They made it into the top six of the 10th Microsoft Imagine Cup international finals in Sydney – beating out dozens of others around the world – but New Zealand's Team Mobile Eye couldn't quite pull off a definitive victory.
It's the third year in a row that a Kiwi team got to the finals – Auckland teams OneBuzz and OneBeep paved the way in previous years.
This year's winner was QuadSquad from Ukraine, a team that designed a complex system to better enable people to communicate via sign language. It incorporates sensory gloves that translate physical gestures into speech.
It has a library of US sign language gestures, and going forward users will be able to train it to recognise their own customised signs. The team scooped up US$25,000 to further develop the idea.
Coccolo from Japan was the runner-up, with an energetic presentation (there was dancing and a spot of clapping along by the audience) showcasing their idea for combating the power shortages Japan has suffered since its devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear station failure. Their smart LED lights can sense the brightness of the surrounding area, and dim themselves as needed.
The Wi-Go team from Portugal came third: their self-driving mobile cart was an impressive sight around the Imagine Cup showcase during the finals. The Kinect-powered trolley's main aim is to make tasks like shopping easier for the disabled.
The team says it could also be used at hospitals, airport and malls to assist the elderly, workers whose jobs involve lifting or transporting heavy items, or even simply fatigued travellers in transit.
Team Mobile Eye
"Giving smart eyes to blind people using their mobile phones" was the Kiwi proposition.
It was a big problem that Team Mobile Eye's Aakash Polra, Jade Tan, and In-Hwan Kim set out to tackle, but also, a "big opportunity".
It was Neil Jarvis of the Royal Foundation for the Blind who inspired
the concept, they say, and the team worked closely with the foundation
to further develop it.
Using the Mobile Eye app, a blind user takes a photo, which is sent to a server, and then directed to either artificial intelligence or human intelligence to deliver an answer. The colour of an object, for example, can be identified by AI. Text can be converted into audio and played back to the user via optical recognition technology.
The Mobile Eye app also leverages the power of social networks, namely, Facebook. A photo can be sent out to the user's community, where a friend or family member can send back an answer explaining what's in the image, which is then described out loud to the user. The gamified element sees a status update posted to a helper's profile that informs their contacts that they just helped answer a question through Mobile Eye (one judge praised the team for incorporating the crowdsourcing element and not trying to solve the entire problem with technology).
The last fallback is a third party commercial service called IQ Engines, another intelligent recognition engine which does incur a charge of seven cents per photo processed.
Further down the track, Team Mobile Eye anticipates hiring staff to monitor and answer queries as well.
It's not a new concept; VizWiz is a similar app, although it's only for iPhone users (and the team found most blind users in its trials were using Symbian phones).
Team Mobile Eye says the architecture is globally scalable, with a market of 40 million blind people (nearly half of those in the developed world) and 315 million visually impaired. They've come up with a price point of a $5 monthly subscription, and plan to reach out to partner with foundations for the blind around the world – and have talked to mobile operator 2degrees about potentially subsidising data charges.
The team says there's potential to extend the application to travel and tourism in terms of identifying a location or landmark, extend it to open ended questions ("how do I get to X?") or to extend the community aspect to build a kind of information repository with established subject experts.
“We are so proud of Team MobileEye – they headed into this tough competition with an ingenious idea and managed to amaze the judges,” says Scott Wylie, director of the developer and platform group for Microsoft New Zealand.
“They were fantastic representatives for the country, and have helped earmark New Zealand as one of the most innovative countries in the world – developing creative, cutting-edge solutions that receive recognition on the world stage. The fact that we have been on this finals stage for the last three years running is a testament to that.”
Back in New Zealand, the team hopes to continue developing the project with the aim of growing it and exporting the technology offshore to help blind people around the globe.
Imagine Cup 2012 software design finalists:
* MobileEye, New Zealand - an app that enables blind users to find out about objects around them
* uCHAMPsys, Taiwan – a personal health monitoring system
* QuadSquad, Ukraine – a system incorporating sensory gloves that enables people to translate physical gestures into speech
* Coccolo, Japan – smart lightbulbs that automatically dim as needed depending on surrounding brightness
* Wi-Go, Portugal – a mobile cart that follows a user around without needing to be pushed or pulled
* Symbiosis, Greece – games software to provide augmented reality therapy for Alzheimer’s patients.