Comment: D.C. teens used lockdown to develop sight-assist app

While you were making sourdough, these teens used trial and error to help the blind ‘see’ their world.

By Petula Dvorak / The Washington Post

Eugene Choi stood in a suburban yard, turning his body so the lens of an iPhone strapped to his waist can see before him.

“Atheia. Description,” he said.

“Person playing with basketball outside a house,” the robotic voice on his phone replied.

Then Eugene, who turns 17 this weekend, aimed the phone’s camera at a small box.

“Atheia. Text,” he commanded.

“Box says Tylenol Acetaminophen. Extra Strength,” Atheia replied.

See where this is going?

The phone is acting like eyes for anyone with vision issues.

Imagine the uses; an affordable, speaking assistant for the blind and the visually impaired. Heck it would be a great relief for me, who has to read every label for a husband-in-denial who couldn’t hold on to the reading glasses I keep buying him if they were glued to his face.

This brilliant app is something that four Washington, D.C.-area teens developed during the pandemic.

Yes, while we mere mortals made sourdough bread, ranked up on Overwatch or struggled with daily hygiene, Eugene and his three friends took a freshman-year science project idea and developed it into something that could change the lives of millions.

Let me make everyone feel better about themselves (and our parenting skills) for a second: All four of them — Eugene, Pranav Ravella, Irfan Nafi and Raffu Khondaker — are rising seniors at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the MIT of high schools.

And most kids who get into the insanely prestigious school, consistently ranked the nation’s best high school, are already extraordinary.

So it’s no big surprise that they invented a technology that is mind-blowing. But their story is also one of resilience, determination and personal growth.

They first came up with the concept for a regional science fair. They were all obsessed with the technology that self-driving cars were using; the spatial recognition and depth perception that lets the cars navigate the world around them. And Eugene, who describes himself as a “really slow, 10-words-a-minute typist,” uses a technology that transcribes his handwritten notes into computer text.

So they created a scanner on a glove that could see things and describe them. It was mostly about a wow factor.

“We fell into a common pitfall,” Eugene said. “We created a solution first, without meeting the people who would be the users.”

Pranav, 17, said he has a family friend who is visually impaired. And technology like this does exist to help him.

“But I was scrolling the prices and they’re around $5,000,” he said. “And that doesn’t make sense for a population that is 60 percent unemployed.”

That’s the moment they realized their whiz-bang idea can change lives.

They connected with a woman who has vision issues to help them test out their products. “She was an older woman, in her mid-40s,” Pranav said. (Ahem. I nearly ended the interview right there, sweet young pups. But I composed myself and let them go on.)

“She does trapeze work and she runs,” he said. And she made it clear to them that a glove wouldn’t work; it would be little weird aiming your hand out at the world like a superhero activating finger lasers.

They connected with a number of Facebook groups of visually impaired folks and began finding more people to test and talk to. They interviewed dozens of visually impaired design partners from the National Industries for the Blind, and tested their prototypes with volunteers from Blind Industries and Services of Maryland.

The product iterations were a montage of innovation triumphs and missteps.

There was the visor: “People didn’t like that,” Pranav said, explaining that it highlighted an impairment.

The eyeglass attachment: “That didn’t work well, either.”

A device hanging on a lanyard: “That failed early on, people didn’t like the weight around their necks,” Pranav said.

A vibrating box on a belt loop, which looked like a house arrest ankle monitor: Nafi, 17, explained the problem with that one: “That would have to be manufactured overseas and that would be a mess.”

They’re software guys, not hardware tinkerers. And they suddenly had to deal with plastics and materials, careful not to make something that would burn the subject’s skin or shock them.

Eventually — mostly in lockdown during the pandemic — they figured out that marrying existing technologies available through iPhones and turning it all into an app is the best solution. It’s something you can download and subscribe to for maybe $10 a month.

The pandemic freed them from travel and classes to concentrate on perfecting their technology. They partnered with Amazon, Maximus, Ultralytics, and MIT’s assistive technology department. Those partnerships helped their research along.

“Before that, we just couldn’t maintain it,” said Raffu, 17.

The app can recognize color and faces. It can remind you where it last saw your keys (see what I mean about its universal appeal?).

Only once did they have a massive disagreement.

“The name,” said Eugene, who was the lone dissenter in calling the technology Atheia.

They first thought of Theia.

“Theia is the goddess of sight,” Pranav said.

It should’ve been a no-brainer. But a vape company was already using that.

The best name was obvious to Eugene: “Otis!”

The pup was the seeing-eye dog lovingly portrayed in Patricia Kennedy’s book “Through Otis’ Eyes: Lessons From a Guide Dog Puppy.”

‘“But Otis was a cow in the ‘Barnyard’ show,” Nafi pointed out.

So they added an “A” onto Theia, a nod to the intelligence of the Greek goddess Athena; making the name sort of mean “intelligent sight,” the anti-Otis faction explained to me.

(Sorry guys, I’m with Eugene on this.)

When I asked each of them what else they’re doing this summer, they blew me away again with internships through George Mason or Dartmouth or Berkeley, researching skin cancer or how to make technologies like Alexa read sign language.

When they’re not designing cutting-edge technology, they do plenty of regular fun things. Eugene is on the high school swim team and plays chess. Raffu teaches tech to middle school kids with limited resources. They play video games, binge on Netflix, play soccer.

But it’s clear when hearing them describe Atheia — the way their voices crack with excitement, their eyes widen, their hands animate to describe the pitfalls and the victories — that creating is a whole other level of fun.

Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Post’s local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. Before coming to The Post, she covered social issues, crime and courts. Follow her on Twitter @petulad.

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