Meet the New Class of High-Tech Innovation

These middle school students are working on projects that will one day help the visually impaired.

Screenshot via YouTube

Screenshot via YouTube

A team of engineers and innovative researchers are pioneering breakthrough technology for wearable gadgets like Google Glass, but surprisingly enough, they aren’t from MIT or Harvard—they’re middle school students.

A group of nearly 40 kids from the McCall Middle School in Winchester recently brought home a state title from the Verizon App Challenge for coming up with a concept to help the visually impaired if they find themselves in emergency situations without anybody around to help them out.

Called the “Calling Queue,” which was one of two app ideas students from the school submitted to the national competition, the technology would allow a blind person to access a database of contacts to call if in trouble. Once connected, the person on the other end of the line would be able to see what the blind person is seeing, and guide them in the right direction.

“Essentially, the blind individual would have [Google] Glass, and they would say a command and it would go down a list of people, and if they don’t pick up it would go to the next person, and when a person does pick up, the video feed of Glass will show up on the other person’s phone, so they can help them,” said Madeline Nifong, one of the students that worked hard to design the initial outline of the app.

A fellow classmate, who is blind, inspired the students to come up with both the “Calling Queue” and the other app idea the students pitched for the competition, called “iGuide.” Once it’s built, iGuide would essentially allow users to look at a book or menu, and the words would be read aloud to them using Google Glass. “We came up with these ideas because there is a blind eighth-grader in the school and we wanted to help him,” said Justin Yu.

Yu said last year the group created a glove that relied on sonic sensors and motors to detect if an object was nearby. If there were, the glove would put pressure on the hand of the person wearing it so they knew to avoid the obstacle. But Yu said the glove was too bulky, so the team, part of an after school engineering club, came up with this Google Glass app instead. The students got the chance to work with Google Glass through the help of Chris Beaman, a UX designer at the Cambridge Innovation Center. Glass has only been distributed to a handful of selected people nationwide, and has not hit the general market, so to be able to have access to the technology is a rare opportunity for such young entrepreneurs.

“[Chris] loved seeing kids getting into tech, so he got us involved in the Glass explorer program, and he got us Glass. Through him we have advanced so far on this project,” said Varahunan Mathiyalakan.

The “Calling Queue,” which they have been focused on for more than a year, launched the inventors at the McCall Middle School into the second round of the competition, beating out other schools in the state, and making them just one of 80 groups up for a regional championship title. Although they didn’t win the regionals, which were announced on February 4, the kids from McCall are still determined to move forward with their invention so they can one day see it come to life.

Because of their “Best in State” nomination, the students will have access to the MIT Center for Mobile Learning, and beginning the week of February 17, they will have self-guided access to materials that cover teaching app creation using “App Inventor,” so they can begin building out their proposed app concepts and turn them into actual working mobile options.

“Working on this project has been tiring, but fun. A week before the competition, I’m pretty sure almost all of us were up past [midnight] working on essays and videos— it was hard work, but after we felt happy and proud that we were able to accomplish so much,” said Mithiyalakan.

Moving forward, the after-school club will be working with Boston-based Cantina, which helps design and program apps, and strategies to launch them. Students will also be attending a springtime lecture series hosted by Youth Cities, called “Match-to-May Bootcamp,” which focuses on entrepreneurship and business practices, and lets middle school and high school students brainstorm with professionals on different ideas to start a venture, figure out how it impacts local community, and determine how it’s going to make money while driving change.

The students are also filing a patent for the innovative technology to stake their claim in the digital realm.

McCall’s technology and engineering program has been on the forefront of exposing students to the world of inventing. Principal Jorge Goncalves said the department last year won a “program of the year” award, and they have three teachers dedicated to running the program. Two of the lead teachers have worked closely with not just all of the students, but with students in the after school tech club. “They have spent a countless number of hours with them, and have really pushed the envelope about what you would typically expect a middle school student to be exposed to. The fact that they are already designing and writing apps is incredible,” he said.

Below is a video that explains the process behind the students’ “Calling Queue” app: