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Student-Built Technology Helping Low-Vision Students

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One of my favorite teams participating in the recent Imagine Cup 2011 Finals was Note-Taker, a team out of Arizona State University. Like all the teams in Microsoft's student technology competition, Team Note-Taker has developed a tool that tackles a real-world problem. And as with several of the teams, that problem was understood intimately by one of the team members.

Note-Taker is a tool designed to help visually-impaired students with, as the name suggests, taking notes in class. None of the products or services currently on the market, including the legally mandated support personnel that schools must offer, really suffice.

Team Note-Taker's David Hayden would know. He is legally blind. When he enrolled in math classes, he found it impossible to keep up with the note-taking in class. Hayden had two choices: drop the math major (unacceptable) or solve the problem. He chose the latter.

Although there is equipment that can magnify the blackboard -- including a rather cumbersome headpiece that low-vision students can wear in class -- those who use it can't switch to the up-close reading and writing necessary for taking notes. So what Note-Taker's alternative does is make it possible for students to do both: see the notes written on the board at the front of the class while simultaneously providing a tool for students to take their own notes.


Hayden, along with the rest of his team -- Qian Yan, Shashank Srinivas, Michael Astrauskas and faculty mentor John Black -- built a custom-designed pan/zoom camera and tablet PC that supports both pen and multi-touch input. This allows for the capture of video and audio, all connected to a student's handwritten notes. The tool has a number of great features, including the ability to enhance the image (useful for when an instructor's dry-erase marker is about to run out, for example), to swipe the video back a few frames (so a student can see the board and continue taking notes, even if the instructor has stepped in front and blocked the view), to take screenshots of the whiteboard, and to search all of this material offline. All the notes can be archived by class.

Studies have shown that students learn best when they take their own notes, so Note-Taker could be immensely helpful to visually impaired students, as well as for the estimated 20 million low-vision adults in the U.S.

The team were the winners of the US Imagine Cup and placed second in the worldwide finals. While Hayden is off to MIT in the fall to pursue a PhD in computer science, the rest of the team may pursue how to bring the device to market. They hope to make it available for around $1000.

Check out this video about the impact that Note-Taker has already had on low-vision students.

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