images of the real world.
In the team's AR interface, transparent windows overlay images of the real world.

“Part of what we focus on in classes is how to break these things into bite-size chunks that you can actually do,” says Stern, who recently received a full-time job with L3Harris Technologies following a summer internship. “The lab managers have helped us get parts for our project, [associate dean of undergraduate studies for materials science and engineering] Nandika D’Souza helped us get funding. Everyone in the engineering office has been super supportive.”

And the consistent ability to engage in hands-on learning, Woodward says, is what makes all the difference.

“I have a lot of friends who are majoring in engineering at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M, but they don’t get the same opportunities we have,” he says. “We came to the department with this idea, and they were eager to support us. I don’t think we would have had these same experiences at bigger schools.”


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