Many technological innovations are borne out of necessity and personal need. Hence, the old adage, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”
This also is true for a group of young Eastside inventors who are developing a practical and inexpensive device that aims to help people who are visually impaired.
If you aren’t familiar with the term nyctalopia, don’t worry. You probably know it better as “night blindness,” which affects a person’s ability to see well at night or in poor light. Glaucoma, cataracts, and even vitamin A deficiency are typical causes, according to the Cleveland Clinic, and it impacts scores of people worldwide.
One of those is Nir Pechuk’s 75-year-old grandmother, Gelina Feldman. Her vision hobbled and often cloaked in darkness, she found it difficult to pour a glass of water or a cup of tea without the fluids cresting the designated containers’ rims and spilling onto the countertop. Wasn’t there a way for her and other people with night blindness to accomplish such a simple task?
Pechuk, a student at Samantha Smith Elementary School in Sammamish, and six of his classmates — Aakarsh Balla, Aniketh Cheluva, Alan Duan, Amogh Janganure, Maanav Sikaria, and Abhinav Vallabhaneni — decided to create a new device that could solve that problem.
“We talked to a number of blind people, and some of them said that spilling water is a big issue,” explained Atul Sikaria, Manaav’s father, who also is the team’s coach and a software engineer at Microsoft. “If you are blind, you can imagine having to clean up after that is a pain.”
For the past two years, the students have participated in FIRST, an international robotics competition co-founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen in 1989. FIRST is an acronym — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology; the organization is aimed at young people ages 6 to 18, and has chapters throughout the United States, including FIRST Washington.
The Sammamish team, Nano Cheetah Bots, has built an autonomous robot that can complete a series of challenges (picking up and dropping off small objects, rotating levers, flipping over discs, and other tasks) assigned by FIRST Washington.
It also has created things centered on themes established by FIRST Washington, according to Atul Sikaria. The first year they participated, the theme was animals. The Nano Cheetah Bots created an interactive book that was sold on Amazon and helped people choose the perfect dog for a family pet.
The second year, the theme was hydrodynamics. As the students started thinking about inventions centered on the theme, Pechuk shared the story of his grandmother’s night blindness. The team also met with Sight Connection, a Seattle organization that helps the blind and visually impaired, as well as Hazelwood Elementary School in Lynnwood, which has a strong program that helps blind and visually impaired students.
The palm-sized, L-shaped device’s prototype is simply constructed. A white shell is produced on a 3D printer, and it houses a 9-volt battery, two circuit boards that are smaller than business cards and process inputs and outputs, and tiny ultrasonic sensors that gauge fluid levels. During a demonstration at Sikaria’s Sammamish home, the students gathered around a living room coffee table as they placed the device on the edge of a glass, turned it on (producing a loud beep), then began to pour water into the glass. As water neared the edge of the glass, the beeping increased, letting us know the fluid was nearing the glass’ rim.
The device’s potential extends beyond night blindness. The World Health Organization estimates 253 million people are visually impaired: 36 million people are blind, while the rest have moderate to severe vision impairment.
“We were so impressed with these young people,” Jane Elliott, Vision Rehabilitation/Orientation and Mobility Specialist at Sight Connection, said. “Their thoughtfulness and hard work to create something useful could add to the safety and independence of newly blind people. Potentially, this could be a useful device. With refinements, it could be an improvement over existing devices and could help particularly newly blind individuals.”
Similar devices exist on the market today, but the students think theirs has an edge.
“The existing device is basically two (metal) wires hanging off of a thing, and when the wires touch the water, the circuit gets completed and starts beeping,” Atul Sikaria said. “Every time you use it, you have to clean it up, which is cumbersome. Also, because it comes in contact with all kinds of liquids, it tends to get rusted. Our device is contactless. It doesn’t touch the water. It uses ultrasound to sense the distance to the water and stop the liquid.”
The students are working to patent the device, and plan to launch a crowd-funding campaign to further develop the product and move it into production, according to Sikaria. They would like to make the device more portable and include a feature that allows a person to pour water up to different levels — not just millimeters from a glass’ edge.
In the end, Sikaria expects the device will sell for under $15, and the team plans to donate all the potential revenue to organizations that assist the blind and visually impaired.
“We think (such a) device could have an impact on a lot of people’s lives,” Sikaria’s son, Manaav, explained.