UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — At the onset of the pandemic, Penn State engineering students Alessandro Placitelli and Rene Cantu had some extra time on their hands. With labs canceled and classes pushed to a remote format, the fourth-year students searched for a way to grow their skills with the kind of hands-on work they may have had in person.
Forming an at-home lab, the two created Companion, a smartwatch to assist college students in their everyday lives. While they do not have plans to commercialize the prototype, the students said they found the experience of building it invaluable to their futures.
“I wanted to use the knowledge I learned in class and see if I could put that knowledge into practice, into something practical,” said Placitelli, an electrical engineering major. “And with this project, I proved to myself that I could do it.”
Like the Apple Watch, Fitbit and other similar smartwatches, Companion features traditional wearable technology apps including heart rate sensors, weather information, music control, a stopwatch and of course, the time of day — analog or digital. It also includes special features tailored to students, allowing them to navigate bus routes, find classrooms on campus, play the classic mobile game Pong or walk home in the dark with a built-in flashlight.
Placitelli was inspired to start experimenting with electronics after taking EE210: Circuits and Devices, taught by David Salvia, associate teaching professor of electrical engineering. The class covered basic electronic components like resistors, capacitors and operational amplifiers: the building blocks that allowed him to create the first version of Companion last year.
Later, Placitelli partnered with Cantu, a computer science major, to create Companion 2.0. Cantu led the design and development of applications and graphics for the watch’s second iteration.
“The thing I love about this watch is that if we are bored one day or need a new feature for a particular class or situation, we can just code a new app and have it appear there immediately,” Cantu said. “I have created apps before in an internship, but this was the first time I programmed all on my own.”
The duo are international students; Cantu is from Mexico and Placitelli from Venezuela.
“Speaking a different language and adapting to another way of living, all while trying to live the college experience for the first time, was no easy task,” Placitelli said. “However, we believe that those struggles can be a catalyst for many students like us who want to make an impact in a society that values perfection and hard work.”