This time of year, dozens of children across the country die after being forgotten inside sweltering cars. A group of Johns Hopkins University students may have found a way to ensure that parents remember even a silently sleeping baby.
As part of a yearlong senior project in engineering, three classmates designed a system, built from popular video game technology, they say will be able to sense a baby's breathing. They modified Xbox's "Kinect" device, perhaps best known for living-room dance competitions, to detect children or pets from a mount in a car's backseat.
The product could eventually make it onto store shelves — or even into vehicles straight off the showroom floor — said a Hopkins official who focuses on child injury prevention and served as the students' "client" on the project. More than 500 children died of heat stroke inside cars from 1998 through 2011 — at least eight of them in Maryland, according to San Francisco State University research — but the students said they hope their project will help cut that number.
"Ultimately, my goal would be to see this thing fully integrated into cars just like seat belts and air bags are," said Eileen McDonald, program director of the Johns Hopkins Children's Safety Centers.
For their final project, seniors in Hopkins' engineering program tackle a real-world challenge. For example, one group developed a stethoscope for medics who are trying to remotely listen to astronauts' hearts and breathing while on noisy spacecraft. Others used solar and kinetic energy to power an electronic door lock and made improvements to a dolly that an ice cream company needed to move heavy objects.
For students Jeffrey Kamei, Anshul Mehra and Yejin Kim, the challenge of preventing deaths in hot cars posed a more open-ended challenge.
"This one presented a problem and just told us to solve it," Kim said. "I thought this could allow me to think outside of the box and really apply my ideas to solving a problem."
The group, given no specific instructions, brainstormed possible solutions. Reading studies about the pattern of deaths and other devices that aim to prevent them, the students found that in most cases, the tragedies involved babies. Gadgets on the market detect a baby's weight in a car seat, then trigger an alarm if the baby is left unattended, for example.
"There have been attempts at creating solutions to this problem, but those other devices really haven't worked," Kamei said.
A report the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released last year found that those devices were inconsistent and unreliable. In some cases, when children shifted in their car seats, the weight sensors no longer detected them. At other times, distance sensors intended to alert parents once they got a certain distance from the car didn't work.
So the students began considering alternatives.
Should there be an alert device, reminding parents to check on their baby every 10 minutes or so? Not practical. Bracelets placed on the baby could alert parents when they got too far away. But that requires remembering to put on the bracelet.
Perhaps a cooling system that would prevent car interiors from getting too hot in the first place? Even with 80-degree temperatures outside, a car's interior can reach unsafe temperatures of 100 degrees or hotter within 20 minutes. While the strategy could prevent deaths, it wasn't the best solution, the students found.
"We didn't want it to make parents more complacent," Mehra said. "We don't want to put more children at risk. Managing that was an important part of this task."
Instead, they focused on a need for a passive device that would work but didn't depend on parental activation. The students got an $8,000 budget they used, in part, to buy the Xbox Kinect devices and take them apart.
Kinect, sold under the slogan "You are the controller," uses infrared light and two cameras to sense players' motion in games that involve dancing, sports or other types of exercise. It sells for about $100 as an add-on to Xbox 360 consoles. The students contacted Microsoft, owner of Xbox and Kinect, but didn't hear back, Kamei said.
Kinect's infrared sensor, it turned out, appeared highly sensitive to motion and was unaffected by high heat, the students found.
To prove it, they borrowed a newborn-size dog and sat it in the backseat of Mehra's Acura sedan. The device sensed the 8-pound Yorkiepoo even when it lay still or at the edge of the device's view. Better still, it detected even slight motion covered by a blanket within a minute — a fraction of the time it typically takes for a car to get dangerously hot, Mehra said.
"Our device is proving that detection can work," Kim said.
Microsoft officials said in a statement that the technology "gives industry thought leaders the tools and resources to help reimagine the way people interact with experiences on computers. Through their innovation, those who are developing on the Kinect for Windows platform have the potential to improve people's lives and have a positive impact in society."
But more steps remain before the device gets into cars.
Kamei, Mehra and Kim are on to different things after graduating last month — a job at a Pennsylvania company that uses video surveillance to inform marketing decisions for Kamei, and graduate studies for Mehra and Kim.
The device must be tested with human babies, safely mounted and integrated with a vehicle's electrical system, and somehow connected to an alert system, through text messaging or directly to emergency officials.
It will be up to a new group of seniors to carry it forward.
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