Beaver Works hosts Assistive Technologies Hackathon

MIT students hack away at problems faced by local community members living with disabilities.

A twistable throttle to control wheelchair velocity, a voice-activated cane, a non-sound-based signaling device — these are just some of the ideas that MIT students turned into designs and prototypes at the Assistive Technologies Hackathon (ATHack) held on Feb. 28 at MIT Lincoln Laboratory Beaver Works in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Seventeen teams comprising more than 70 undergraduate and graduate students participated in the full-day event. Teams worked directly with members of the Boston/Cambridge community who live with a disability (the clients) to develop solutions to the problems these clients face because of their disabilities. “The hackathon challenged students to apply their technical skills to develop tools that would make a real difference in the quality of people’s
lives and inspired them to pursue future projects in the assistive technology space,” says MIT senior Jaya Narain, who directed the event with classmates Ishwarya Ananthabhotla and Abigail Klein. A team of students, including William Li, Emma Nelson, Sneha Lingam, Jennifer Tylock, Dhruv Jain, and Beth Rosen-Filardo, helped to organize the event.

In the weeks leading up to the hackathon, the teams met with clients to gain a sense of the kinds of assistive technologies that could help them live more independently and more fully engage in activities. The clients presented with a range of disabilities, including cerebral palsy, paraplegia, diabetes, neuropathic facial pain, and hearing and vision impairments.

According to MIT senior Kirsten Lim, a member of the team that prototyped a hands-free walker, Beaver Works proved to be the perfect venue for hosting ATHack: “The space is well-designed for hands-on projects. There were several whiteboards, which my team used to figure out the walker’s dimensions, and a ton of tools.” Participants had access to the facility’s lab area that features several 3-D printers and its machine shop, where drills, hand tools, and laser cutters are available for use.

“For many of the students, the hackathon event coincided with their first encounter with Beaver Works,” says John Vivilecchia, manager of Beaver Works. “I have never seen the facility so teeming with innovation. Every inch of space was humming with activity,” he continues. Vivilecchia was one of five Lincoln Laboratory volunteers; Thomas Sebastian, Benjamin Nahill, David Allaby, and John Kruszkowski were onsite to share their expertise as the students forged ahead on their projects. Don Fredette, director of the Wheelchair Enhancement Center at the Boston Home, also served as a mentor.

By the end of the day, several hardware and software prototypes had been produced and put to the test. Lim reflected on the moment her team’s client, a student with cerebral palsy, tried out the hands-free walker: “This experience was slightly terrifying — our structure was made out of PVC [polyvinyl chloride] piping and thus not yet designed to support our client’s weight — and also amazing. When I got to see him in the device for the first time, I began to tear up.” The structure ended up being too short for the client, but considering the limited time teams had to design and build their prototypes, this progress was impressive. “Our client’s parents said they could see a more refined version of our walking device being retested in the future,” says Lim.

Despite similar setbacks seen in other projects, the teams’ efforts were very much appreciated. One client said, “I really am thankful for my team’s efforts in coding and assembling the mobile wireless flashing/vibration notification alert prototype for deaf, hard of hearing, and deaf-blind communities. This tremendous eye-opening learning experience allowed me to see firsthand the steps in building a prototype.” According to Joseph Martini, director of assistive technology for Perkins Solutions at the Perkins School for the Blind, the “collaboration among participants and clients was invigorating to see.”

Martini, along with a Lincoln Laboratory engineer and MIT graduate students with experience in assistive technology, served on a six-member judging panel that evaluated each of the 17 projects on three criteria: usability, creativity, and functionality. First place went to the team that fabricated a fully functional Bluetooth joystick/mouse with sip-and-puff capabilities for a woman with cerebral palsy. The second-place team developed head motion-activated mechanical and digital page turners for sheet music to help a conductor with cerebral palsy. Third place was a tie between a motorized turntable bagel spreader for a student with cerebral palsy and a workout app that recommends post-exercise insulin adjustment for a person with diabetes. Lim’s team was given an honorable mention.

Many of the students whose projects did not lead to a usable prototype expressed interest in continuing to work with their respective clients. “Disabled community members need to know that there is an ongoing commitment to solving the challenges they face,” says Martini. “ATHack and similar events that shine light on these challenges and the need for multidisciplinary solutions will hopefully influence more students to pursue projects and careers relating to assistive technology development,” he continues.

“This type of event is what makes MIT so unique and makes me extremely proud to be a member of the MIT community,” says Robert Shin, head of the laboratory’s Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance and Tactical Systems Division and director of Beaver Works.

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