New competition spurs computer science solutions to real-world problems

Portrait photos of the 7 students.

Russell Agrusa CSE Student Innovation Competition winners. Top row, from left: Yincheng Jin, Jiyang Li, Seokmin Choi and Yang Gao. Bottom row from left: Bhavin Jawade and Akshay Agarwal, second place; and Foad Hajiaghajani Memar, third place.

By Nicole Capozziello

Published January 28, 2022

Auto-flaggers for work zones, contactless fingerprint scanners, and a tool to defend against fake media were just a few of the inventive student research projects presented at the first annual Russell Agrusa CSE Student Innovation Competition.

Russell Agrusa.
“I was amazed by the great, innovative ideas that came out of this contest, and in such a short amount of time. I’m very proud of making this opportunity available to future generations of students at the university.”
Russ Agrusa, UB alumnus and founder, president and CEO (Retired)

Initiated by a gift from University at Buffalo alumnus Russell Agrusa, the competition provides students with the opportunity to earn cash prizes for research work in areas where industry need is greatest and where the demands for automation and connectivity are rapidly increasing.

“We really appreciate Russ’s generous donation and support in establishing this competition, which provides a tremendous opportunity for our students to work on some projects that are not only scientifically exciting but also socially impactful,” says Jinhui Xu, professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. “It greatly encourages our students to transform their learned knowledge into innovations.”

Agrusa (BS ECE ‘76) was motivated to launch the competition to stimulate the creative potential of CSE students in today’s tech-centric world. “Competitions like these acknowledge students’ capabilities and keep people inspired,” Agrusa says. “They get to work together to build something that works, that could benefit people by having a practical use in society.”

The competition drew unique project submissions from 16 teams, consisting of 33 students and 18 faculty mentors. The top three teams were awarded cash prizes, with the first-place team winning $6,000, the second-place team receiving $4,000 and the third-place team getting $3,000. 

A system that recognizes sign language gestures and shows the transcription on a smartphone took first place in the competition. The students designed and prototyped SonicASL: Sign Language Gesture Recognizer Using Earphones, a low-cost, easy-to-use and highly accessible earphone system that aims to break the communication barriers between the deaf and hearing people.

The first-place team members were Yincheng Jin (lead), Jiyang Li, Seokmin Choi, all PhD students in CSE, and Yang Gao (PhD ‘20), now a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University. The team was advised by Zhanpeng Jin, an associate professor in computer science and engineering. 

The second-place team consisted of PhD student Bhavin Jawade and postdoctoral fellow Akshay Agarwal, advised by CSE faculty Nalini Ratha, SUNY Empire Innovation Professor, and Venu Govindaraju, SUNY Distinguished Professor, and Srirangaraj Setlur, principal research scientist, Center for Unified Biometrics and Sensors.

Inspired by the increased risk of contact in the COVID-19 pandemic, the team developed a hygienic, secure and modern solution for fingerprint authentication on a mobile device. The solution is contactless, relying on a smartphone camera and a contactless-to-contact based fingerprint matching algorithm.

Images showing a a finger scan process.

Contactless to contact based fingerprint diagram.

Third place was awarded to PhD student Foad Hajiaghajani Memar, who was advised by Chunming Qiao, SUNY Distinguished Professor in CSE. Memar designed and prototyped an AI-powered auto-flagger system which offers a low-cost solution for regulating two-way traffic without human flaggers, thus reducing worker injuries and costs in work zones.

A committee of CSE faculty members evaluated the submissions based on novelty, impact on society and artifacts. Winners were announced in a virtual event on December 10, 2021.

An entrepreneur himself who holds 10 patents, Russ and his wife Paula, also an alumnus, founded ICONICS, Inc., a leading international software development company specializing in real-time data acquisition, visualization and control using IoT and the hybrid cloud. The company has won numerous software development and application awards and is a seven-time Microsoft Partner of the Year winner. ICONICS is now part of the Mitsubishi Electric family of companies based in Tokyo, Japan.

Agrusa has maintained a connection with his alma mater over the decades, serving as a member of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences’ Dean’s Advisory Council, and as co-chair of the Computer Science and Engineering Department Advisory Board. 

He has previously supported the University at Buffalo through a donation to the construction of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences' Davis Hall. The building’s largest lecture hall is named Agrusa Auditorium in recognition of his gift.  Most recently, he helped create the Paula T. Agrusa Plaza, located outside the School of Management, in memory of his late wife.

“I was amazed by the great, innovative ideas that came out of this contest, and in such a short amount of time,” says Agrusa. “I’m very proud of making this opportunity available to future generations of students at the university.”