If there has ever been a case where finishing second in a competition was a victory unto itself, Team Toronto’s runner-up status in this past weekend’s global Battlehack finals was it.
The team – Christopher Larsen, 43, Alex Christodoulou, 25, Maya Kenedy, 27, and Ernst Riemer, 34 – beat out entries from 12 other cities with Your Eyes, a mobile app for visually impaired shoppers.
Only Team Tel Aviv’s AirHop, an app that allows mobile phones to make calls and send email without a cellular connection, impressed judges more at the 24-hour PayPal-sponsored hackathon in San Jose.
“So close, so close,” Larsen said shortly after the winners were announced. “But the show goes on.”
Your Eyes uses Apple’s Siri voice assistant and image recognition software to photograph and identify objects, and then PayPal to purchase them. The app can distinguish between items, so it can tell a can of Coke from a can of Coke Zero, for example.
It can also identify potential dangers in a product. If the user is allergic to shell-fish, for example, Your Eyes provides an audio warning.
The goal is to help visually impaired shoppers be more independent.
“I would rather walk a hundred miles myself than have someone carry me a hundred feet,” Larsen said.
It was a close call for the judges, who ultimately decided that Tel Aviv’s creation – which took home the $100,000 main prize – had the potential for a broader impact.
“We thought about, ‘Would I go out and photograph a family member’s favourite foods in the supermarket?’ and we universally agreed that of course we would,” said John Lunn, senior director of developer relations at PayPal. “What Toronto built was definitely revolutionary.”
The team members now plan to turn their attention back to Security Blanket, the app they built in June to win the Toronto leg of the global Battlehack tournament. That app will allow for crowd-sourced efforts to find missing children and Alzheimer’s patients.
The idea originally required hardware fobs or trackers that children or patients would carry on their persons, but in the case of kids it’s now being morphed into a software-only function that can be downloaded onto iPods and iPhones.
The iPod or iPhone will then act as a transponder, emitting a signal that can be read by other app users. A group of people could thus download the app and form their own search parties, or even attach an iPhone to a drone that can then conduct scans from the sky.
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The developers held a Kickstarter earlier over the summer, but failed to meet their goal. Still, Larsen expects to have a working product within a month or two that will be freely distributed.
“It’s very near and dear to our hearts,” he says. “The way in which we search for missing people hasn’t changed in the past 40 years and that’s so ridiculous.”
Further development on Your Eyes and helping visually impaired shoppers will come after that. The team members, who met through their day jobs at cloud software company Pivotal, are also eyeing next year’s Battlehack tournament.
The Toronto competition was the biggest held by PayPal, with 51 teams taking part. Over all, more than 3,000 individuals competed in hackathons in cities including Moscow, Istanbul, London and San Francisco.
“It’s addictive. You can’t come to something like this and not want to keep going,” Larsen says.
“A team that hacks together stays together,” Kenedy adds.