In each of the three years since she started her PhD in computer science at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, Lauren Klein has celebrated Hanukkah in Los Angeles with family friend Ryan Dubin, a first-year student at the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy, and his grandparents.
In this annual Jewish Festival of Lights, those who celebrate gather together to light the menorah candles in a specific order. But with COVID-19 still spreading throughout L.A., they didn’t want to take the risk of huddling together too closely. Yelling across the yard from 15 feet apart came with its own challenges, as masks would obscure their invitations to light each candle simultaneously. But the robotics student didn’t want to forgo the tradition, instead deciding to bring technology to bear on the occasion.
Klein, who works in Professor Maja Matarić’s Interaction Lab, remembered a recent conference on human-robot interaction and their competition to spur innovation and generate technologies that could be applied during the pandemic. She invited Dubin to collaborate with her on the project.
The two Trojans have designed two menorahs with sensors attached to the eight LED lights on each menorah in lieu of candles. When one group across the yard lights their candles, the sensors — connected via Bluetooth — cause the light on the other menorah to flicker, reminding the user that it is the appropriate time to turn that one on.
The project, which combines innovation in technology, art and design, has a special meaning to grandparents Fred Zimmerman, an engineer by trade, and Marlene Zimmerman, a Los Angeles artist whose menorah replica of the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights was selected by Hillary Clinton as part of the National Treasures collection in 1999.