Innovation at Perkins isn’t always homegrown. In fact, this year’s winner of the Perkins Technology Sidecar Prize was developed as part of a college service project in Guadalajara, Mexico, over 2,765 miles from Watertown, Massachusetts.
Ustraap, a wristband that can be worn by people who are blind or visually impaired to alert them to obstacles in their path, will be manufactured and sold thanks to the $25,000 prize awarded by Perkins in partnership with MassChallenge, an annual competition that offers support and funding for promising entrepreneurs.
Ustraap was announced as the winner of the Perkins prize at the MassChallenge Awards Ceremony on October 29 in front of high-powered guests like Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google.
“The Ustraap team demonstrated an acute understanding of the challenges that individuals with visual impairment have with navigating their surroundings,” said Perkins Products General Manager David Morgan. “They did an outstanding job creating an easy-to-use and discreet wayfinding system, and we’re looking forward to helping them bring the product to market.”
Ustraap co-founder Marco Trujillo, a self-described “hardware geek” with a background in engineering, developed the prototype for Ustraap with two friends as part of a social service requirement for college students in Mexico. They tested the device on students enrolled in a local school for the blind and were overwhelmed by the positive reaction from both kids and parents.
“In that moment we acknowledged that what we had developed was something (special),” Trujillo said. “That was what hooked us to take our invention to a higher level and to help as many people as possible.”
Ustraap’s appeal lies both in its versatility and unobtrusive design, Trujillo said. The slender wristband is equipped with a sensor that can detect obstacles within a 13-foot radius. As objects move closer, the Ustraap vibrates or emits sound through wireless earphones. Wearers can turn it off and on as needed – someone with limited vision might only turn on their Ustraap when traveling through a crowded area like a shopping mall.
Wearers who are completely blind can use Ustraap in conjunction with a white cane to gain more information about their surroundings. An additional feature allows the wearer to quickly locate specific objects like keys or a cell phone using electronic tags. The device is expected to go on sale in early 2015.
Ustraap was one of five finalists for the Perkins Technology Sidecar Prize, now in its third year. The competition is a way for Perkins to “crowdsource” great ideas for new products and solutions, said CEO & President Dave Power.
“It allows us to tap into the energy of all of the experts out there, to discover what the next technology is going to be,” he said.
For Trujillo, winning the Perkins Technology Prize brings him one step closer to his ultimate goal – seeing his product make a difference in the lives of people who are blind and visually impaired. Watching someone use a white cane to travel independently is inspiring, but also frustrating, he said, because it allows so much room for error.
“I just know that technology can be much better,” he said. “If I could see someone wearing Ustraap in the streets that would be just perfect.”