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Students invited to demo their social skills app at Samsung conference

A smartphone app developed by Kent Career Tech Center students to help autistic teens navigate social situations will be showcased on a national stage in November.

Two students and their 3D Animation & Game Design  Instructor Marc Petz, are headed to the Samsung Developer Conference in San Francisco to show off a smartphone app they created to help autistic teens develop their social skills.

They were invited to attend the conference after an earlier edition of the app finished in the Top 10 at the national “Solve For Tomorrow” competition sponsored by Samsung earlier this year.  His students have now upgraded their Virtual Reality (VR) application into an Augmented Reality (AR) application that can be loaded into a smartphone.

Avatars simulate hallway encounters, coaching autistic teenagers through social encounters they might otherwise find awkward or uncomfortable

“This is 100 percent student developed and expert guided,” says Petz, who was invited to the conference with two of his 3D graduates. The group plans to demonstrate their app from Samsung’s booth at the conference, which attracts thousands of software developers.

Their AR app uses avatars to coach autistic teenagers as they role-play their interaction with other teenagers. The social scenarios, such as a having conversation in a school hallway, were scripted with help from Mary Musto, a teacher consultant at Kent Transition Center with a background in Autism and Behavioral Therapy.

Petz and his students also worked with YETi CGI, a Wyoming-based company that develops electronic games and artificial intelligence products for Fortune 500 companies. Petz also teaches digital animation and game design as an adjunct professor at Ferris State University.

The animated avatars – or characters –  coach their users to make eye contact and respond to questions or comments  from the avatars, who appear in the settings in which the users find themselves.

“We’re bringing the technology to your reality,” said Petz. The app uses recorded voices instead of machine-generated speech to make the interactions seem more natural.

The smartphone app developed by students at Kent Career Tech Center offers several scenarios that can be used as coaching tools by autistic teenagers

“We know this has the potential of reaching a lot of people,” said Keith Takens, a Ferris State University sophomore who helped develop the program while he attended the Tech Center.

Takens, one of the students going to the Samsung conference, noted that up to 2 percent of the world’s population has autism to some degree.

Meanwhile, Petz’ students are continuing to develop new role-playing scenarios to the app. For example, methods of starting, maintaining and ending conversations are being added to the app.

The app is based on a web site that connects to the app, forgoing the need to download the app to a smartphone.  “It’s as accessible as Wikipedia,” said Takens, noting the app does not require the bandwidth needed for other streaming services such as Netflix.


YouTube demonstration of the students’ app

SNN article: Tech Center’s 3D Autism Project a national finalist in Samsung ‘Solve for Tomorrow’ contest


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James Harger
James Harger
James Harger left School News Network in January of 2020. James previously reported on West Michigan's economy, courts and politics for The Grand Rapids Press and Mlive.com for more than 37 years. He also is employed as Servanthood Leader at Immanuel Lutheran Church in downtown Grand Rapids. A graduate of Central Michigan University, he also has worked for publications in Holland, Mount Pleasant and Lansing. He is married to Lisa and has one daughter, who lives in Ann Arbor.


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