STEP Environment Scanner

Name: Brandon Horsham

Type of Project: Artistic and Creative Endeavor

1) Please provide a brief description of your STEP Signature Project.

For this project, I researched the capabilities of different components and systems in order to design a device that could scan its surroundings. I constructed a computer compatible with the necessary software and libraries to convert a physical scan of the environment into a model.

2) What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world has changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project

While doing this project, I learned both technical skills, as well as general ideas about how to handle changes to the plan along the way. The technical skills I learned were interfacing peripheral sensors and devices with microcontrollers and computers, constructing circuits, and working with Java and OpenGL to convert standard image formats (JPEG) into workable data on the computer. The main reason I decided to pursue this project, of which I had little to no prior experience with these systems, was to formulate and apply many ideas into a single cohesive application. I felt that schoolwork and typical methods of teaching taught important information, but in a fragmented manner. I feel like the classes teach the “what” aspect of the major, but they don’t delve too deeply into the “why” or “how,” which I feel is key to separating textbook knowledge from practical knowledge. This project was meant to complete this gap.

During and upon completion of this project, I learned in a more cohesive manner how different aspects of an electronic system interacted and communicated with each other to produce a tangible result, from the sensor input (camera) to the high level programming (Java and OpenGL). Additionally, I learned that plans may not always play out as expected, and handling changes along the way in the most efficient manner is an important skill to have.


3) Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life?

I believe that this change is extremely valuable, because it changed my perspective on how I approach learning new things. For me, I found that simply learning the “what” aspect of things in general led to a superficial understanding of concepts. This project allowed me to explore why things happened the way they did, in my own way, without having to stray to get a grade or do what an assignment requested. I believe that viewing new ideas in an objective way, and seeking understanding this way would lead to a more comprehensive and effective understanding of the topic.

When I started working on the project, it followed my budget and plan quite well, with few variations. As the project neared completion, I found myself thinking and coming up with better ways to accomplish the end goal. I did more research during the project, and came up with better ways to accomplish the end goal. Initially, I thought that it would be most efficient to scan the environment by getting measurements of distance to the smallest possible surface area at the highest possible frequency, to create a good resolution scan. However, after researching the fastest possible infrared ranging device, I found that the scan would still take upwards of an hour to complete a relatively small area, and yield a low resolution. I began to look for other options, and eventually settled on using a camera with a line laser instead. This greatly boosted the frequency at which the scan could be completed, as well as the resolution (about 10 minutes for this scanning method). This change was a relatively significant departure from the original plan, and ended up working out well.

This change was a result of me wondering if there was a better way to accomplish the same goal, and doing research to find out fundamentally why the new method was better. Essentially, the difference arose from the physical characteristics of the sensors. The initial sensor, infrared ranging device, in essence had only a single point of measurement per reading. The camera design combined with the laser essentially has 1080 points of measurement per reading (vertical pixel count of the resolution), which could be varied. This doesn’t take into account any optical calculations, which vastly improve upon the resolution. The infrared sensor could only read an area with a minimum of a few square centimeters at a meter, which was a very low maximum resolution (this couldn’t distinguish fine features such as corners or edges very well if at all), whereas the camera could read data at the same distance to within a few square millimeters).

After determining why the new system was far more efficient than the old system with no significant downsides found, I made the change, and proceeded to complete the project based on this. Another change as a result of this was that I had to use Java to decode the data from the camera, which required learning how the JPEG format worked, and how to manipulate images and get data from them. In the end though, the result was that I had a comprehensive understanding of how taking picture of a laser beam could be converted to useful information regarding what the picture was taken of.


4) Why was this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life?

This change is very significant, because it changed the way I approached problems and learning new ideas, both of which go hand in hand. I learned that having a superficial understanding of ideas was not sufficient to contribute comprehensive solutions to problems, and that understanding the why and how of a system can lead to a more comprehensive understanding that can be translated into other aspects of life.

I think that learning how and why something works is the only way to consistently improve systems and methods, and that this perspective leads to objective analysis of current systems in place and possible solutions to problems. For example, if I were presented with a new problem today, or situation where things weren’t working, instead of just accepting them as they were, I would automatically try to find better ways of doing what is being done. I believe these skills are what could potentially lead to management and leadership positions, and are useful skills to have in general.


I would like to thank Mr. Cogan, my STEP advisor, for being supportive of my project, and being a great advisor in general during the spring semester. I would also like to thank the organizers of the STEP program for providing this excellent opportunity to provide resources to advance my knowledge alongside the school curriculum.