Jeff Gelles: Drexel collaboration leads to apps for visually impaired
Drexel University student Nate Vecchiarelli (standing) tests an app with students from the Overbrook School for the Blind (from left) Dawon James, Doug Trinidad, and Tashea White. (DENNIS BROOKSHIRE.)
By Jeff Gelles, Inquirer Columnist
Posted: August 10, 2012
As students in Drexel University's computer-science program, the seven seniors had tasted the high-tech life. They'd done co-ops at places like Microsoft, learned how computer skills could win jobs in fields like finance or medicine, and been exposed to the frenzied pace at tech start-ups.
They could see a world of opportunities as they weighed options for their nine-month senior design project – including some that came with built-in chances to network.
But the seven chose to do something different: help another set of students who could see more limited horizons because they are blind or visually impaired.
The tangible result of this unusual collaboration between Drexel and the 180-year-old Overbrook School for the Blind is a set of mobile apps called VisAssist. It could even lead the Drexel students to a start-up company of their own if they choose to go that route.
Three of the five apps, available for now only on Android devices, enable the blind or visually impaired to use Facebook, Twitter, or Wikipedia. The two others are more general-purpose: a faster keyboard – called a BinoBoard, for "binary keyboard" – that works anytime a user needs to type, and a souped-up magnifier called the Contrastinator that helps the user read.
But the story behind the apps is as intriguing as any account of business success. And it got its start, oddly enough, when two dog walkers in Medford – Drexel professor Jeff Salvage and Overbrook network administrator Bill McGehrin – discovered shared interests beyond their frisky Labrador retrievers.
"Him being a professor at Drexel, and me an IT guy, we'd talk geek talk," McGehrin told me. And two frequent topics were their shared interests in Android phones and the endless possibilities of mobile apps.
Their talks got McGehrin thinking: "We're in this phone revolution, but all these phones are touch screen. What's a touch screen do for a blind person?" And that led him to suggest collaborating.
"The next thing I know, he's asking if we can set up a meeting to have some of the kids in his class meet some of the students we have at the school," McGehrin recalls.
Making a difference appeals to Salvage, 45, whose varied interests include competitive race-walking and photography. "This is my thing," he says. "I don't have a lot of money to give to philanthropy, but I can give my time and effort."
He can apparently inspire students, too. Seven signed on for the project with Overbrook – a large team for the senior design project, a graduation requirement for Drexel's engineering students.
At least one, Nate Bomberger, started with some of his own inspiration. He comes from a large farm family in Lancaster County, and two of his brothers have visual impairments as a result of albinism. One is legally blind.
"We thought, 'We can actually help someone,' " Bomberger says, a sentiment echoed by team leader Nathan Vecchiarelli. "For me, personally, it was the option to do something good – to try to make a difference in people's lives," Vecchiarelli says.
The "two Nates," as they became known, got their first sense of the possibilities when they began a painstaking development process by visiting with students in Overbrook's transition program, which helps older teens move toward independent living.
They followed a familiar path for software developers, brainstorming with the students about problems they faced and how technology might help them – a conversation recalled by transitions teacher Stephanie Hays and her colleague Dael Cohen.
"The discussion was more about the ideal – what you could have if you could have whatever you wanted," Cohen says. But it also got very practical – "what they had trouble accessing, what frustrated them with technology," Hays says.
"The guys from Drexel just listened," Hays says. And each time they returned for the long slog of testing and refining, the apps improved.
One thing that makes the VisAssist apps so useful is their, well, app-ness.
Hays says there are lots of tools that help the visually impaired with tasks such as identifying money or colors, or magnifying text, but they tend to be bulky. "To carry them all around, you would need a duffel bag," she says. Building tools into smartphones magnifies their value.
Salvage sees the project as a start and hopes future developers – this team, or a new round of students – can build on it. "The real question is where do we go from here."
But the start itself was impressive – enough to win top honors among 135 engineering projects at Drexel, and to make the Overbrook students' lives better.
"The awesome part was right at the end, when the Drexel guys had the finished apps and the students were able to try them," Hays says.
"The students were saying 'Oh, my goodness, I can read this.' 'Wow, I really like this,' " Hays recalls.
One responded online – using the new app to post immediately on Twitter.