Meet Sarah and Bach, engineers on the Augmented Reality System team


Sarah Medved and Bach Tran are Electrical Engineering students and members of an elite team of students working on an Augmented Reality System. This system is an important aspect of Digital Futures, an umbrella phrase that collectively refers to new and emerging technologies that are important for the future. 

The College of Engineering sat down with them to learn more about what they're up to - and find out exactly how cool this project is (spoiler alert: it's very cool). 

What degree program are you in?

S. I’m an Electrical Engineering undergrad. I’ll graduate with my bachelor’s degree in 2020.

B. I’m in the PhD program for Electrical Engineering. I’ll graduate in 2021.

What led to your interest in engineering?

S. I have always been interested in electronics. When I was a kid, I loved helping set up things like TVs and VCRs around the house. As I grew up, I tried fixing old computers, or breaking open old electronics to look inside. I lived in Wooster, Ohio up until last year. I was originally going to major in nursing, but I wanted to do something more analytical, as well as hands-on. Engineering provides me with the opportunity to create something out of nothing.

B. I was into physics when I was a high school student growing up in Vietnam, so I knew I wanted to study something technical and interactive. I received my undergraduate degree in Electronics and Telecommunications in Hanoi and started working in industry as a software developer.

The job inspired me at first, as I was able to develop programming skills, but slowly it became boring. It was repetitive and not challenging enough. I decided to pursue higher education in a more developed country other than Vietnam, and I chose to come to the United States and enroll at the University of Akron.

Why The University of Akron?

S. The campus is beautiful, and the engineering program is excellent. A few of my friends came here out of high school. I originally was attracted to the Biomedical Engineering program. I was in the Signals and Imaging track but decided to switch to Electrical Engineering because it wasn’t as specialized. The electrical field seemed much broader to me.

I am very happy I made the decision to go to UA! I have met so many amazing people, professors, and friends. The school also has a ton of great clubs and teams (like this one!) that I am happy to be working on and contributing to.

B. I was living in Vietnam and a friend of mine attended the University of Akron and recommended it to me. I knew from my friend that UA offered the type of program I was looking for to continue my studies, something that related to my undergraduate degree yet let me grow as an engineer.  The international student community is friendly and supportive, which is a big bonus for me as I would be starting over in a new place.

I knew nothing about this city before I got here. All I could imagine was a long cold winter that I hadn’t ever experienced. 

What is your role with the Augmented Reality (AR) System?

S. I’m co-leading the project, but Bach is technical lead. I handle all the outreach, so that means making sure we’re connecting with folks like you to tell the rest of UA and the community what we’re up to here. I am also responsible for making the system’s language more intuitive.  For example, rather than just having a set list of “keywords” that the system recognizes, I am trying to make the system recognize and understand many different words and phrases.  So rather than just saying “rotate model,” the user can say turn, flip, spin, etc. There are currently five other members on the team in addition to Bach and myself. We have two students working on the Telemetry System (Caleb and Josh), one on CAD Modeling (Thibaut), one working closely with the psychology department for research and testing (Erin), and one working with external devices and other AR-specific issues (Alycia).

B. I’m responsible for the “big picture” of the AR system, and as the only member of last year’s team, I’m the seasoned one of the group. I work with the system architecture, separate the design into smaller components and integrate all the components for the final product. I set up the working environment (i.e. set up server and the network) and provide technical support to team members.

Tell me about the system and what makes it so cool.

S. Augmented reality is when you’re set within the real world, but virtual items and scenes are placed around you. Not to be confused with virtual reality, which is when you're completely submerged in the virtual world. Our intent with the AR system is to create an application that can guide the user (specifically, an astronaut) though a series of complicated tasks.  Eventually, we would like to move the system to industry.

The AR system is so practical. For example, one series of tasks involves fixing a conveyor belt. While the user fixes the conveyer in the real world, the AR device guides the user through the task with audio, video, and 3-D interactive models.  I love working on programming. There’s an immense feeling of satisfaction when I'm presented with a problem, and I can work my way through it until it is complete.

B. AR is an extremely hot topic of research such that it opens a new way of allowing humans to interact with the physical environment. The project let me explore and experiment with new ways to solve existing problems, such as technical support for remote education, navigation, and guidance. This technology allows you to build whatever you can imagine.

What has your experience in Electrical Engineering been so far?  

S. This field has been very challenging. It requires a lot of time and work, but it is rewarding being able to make it through the semester successfully! I have encountered some really great faculty. The department chair, Dr. Veillette, has always been an exceptional professor and adviser. And of course, Dr. Sastry, the faculty advisor for the AR system, has been a wonderful adviser to our team and is always pushing us to share our ideas and try new things. He was very helpful when I was having trouble in his programming class, and also very encouraging when I was doing well. I hope these positive experiences continue into my final year.

B. I was impressed by the way students are taught here. The program focuses students on solving practical problems and provides resources for support, like tutoring, access to professors, and learning communities. This is also the first time I participated in a university project that participates in outreach activities and publicity, like this article.

How do you think the UA College of Engineering is preparing you for a career in engineering?

S. I have great professors who really care if I succeed or not. You can’t coast. Professors really expect things from you and your participation matters. The labs are immersive and require you to work through them on your own as much as you can. Teaching assistants help students and ask them questions along the way to make sure they're understanding. Plus, of course, there’s the co-op experience which is unbeatable when it comes to acquiring real world experience outside the classroom.

B. UA is preparing me by encouraging a new way of thinking about and solving any problem. It is the most important skill for me to have as an engineer.  

In addition, the problems I need to solve diverge into many areas such as mathematical literature, system architecture, programming, CAD design, etc. This gives me a huge advantage over other job candidates because I’m able to put into practice what I’ve learned in my studies.   

Have you had any co-op positions?

S. Yes! I worked at Darko Inc. in Bedford Heights. They create in-store experiences for their clients, like Amazon, GE, Hasbro, Target, and Bed Bath and Beyond. The technology department of the company has grown quickly in recent years, due to my awesome bosses (one of whom is an UA grad!). My role was the Technology Department Intern. I started off helping my boss finish off projects and designing PCB layouts, but toward the end of my co-op, I got to work on a few solo projects for Whirlpool, Maytag, Google, and GE.

B. As a PhD student, my focus is on completing the program on time, which doesn’t provide much time for a co-op experience. I’m currently working on my PhD dissertation, which focuses on communication systems and connectivity. I’m also focused on learning more about network controlling and optimization and distributed system design in my research.

What are your plans post-college?

S. I would like to pursue an MBA. I think that will broaden my opportunities even more because having some business background in the industry is very important. I’m interested in circuit board design and embedded programming, so I'd like to look for a company where I can do that kind of work while pursuing my MBA. I'd love to work for a company that presents me with problems, and I have free reign to figure out the solution. I want to be able to have opportunities to work in teams as well as independently to create new solutions and products.

B.  I’m not sure. I want to go into industry again, and I would like to stay in Akron. Even though I was born in the countryside, I ended up living in a densely populated city in Vietnam, which I didn’t like. Akron is a small and not very crowded city. I like the slow pace here. Without too many distractions it is easier for me to work and enjoy my time at UA. 

In one word, how would you describe the UA College of Engineering?

S. Incredible

B. Gateway

The University of Akron Augmented Reality Team is one of a small number of teams selected nationally to demonstrate their AR system for making spacewalks more efficient at the NASA Johnson Space Center in April 2019. Go, team!