ECE sophomores win grand prize at PennApps XII


October 1, 2015

A team of Carnegie Mellon students has won the Grand Prize at PennApps XII, one of the nation’s largest and most prestigious college hackathons, with their device, “FifthSense.” The team, consisting of ECE/Robotics sophomores Vasu Agrawal, Cyrus Tabrizi, Edward Ahn and Rajat Mehndiratta, have created FifthSense, a low-cost, portable braille input and output device.

From September 4 – 6, 2015, the team developed their “hack” — a term that in this context describes combining software and hardware technologies to provide innovative solutions to real-world problems. They worked for 36 hours straight, coding and wiring. “We were soldering until the last 30 minutes,” says Ahn.

“Our first emotion was disbelief,” says Agrawal as he describes hearing FifthSense announced as the Grand Prize winner. In addition to the Grand Prize, FifthSense also won prizes for Best AlphaLab Gear Hardware Hack and Best Hardware Hack. 

Traditionally, if a visually impaired person wanted to interact with a computer, they’d have to use an expensive braille keyboard or speak into the computer using audio recording devices — neither of which are portable.

In order to provide blind and visually impaired users with a private and portable device similar to a smartphone, the team created FifthSense, a 3-D printed, handheld device of similar dimensions to a Sony PSP. FifthSense’s ergonomic, vibrating six-button interface allows the user to make internet queries and receive answers, much like a typical smartphone.

In addition to its portability, the device allows the user to read and write braille within the same interface — a design feature unique to FifthSense. “The idea of using vibration isn’t new,” says Tabrizi, “but where our project is really unique is in the low cost and the fact that we combined the way that you read and the way that you write in braille.”

“Braille is really just a 6-bit character representation system,” Mehndiratta adds. “It’s a 3 x 2 grid of binary values — ‘raised’ or ‘not raised.’ The key part of our device is a 3 x 2 grid that does the same thing — it vibrates when a bit is ‘raised,’ and we’ve integrated buttons at the exact same positions so the same keyboard can be used for both input and output.”

The team plans to continue developing the device while they continue their studies at CMU. With the Best AlphaLab Gear Hardware Hack prize, FifthSense has been guaranteed automatic entrance into the AlphaLab Hardware Accelerator. The team hopes to develop this technology further in order to make it accessible to visually impaired people in third world countries.

Learn more about FifthSense here.