When the all girls team of 14 students from Vandegrift High School in Austin, TX were approached by an MIT liaison to participate in the Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams program, they wasted no time taking the opportunity.
“They saw we were a team of all girls who were pretty much kicking butt,” said senior team member, Marina Bendele.
After deciding to apply for the program, the team began formulating ideas.
“We had to sit down and think of a problem we wanted to solve,” said senior, Trudy Bui, project manager. “Someone said a GPS walking cane. Mr. Allen brought it up at EurekaFest and an MIT representative actually really liked the idea.”
The team, advised by Vandegrift faculty member Rad Allen, received $8,900 in grant money to produce a global positioning system (GPS) identification device for the blind and visually impaired.
The final idea developed when the team noticed that the Texas School for the Blind is located only about 10 miles away from Vandegrift High School. They decided to forge a relationship with the school to help them understand what would be needed in their product.
“We’re taking Arduino hardware and pairing it with the latest GPS technologies available to us,” said junior, Sahar Rashed, assistant project manager. “Combining these we’re making it possible for a blind or visually impaired individual to come back and relocate an already visited area without the assistance of another person.”
When a user is holding the device, it takes the GPS coordinates, pairs it with the users voice recording, and uses the recording as a label for the location. When the user comes back by that area, it sends a notification that there is a “bookmark” nearby and the user can chose to either hear what that area is or not.
“We’re trying to make it as simple as possible,” Rashed added. “One of the things we’re trying to achieve…is making it a shared database, so that every user can connect with others data- solving the problem of isolation among these individuals.”
After sending questions and surveys to schools and institutions for the blind visually impaired across the country, the team found that what was needed most was a device that worked indoors.
“They’ve spent an extensive amount of time with a professional who builds GPS chips,” said Allen. “He really explained what GPS can and can’t do.”
He went on to explain that the trick would be to figure out how to get the GPS component to work indoors- something even professional firms in Austin are trying to figure out.
This snag didn’t stop the students. After researching they found a GPS chip that has “precise point positioning technology” and uncovered information about differential GPS: land beacons for GPS that are on the planet rather than in satellites.
“These will provide clearer signals, so by combining these together, we’re trying to create a relative positioning technology that we can use with the GPS,” explained Rashed. She added that using the land beacons will allow the device to provide a location based on the devices last known coordinates of where it had a strong signal.
“With a normal GPS, a poor location isn’t because of the GPS itself,” explained team member Katie Frierson, senior. “The satellites move and the signal bounces off of devices environment, changing your recorded location.”
The group explained that depending on the environment it could be a difference of a few yards, however because the chip the students are using give corrective feedback on these refractions, the recorded location should only ever be off by a few feet.
Since the team was recognized for being made up of all female students, they decided to call their device “C’Ceal.”
“We liked it because it was a girl’s name and translated from Dutch it roughly means ‘visionary,'” explained Bendele
A prototype of the device must be finished to present to InvenTeams in June. Although the students have yet to start putting together a prototype, Allen explained that they will be looking into patents for their finished product.
“All of these GPS problems are things we weren’t aware of until about 2 weeks ago,” he laughed. “So we’re only in the research phase right now…Hopefully we’ll be able to submit a patent. It would be cool for the students to be able to come out of high school and say ‘Yeah, I got my first patent when I was 15.'”
Many of the students on the team expressed their excitement over having this opportunity. Understandable, since almost all of plan to go into a sub-field of engineering.
“I decided it would be a great way to learn a lot about not only inventing but helping people,” said sophomore, Avni Shah. “What we’re working on can actually have a lot of impact. Our project will actually benefit an entire group of people.”
The InvenTeams program is made up of high school students, teachers, and mentors that receive grants up to $10,000 each to invent technological solutions to real-world problems. Since 2002 there have been more than 95 InvenTeams from across the United States. The Vandegrift team is one of 15 schools nationwide to be selected this year.
“The students work on real world stuff. It’s hands on,” said Allen. “A lot of what happens in classes is basic textbook knowledge, but in here, you get to take everything from marketing, hardware, engineering- the whole spectrum- and give students real world experience. And it forces them to figure out complicated problems.