Longtime beekeeper Eli St. Amour’s hearing is so good, he said he can hear when bees are angry.
It’s a skill he developed from growing up with Alexia, a physical disability in his brain that prevents him from reading, writing and recognizing faces.
It was this kind of attentive listening that St. Amour and his fellow participants adopted at the third iteration of evoHaX, an accessibility-themed hackathon, held Saturday and Sunday by EvoXLabs as part of Philly Tech Week 2016 presented by Comcast. The hackathon is unique in the way that it connects subject matter experts — people with disabilities — with teams of hackers to work collaboratively toward developing a solution for people with those disabilities.
This year’s theme was “Technologies for the Future: Green, Sustainable and Accessible.”
St. Amour, a sophomore at Saint Joseph’s University, and his team of three industrial design students from Philadelphia University won the hackathon with their prototype for what they called a Touch Reader.
A miniature infrared scanner fit onto St. Amour’s pointer finger and as he moved his finger over words on a paper, the scanner synced with his iPad, which read out loud to him in real-time. St. Amour said the Touch Reader would be a big improvement to the bulky E-bot PRO he currently uses to complete tasks like taking tests.
“We’re not just looking at his disability — we’re looking at his lifestyle, what he does on a daily basis,” said Alexander Tholl, one of the team members who designed the Touch Reader, along with David Kahn and Adam Hecht.
Each of the winning team members scored an Amazon Echo.
— BLP at PhilaU (@LaunchPad_PHLU) May 1, 2016
Philadelphia University students Kyle Thorpe, an industrial design major; Devin Glover, a mechanical engineering major; and Thomas Cambria, a graduate student in finance, won the audience’s vote (and some drones) for H.E.A.R., their idea of customizable audio receivers paired with a haptic feedback smartwatch to help deaf and hard-of-hearing people know what’s going on around their house.
The judges, cofounder of Philly Touch Tours Austin Seraphin, co-organizer of Philly NetSquared Briana Morgan and Philly Startup Leaders program director Yuval Yarden, were impressed by all four of the ideas’ applications toward necessary, real-world solutions — unlike the dog-walking apps Yarden is personally tired of seeing.
— Yuval Yarden (@yyarden03) May 1, 2016
Seraphin, who’s been blind since birth, has attended every evoHaX so far, and he hopes that the teams will continue developing their solutions. His vision is for Philly to have “world-class accessibility.”
At least two teams plan to keep working on their projects: the H.E.A.R. team said it will consult with their subject matter expert, Neil McDevitt, the executive director of Swarthmore-based Deaf-Hearing Communication Centre, to come up with a full-fledged product. (McDevitt also served as a subject matter expert last year.) Another team from Drexel is looking into the possibility of refining their tactile sketchpad for blind people, magnetEYES, as part of their senior design project.
It was a pretty busy week for Ather Sharif, founder of EvoXLabs which also hosted the first-ever Accessible World Conference on Thursday and Friday. Sharif’s wish is to have bigger companies than his tackle accessibility as a feasible topic, using evoHaX as an example.
“What we really want to do is just tell them, ‘Listen, there’s accessibility, and see, we did it and it worked out well,’” he said.
You can meet the teams behind the Touch Reader and H.E.A.R. at the PSL Entrepreneur Expo later today from 6-9 p.m. at the 23rd Street Armory.