From problem to solution in just nine hours

At ATHack, college students from MIT put their heads together to invent new accessible technologies

Two students work together building accessible technology.

Two students at work during ATHack.

March 4, 2015

Most great inventions take years to complete, but a group of MIT students were given less than nine hours to design and build a prototype of an original device that will improve the lives of people with disabilities.

ATHack, which took place February 28 at MIT’s Beaverworks Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was a spin-off of the university’s popular hackathon – HackMIT – where students conceptualize and build software and hardware projects in a 24-hour period.

ATHack had a similar goal, but focused exclusively on assistive technologies for people with blindness, mobility challenges and other disabilities.

Seventeen groups of MIT students were paired with clients who each faced a unique physical challenge. The teams met with their clients several times in the month leading up to the hackathon to brainstorm potential solutions. The day of event, they set to work building prototypes. No two projects were alike.

“Just about every low- and high-technology approach was employed by the teams to solve a problem,” said Perkins Solutions Director Joe Martini, who helped judge the competition. “Everything from re-wiring batteries to allow charging and power functions to be controlled via a laptop, to fusing PVC pipes together to build a standing walker.”

For many people with disabilities, assistive technology has been a crucial tool in allowing them to live more independently and enjoy a wider range of activities. Perkins Solutions, one of Perkins’ five operating groups, is focused on providing consulting services and developing and manufacturing products that can help people who are blind or visually impaired reach their full potential.

“When you have a disability or a condition that limits you being able to do simple tasks for yourself it is incredibly discouraging and frustrating,” said Martini. “Assistive technology can help level the playing field.”

Tyler, a student in Perkins’ Transition to Life Cooperative program, has trouble navigating retail stores, where GPS devices are notoriously unreliable. During the hackathon, his team began coding a smartphone app that would organize a store by department, showing the user the quickest route to take to complete their shopping list.

Across the room, another team was hard at work constructing a portable signaling device that flashed a unique color or pattern when the user received an email, text or phone call. Their client was Lisa Chiango, a Perkins Solutions trainer who is deafblind.

“It felt great to be part of developing a product that has the potential to assist many people,” Chiango said. “Having a client be part of the process is what makes accessibility and universal design effective.”

Laptops and coffee cups covered every visible surface at ATHack as students tried to beat the clock and create a working prototype that would help their clients live more independently.

The winning designs, chosen by a panel of judges, included a mouth-operated mouse that allows people with limited dexterity to operate a computer, and a mechanical page turner that allows users to turn sheet music pages using head movements.

“The determination, cooperation and innovation combined with empathy and understanding of the problem and need for a solution that I witnessed brought me great joy,” Martini said. “Assistive technology is not as large a field nor as glamorous as others, but my hope is that at least some of these bright young minds remain focused on it in the future.”