Team Random Dude: Microsoft World Citizenship Champion
What do you get when you connect a Microsoft Kinect sensor, an Arduino board and image-processing software to a computer, together with a headband outfitted with small motors? Well, if you do it just right, you get a tool to help the visually impaired navigate the world - and maybe a Microsoft (yes, thatMicrosoft) World Citizenship award as well.
University of the Western Cape Computer Science Masters student Kurt Jacobs did just that - his Visually Impaired Helper (VIH) earned him the World Citizenship Award at the 2015 regional Microsoft Imagine Cup finals held at the CSIR in Pretoria...and also netted him R3,000.00, as well as the chance to compete in the next round and perhaps earn a spot in the international cup in Seattle, USA later this year.
“The VIH allowed me to combine two of my interests - embedded systems and computer vision,” Kurt says, “as well as learning a whole host of technical skills in the process.”
Born and raised in Paarl, Kurt matriculated from Paarl Boys High School and went on to earn a BSc Computer Science as well as a BSc Hons (Computer Science) degree from UWC. The VIH was developed as part of his Honours project in 2013 (with the help of then-supervisors and Comp Sci lecturers, Mehrdad Ghaziasgar and Reg Dodds),
It works as follows: When the Kinect picks up a nearby object, it causes the motors in the headband to vibrate. Since these motors are spread out across the headband and vibrate based on the object’s location and proximity, they are able to tell the wearer exactly where the obstacle is so that it can be avoided.
The Imagine Cup is a worldwide competition hosted by Microsoft that challenges university teams to advance their technical skills by building some sort of tech-related project, ranging from apps to clever websites to games. Most teams consisted of three or four students - but Team Random Dude was made up of, as the name implies, just the one dude.
“Winning was great,” Kurt enthuses, “but not so much the glory as the affirmation. That someone else has faith and can see the potential in your project - I think that’s the real win.”
A Team Effort
Team Random Dude wasn’t exactly a one-man show, though - Mehrdad Ghaziasgar - Kurt’s former Honours supervisor and current MSc supervisor - acted as team mentor, providing advice and suggestions, and making improvements both to the project itself and to the 20-minute presentation that earned Kurt the win.
“My supervisor was a great mentor,” Kurt says, “and having access to the correct tools and hardware made the project possible. But I’m intrigued by the possibility of involving more like-minded individuals to make the project even better.
“Our entry was on a completely different level from most of the other apps-based entries,” says Mehrdad. “And even though it’s an amazing idea, it’s not just an idea that’s up in the air - it’s a fully functional system, and it actually works as it stands right now and can benefit millions of visually impaired people worldwide.”
Even at this prototype stage, the VIH system costs far less than competing systems - which helps make it ideal for its intended beneficiaries. According to the World Health Organisation, of the 285 million people around the world who are totally blind or visually impaired, 90% of them live in the third world.
“Overall, I think the most interesting part of the Cup for me is really having to take a look at how to bring your solution to market,” Kurt notes. “Coming from a Comp Sci background, I’m not too familiar with the business side of things.”
He does have some business experience, though - after graduating with his Honours in 2013, he spent a year working as a mobile software engineer. He found it to be an interesting experience - but ultimately Mehrdad managed to convince him to come back to UWC for further studies.
“The year away from academia made me realise that I still have plenty to learn,” Kurt explains, “and there are certain areas I may be lacking in - I hope to fix that.”
His current research topic is still taking shape, but deals with the application of Deep learning to South African Sign Language Processing on mobile and embedded devices - capturing Sign Language on a camera phone and converting it to speech or text.
That should keep him busy for a while. But there’s still work to be done on the VIH as well.
So What Next?
The next round of the Imagine Cup is in a few weeks, requiring an electronic submission. Judging for the World Semi-Finals will take place on 23 April, and if that’s successful, there are the finals in Seattle, USA, later this year. Besides the competition, though, the project deserves some attention on its own merits.
“We definitely have a few plans on how to improve the system,” says Mehrdad. “We want to make it more portable and compact, and we may also focus on improving parts of the image processing algorithm. And we may find a way to evolve the sign language research in the context of the VIH system as well.”
Kurt is nervous, but excited as well. “I hope to get the chance to show off my project on the world stage - but more than that, I hope I get to meet individuals that have similar interests, and who want to use their skills to create products and solutions that really better people’s lives.”