Academics

With time on their hands, undergraduate inventors create smartwatch for students

Penn State engineering undergraduates Alessandro Placitelli, right, and Rene Cantu teamed up to create a smartwatch last year when labs and classes were held remotely as a result of COVID-19. Under the trademark-pending name Placitech, they plan to develop a third version of the device as an example of the kinds of projects they work on.  Credit: submittedAll Rights Reserved.

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.” 

Companion 2.0 has a built-in flashlight, navigation software, and the classic mobile game Pong: special features to help students navigate, relax, and walk home in the dark. Credit: submittedAll Rights Reserved.

To create the watch, Placitelli turned his bedroom into an electrical engineering lab. He began experimenting with microcontroller programming, using the skills and know-how he gained from EE200: Design Tools, taught by Jeffrey Schiano, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science.

“I wanted to see how far I could go with electrical circuit projects on my own, like figuring out how to condense an electronic circuit into a super small device or use microcontrollers to program the devices to do an endless number of different things,” he said.  

Placitelli used a breadboard — a common electrical engineering tool used to test prototypes — to assess different electrical cable configurations, and then integrated them with hardware parts he ordered online. From those tests, he created a final circuit board and a slim, 3D-printed case to hold all the components together. 

The result is a cohesive, easy-to-use wristwatch that connects seamlessly to a user’s cell phone.  

Companion is not Placitelli’s first invention. He has built a Bluetooth speaker, a fingerprint-locked safe deposit box, a non-contact infrared thermometer, a smart lock controlled by an app, and even an electromagnetic replica of Mjolnir, or Thor’s hammer, controlled by a fingerprint sensor. Placitelli named his trademark-pending collection of projects Placitech, a mashup between his last name and technology. He posts his creations on his Instagram, and his work has been featured in Onward State.  

What is next for the Placitelli and Cantu? Designing a third version of Companion and building up a body of work to show off to potential employers, they said.  

“This was our ‘internship,’ for the summer, and beyond,” Placitelli said. “We wanted to show future employers that we can think outside of the box, solve problems and have fun with inventing. I learned if you have a passion for something, it is not difficult, you just have to be motivated to put work into it.”

Last Updated September 01, 2021

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