A blog post, written by a visually impaired person about the challenges she faced trying to use the office’s new touch screen coffee maker, was the inspiration behind a recent Waterloo Engineering Capstone Design project that captured top honours in the Canadian leg of this year’s James Dyson Award.
WatVision, developed by six mechatronics engineering students, reads out words or numbers on a device allowing visually impaired individuals to make a cup of java, select an elevator floor or perform other functions most people take for granted.
The WatVision system, which Dyson judges described as incorporating clever, yet simple engineering principles, includes an app as well as a ring that the user wears on a finger. By pointing a smart phone camera at a touch screen, the app reads out whatever word or number is underneath the individual’s finger. One of the main advantages of the ring design is that it costs less than $2 to produce.
For a better user experience, the team also designed a glove that includes a bluetooth sensor and a motor which gives feedback in the form of vibrations at the user's fingertip indicating the distance away from the button.
When it came to selecting a Capstone Design project last year, the students decided they wanted to design something that would help with accessibility.
“We looked at creating braille readers at first, but decided that would be way too hard,” says Craig Loewen, a WatVision member. “When a team member read a blog post about an individual not being able to make coffee because she couldn’t use the touch screen, we all said that we could solve that problem.”
Team members tested their prototype system on people with different levels of visual impairment.
“In about 30 minutes, the person who was blind was able to go through a few screens on a touch screen. Another individual with low vision was able to use it instantly and really liked it,” says Loewen.
In March, WatVision captured a GM Innovation Award as well as second place in the People’s Choice Award during TronCon, an annual mechatronics engineering event that connects alumni with current students.
Team members Loewen, Jennifer Kim, Joseph Lundy, Lior Lustgarten, Elizabeth Morrow and Jake Rampertab, graduated from Waterloo last spring and have all landed full-time jobs throughout North America.
The team hopes to integrate images and colours into the next version of WatVision and for users to navigate the touch screen without wearing a ring. The James Dyson Award prize of $3,000 will be put towards computing time and maintaining server access subscriptions.
WatVision members have made their system open source to allow access for others to make improvements and upgrades. A few of the team plan to talk to companies about the possibility of integrating it into their products. Ideally, they’d like to see their system in place at various places including airports, grocery self-checkouts and ATMs.
Loewen, now working for Microsoft in Seattle, feels that Waterloo’s co-op system gave WatVision a competitive edge in the national Dyson award competition.
“Our team members had different co-op experiences. Some people had exclusively software jobs, some people had electrical. I was mainly working as a project manager,” he explains. “Our broad expertise was really valuable when it came to designing our product.”
Continuing to lead the way
Waterloo student projects figure prominently in the contest that encourages innovative products or concepts that do a better job of solving tangible problems started by James Dyson, the British inventor of the bagless Dyson vacuum cleaner.
Two years ago, Medella Health also won first place in the national competition and was shortlisted for the international award.
In 2015, Voltera won first-place overall with its desktop-sized circuit board printer that turns design files into prototype boards in minutes. In 2014, Suncayr was an international runner-up with its colour changing marker that alerts a user when sunscreen is no longer providing protection.
WatVision and the two national runners-up will move onto the next stage of the James Dyson Award where a panel of Dyson engineers will select a shortlist of international projects later this month.