An-Najah University Student Programmers: Innovative, Determined and Committed

18 September 2013

West Bank

It started out as just a graduation project, but a system developed by three young women from a university in the West Bank might make you pause before reaching for your Google Glass. The achievement of three 22-year-olds – Rahaf Fattouh, Amal Maher Al Swimah and Mai Renno, a Palestine refugee from Nablus – was to create a new method of tracking retina movements, whose simple materials and numerous potential applications make it an exciting development.

The four-month project – ‘The Automated Eye Detection and Tracking System Using the Viola/Jones Algorithm’ – was a labour of love for each student; Rahaf, who only had classes two days each week, said, “I came to school every day” to work on it. After studying previous attempts and solutions – including systems requiring external hardware, like Google Glass – and consulting the faculty advisor in their information technology programme at An-Najah National University, Dr Bakr Abdul Hak, they settled on a simple, elegant idea: A 5-megapixel camera is mounted on a laptop, running a software program they created that utilizes the Viola/Jones algorithm for facial recognition.

The webcam and the software work together to track a person’s eye movements, helping to identify how they respond to different elements of what they are looking at. The system could be used in product testing and market feedback, by noting the user’s reactions to a website or an advertisement. However, its other possibilities are also important: It could be helpful for students with autism or learning difficulties such as dyslexia, by reading their eye movements to pinpoint what part of a text or lesson causes them the most difficulty; similar applications could help patients of stroke.

Preliminary testing of their program resulted in a success rate of 70 to 80 per cent. Many would have been satisfied there, but Rahaf laughed and said, “We were aiming for higher results, to be honest.” With graduation behind them, the three young women are moving on – Amal will be traveling to the United Arab Emirates and Mai has already relocated to Jordan, with Rahaf remaining in Nablus. Nonetheless, Amal said, “This project will continue. All three of us plan to bring it to production. We plan to work together until we perfect our prototype.”

Their determination stems not just from their own success, but from the support of their families and teachers. Amal added, “Their encouragement helped us push through endless hours of testing, and will continue motivating us towards our goal.” With support, determination and hard work, it seems, young people in the West Bank are capable of creativity that even Google might envy.

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