Students build assistive technologies for Boston residents in need

Beaver Works hosted the Assistive Technologies Hackathon where students built helpful hardware and software for local community members

By Meg Cichon | Communications and Community Outreach Office

Jonathan cannot easily determine whether lights are on or off. Colleen sometimes falls when she tries to get up from her wheelchair. Megan has trouble introducing herself to new people. These issues were tackled by undergraduate and graduate students from MIT and several local universities during the third annual Assistive Technologies Hackathon (ATHack). Held in February at MIT Lincoln Laboratory Beaver Works Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, ATHack hosted 17 teams totaling 70 participants. The students worked to develop technological solutions to problems Boston-area clients face because of their disabilities.

Two weeks prior to the hackathon, students and clients gathered for a meet-and-greet dinner at which they formed teams. "The conversation allowed hackers to get a sense for which projects were a good match for their skills and interests so that they could create a successful product," says MIT graduate student Jaya Narain, who co-directed the event with MIT students Ishwarya Ananthabhotla and Jen Tylock. For example, a student studying mechanical engineering may be well matched with a client who needs machinery. Although students strive to create actual devices, the main goal of the event is to encourage students to get involved in engineering solutions to real-world problems and to establish a link between MIT and the Boston/Cambridge community, says Narain.

In just the one day of the hackathon, students developed and prototyped an assistive technology to accommodate their client's needs. "It's incredible what can be done in just 10 hours when you have a great idea, the support to make that idea happen, and the hope that your product will help make someone's life easier," says MIT student Alison Gibson, who helped design a pill-bottle opener for a client with limited grip strength.

2016 MIT ATHack Team JonathanStudents created a mobile application (app) that detects whether lights are turned on or off. When the app senses a light source, the mobile device emits a sound. Above, the visually impaired client tests the app by holding his phone toward a light source.

When planning the 2016 event, the coordinators, who included MIT students Narain, Ananthabhotla, Tylock, Emma Nelson, Ben Rosen-Filardo, Alex Chen, Annie Dai, Tally Portnoi, William Li, and Pristinavae Manning, addressed several lessons learned from past hackathons. During previous events, teams struggled to gather the materials necessary to create their technologies, resulting in wasted time and frustration. This year, teams were encouraged to create a list of essential items one week before the event, and the organizers had each team's materials ready for the competition. In 2015, the second year of the hackathon, coordinators had also realized that they needed a large workspace that includes a machine shop, which they found at Beaver Works. "During our first year, students were forced to run to several different buildings in order to use certain tools. Now we have Beaver Works, which houses everything we need from 3D printers to laser cutters," says Narain.

"This was Beaver Works' second ATHack experience, and it was even better than the first," says the Beaver Works facility manager.  "Thanks to the terrific event organizers, the whole day ran smoothly, and Beaver Works hummed with the activity of multiple student teams that were inventing and building. Lincoln Laboratory and Beaver Works are proud to support this great event."

2016 MIT ATHack at Lincoln Laboratory Beaver WorksThe Beaver Works venue provides all of the space and tools, such as computers, 3D printers, hand tools, and a laser cutter, the ATHack teams need to build their assistive technology hardware and software.

This year, the teams produced several hardware and software prototypes that clients were able to test and even take home. Team Jonathan created a mobile device application (app) that senses light sources. The camera on the device captures a live videostream of a room, and the app analyzes each video frame's pixel values in conjunction with sensitivity and exposure values. If the values indicate a light source (e.g., bright pixels and high exposure), the phone emits a sound. By the end of the competition, Jonathan was able to download the app onto his phone. Dan Preston, a member of Team Jonathan, saw great value in producing a tangible product from which the client benefited immediately. "We presented the app to the Massachusetts Visually Impaired and Blind User Group.  We then deployed a beta version of the app on the phones of several visually impaired users," says Preston. After successful beta testing, Team Jonathan's app, called Boop, is now available in the iTunes Store, free of charge. "We developed a meaningful product that fills a real need thanks to ATHack, the great support from our client, Jonathan, and MIT and Lincoln Laboratory volunteers." Lincoln Laboratory volunteers who helped the students develop their assistive technologies included Kurt Krueger, Rich Landry, Patrick Chwalek, and Daniel Rabinkin.

After the 10 hours were up, the projects were evaluated by a judging panel that included Narain, Ananthabhotla, Portnoi, Li, and Tylock of the ATHack team; Gavin Bauman, a technical evangelist (i.e., someone that bolsters support for new technologies in order to bring those technologies to market) at Microsoft; and Joe Martini, director of assistive technology at Perkins School for the Blind. The judges based their evaluations on product usability and feasibility, but particularly focused on how well the students worked with their client, understood client needs, and translated those needs into a functioning prototype. "We want students to think about how they can apply their engineering and technical skills to real-world problems within their community," says Narain. "Students should have opportunities to develop their skills outside the classroom."

2016 MIT ATHack Team JaeTeam Jae tests a foldable cane attachment for a visually impaired client who uses a wheelchair and a guide dog. The cane is affixed to the wheelchair and can be folded into multiple configurations that best suit the user's navigation needs. For example, the cane can be bent at an angle so that it extends forward from the outer edge of the wheelchair rather than the center of the chair; this configuration avoids disruptive contact between the cane and the guide dog.

First-place Team Colleen designed a wheelchair seat with a mechanical lift that helps their client move from a sitting position to a standing position. According to Narain, this project gained top honors because the team focused on accommodating Colleen's needs. For example, because Colleen also has difficulty using a scale to obtain her weight, the team installed a scale within her seat that enables her to weigh herself at any time. The team also designed an app that receives the data from the scale and presents them to the client via an easy-to-use mobile interface, such as a tablet, phone, or laptop. Second place went to Team Jae, which designed for their visually impaired client a foldable cane that attaches to a wheelchair. Third-place Team Megan designed a personal storybook platform that can be used on a mobile device such as a tablet. Because their nonverbal client has trouble meeting new people, the team designed a program that allows her to load information about herself onto her tablet, which she can use to introduce herself to other people. Team Jonathan's light app received an honorable mention.

"It is inspiring to watch engineers apply their skills to real problems affecting real people," says a client. "I would like to see this event develop into a cross-disciplinary curriculum that focuses on assistive technology."

Because interest in ATHack is growing but space for the event is limited, organizers were forced to turn away potential hackers and clients this year. The event team hopes to expand by either finding additional space or holding multiple sessions in order to accommodate the ballooning interest. "Many clients and students hear about ATHack from previous participants, so there is a lot of excitement about the event," says Narain. "It is nice to watch the collaboration between the students and community members. That collaboration is a very special part of the hackathon, and we want to see that grow."

Posted June 2016

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