Finding extraordinary engineers for exceptional clients

“Talking E”: An Engineering “Superhero” Story

April 5th, 2012

Meet Shwetak Patel, an assistant professor in the departments of Computer Science and Engineering and Electrical Engineering at the University of Washington. He’s also a MacArthur Genius.

In September 2011, Patel was named one of 22 MacArthur Fellows, commonly known as the MacArthur Genius Award. The prize comes with $500,000 — no strings attached.

What did he do to achieve this honor? You may as well ask, what didn’t he do?

Among Patel’s inventions: A device that can detect noise on electrical systems to monitor the energy usage of specific appliances and electronics in homes. Zensi, the company founded on that technology, was acquired last year by computer peripheral company Belkin from Patel and his colleagues from Duke and Georgia Tech.

More recently, Patel has been working on a way of using electrical wiring as an antenna to receive signals from a variety of low-powered sensors around the home, to monitor conditions such as air quality

Spin-off research includes the “Humantenna” project, led by UW student Gabe Cohn, which uses a receiver on the human body to determine a person’s position in relation to electrical noise emanating from a home’s wiring system — like Microsoft’s Kinect motion sensor, without the need for the Kinect hardware.

Patel’s research is broadly in the areas of ubiquitous computing, human-computer interaction, and user interface software and technology. He has published over 50 articles since 2003 and has received numerous best paper awards.[2] Patel focuses on developing easy-to-deploy sensing technologies, activity recognition, and applications for energy monitoring. He also has developed novel interaction techniques for mobile devices, mobile sensing systems, and wireless sensor platforms, many of which in collaboration with Microsoft Research, where is also a visiting researcher.

Patel founded Zensi while he was a graduate student at Georgia Tech. After Zensi was acquired by Belkin, Patel made the cover of Seattle Business magazine and was named newsmaker of the year and one of the top 10 start up stories of 2010 by TechFlash.

What will he think of next?

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