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Driven by the wonders of science

Students win funds to create new device for the blind

A Bromfield School team sponsored by MIT created a prototype of a 'sensing cane' to detect objects in the way. A Bromfield School team sponsored by MIT created a prototype of a "sensing cane" to detect objects in the way.
By Connie Paige
Globe Correspondent / December 21, 2008
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HARVARD - Mac Devlin blindfolds himself, holds a device in front of him bristling with components, jams an attached earphone into his ear, and shuffles forward. After a few steps, he bumps into a lab desk. Good-natured laughter erupts around him.

The device Devlin is holding is a crude prototype for a virtual cane for the visually impaired. The experiment fails this time, but Devlin and a crew of scientifically minded students from the Bromfield School say they are convinced their invention will work by the end of the academic year.

As part of a competition to foster scientific creativity and problem-solving, the students are hoping to invent a cane that will sense objects in its path and signal their distance.

"We're really trying to make this easy to use, intuitive, and . . . we're not trying to find a cure-all for everything," said Ben Waldman, another team member. "We're not trying to be futuristic, map out the room in sonar, and convey it to [the users]. We're just trying to add another thing to their arsenal so they're able to navigate their surroundings more easily."

The students make up a so-called InvenTeam, one of 16 around the nation sponsored by an awards and recognition program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In an age of lagging performance by US students in math and science, the Lemuelson-MIT Program chooses the InvenTeams from public and private high schools and awards them up to $10,000 to produce a practical solution to a real-world problem. The 21-member Bromfield team received $7,450.

Lemuelson-MIT executive director Joshua Schuler, who recently conducted the first of several site visits to Bromfield, said while it would be "terrific" if the team commercialized their sensing cane, the program's aim is for students to help create "a culture of invention" in the school.

"We want to see students go on to the university or to a job and be inventive and be creative in whatever they do," he said.

The team comes from the top academic ranks of Bromfield students. The five who gathered to meet Schuler said they variously participate in the school's math team and academic bowl and have side interests in music, fencing, karate, and track and cross-country. Four of the five said they aspire to go on in computer science, electrical engineering, software design, or medicine, or a combination of fields. Shunan Zhao, a senior, described himself as "different" because he aspires to go into philosophy.

Devlin, a junior, already has worked for a year and a half as a program developer for EasyPak LLC, a Leominster-based plastics packaging firm.

Team members work long hours after school and weekends.

"It's not as if any of us has anything else to do on a Saturday night," joked team member Arjuna Hayes, a senior.

Waldman, also a senior, faked indignation at the suggestion, but added with a grin, "We're all complete nerds."

This sort of camaraderie has helped the team make strides. So far, they have created the prototype, a little larger than a DVD case, fashioned out of Popsicle sticks, a circuit board, and Radio Shack components. The device relays a sonar beam that detects objects in front of the user and a receptor that sends the information to a computer to measure the distance away and convert it into an audio signal. In the device's current iteration, a woman's voice periodically relates the data to the user through the earphone.

Team members explained that the recent experiment failed because Devlin had held the device too high to detect the desk. That presents one problem to solve - how to detect objects at varying angles. Other puzzlers: how to sense graduated objects, such as curbs or stairs, and moving objects, such as automobiles.

They also are pondering whether to have the signal come in the spoken word, or in another type of signal, or in Braille, the reading and writing system for the blind.

To determine which the blind might prefer, the students hope to contact organizations for the visually impaired. They are also consulting with team member Leanne McDonald, a legally blind sixth-grader.

The team also will garner the expertise of several adult mentors. Among them, John McGoldrick, a local software engineer who has managed multimillion-dollar projects, said he believes he can help by being a "gatekeeper" to keep the team on track.

"You don't have to do too many [projects] to know that everything that can go wrong will go wrong," Goldrick said.

Once their invention actually works, team members said they will consider the best size and shape. Possibilities include a small device to fit on glasses, jewelry, a watch, or a belt buckle.

"It will be cooler, sleeker, and shinier," Waldman said. "No Popsicle sticks."

The team members' enthusiasm appears boundless. Team captain Brian Lynch, a senior, while cautioning against trying to accomplish too much, acknowledged that they want to make their invention as versatile as possible.

"The more places we can go, the more fun we can have," he said.

Team members plan to showcase the sensing cane in June at MIT at a so-called EurekaFest.

Connie Paige can be reached at connie_paige@yahoo.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a Dec. 21 article about the invention of a sensing cane for the blind by students at the Bromfield School in Harvard misspelled the name of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology program that chooses such school teams to develop practical solutions to real-world problems. The correct name is the Lemelson-MIT Program.

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