Last spring, Jasper Hsu went to a hackathon in Boston,where he collaborated with other computer enthusiaststo create what he calls “a cool virtual reality experience for dementia patients: a mix of music, virtual reality, and health.”
But the experience at the Music & Health Hackathon — a HUBweek event organized by Berklee Music and Health Institute, MIT Hacking Medicine, and MilliporeSigma — left the Wayland High student with more than new computer design skills.
It opened Hsu’s mind to the ways computer science can improve the lives of people for whom the world can be difficult to navigate — such as those with visual limitations or impaired mobility.
“I realized I didn’t know much about accessibility at all, and I definitely hadn’t given much thought to what the field of computer science could do for people in those situations,” said Hsu, now a senior. “I left the event wanting to spread awareness of accessibility.”
Back at school this fall, he persuaded the other members of his computer science club, as well as their faculty adviser, to organize an event of their own.
Called Hackaway for Good, it was held in mid-November and drew about 60 high school students from Wayland and surrounding communities, as well as speakers such as Paul Ruvolo, who leads the Olin College Crowdsourcing and Machine Learning Laboratory, and sight-impaired entrepreneur Matthew Shifrin, founder of Lego for the Blind.
The overall mission, Hsu said, was to create technology that has social impact by working in a team to develop an app, game, website, or idea that improves experiences for people with disabilities.
At the hackathon, students formed groups of five or six to create different games and solutions, while the adult mentors rotated among the groups and helped them to refine their ideas. The Wayland High School group homed in on the idea of building a computer game that would be equally enticing to sighted and nonsighted people alike.
“In the past, blind people might have been left out of video games if you had to be able to see what was happening on the screen or look at the controller to use it,” Wayland team member Josh Ellenbogen explained. “We’re making a game that can be equally fun for everyone who plays, to promote the social aspect of video games.”
Hsu’s classmate and fellow club member Sashwat Das said the hackathon was entirely different from the experience he has had in his AP computer science class this semester. “This was a cool way to expand our horizons and see what we could actually do with the skills we’re learning in that class.”
“It’s a lot more motivating to do something that can actually help people than to just answer test questions,” agreed his classmate, Porter Moody.
For Ellenbogen, hearing entrepreneur Shifrin discuss his experience as a sight-impaired professional was enlightening.
“My grandma is blind, so I’m used to trying to find ways to help her, but I always picture a blind person as someone old, not someone like us,” he said. After hearing Shifrin, “I understand better the importance of incorporating inclusivity into everything we create. And besides, it’s fun to brainstorm about new solutions to a problem you yourself don’t necessarily have.”
At the end of the all-day event, a panel of judges named the winners. First prize went to a team from Billerica, Hopkinton, and Newton that created a wearable guidance system that uses machine learning, path finding, and gyroscope filtering algorithms to allow students with visual impairment to locate open seating near their friends in a cafeteria.
A team from Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, Westford Academy, and Weston High School took second place for its design of a browser extension that allows people with visual impairment to obtain meaningful descriptions of images on websites.
Third place went to a team from Arlington High School, which created a rhythm game with spatial audio to indicate an object’s position.
Even though they didn’t place in the top three, Hsu and his Wayland team members considered the event a success. “This will change the way I think,” said Luca Norian. “I’d never interacted with a blind person before. Because of today, when I’m developing games in the future, or software or anything else, I’ll be thinking about accessibility.”
Jonathan Marcus, a graduate student at MIT studying integrated design and management, was happy to lend his expertise as a mentor to the event.
“I’m impressed by the maturity of these young people as they learn to collaborate through design,” Marcus said. “Their technical ability blows me away, but through this event they are also learning to apply empathy in developing prototypes. I see these kids as doing great things in the future, as long as they can keep in mind that technology is a tool to help make life better for people, and not as an end in itself.”
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.