Iowa State students develop device that tells the blind who's nearby

AMES, Iowa -- A team of Iowa State University students has found a way for blind people to recognize who's around them at home and work.

Judges for the Microsoft Corporation's Windows Embedded Student ChallengE liked the idea so much they made it one of 30 finalists in a worldwide competition. This year's finalists include teams from Australia, Brazil, China, India, Mexico, Romania, Slovenia, Turkey and six teams from the United States.

The four members of the SystemCy team -- David Lawson of McHenry, Ill., Adam Mishler of Monticello, Minn., Andrew Riha and Mike Schmitt, both of Cresco - will travel to Redmond, Wash., June 17-18 to demonstrate their technology and compete for the top prize of $8,000.

The contest is organized in association with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' Computer Society International Design Competition. It challenged teams of four undergraduates working with a faculty mentor to design a computer device that has a real-world application. The theme for this year's contest was "Going Beyond the Boundaries." All teams were required to use Windows CE, an operating system typically used for small devices designed for specific uses.

The Iowa State students developed a device they call RADVIS, or Radio Auxiliary Detection for the Visually Impaired and Sighted. The device reads electronic tags carried by people and announces who is nearby through an earpiece.

Team members have been busy the past month preparing their device for the competition's finals. That work included fixing some persistent bugs. They, for example, recently solved the problem of the device using too much memory.

Once team members are in Redmond, Mishler said they'll set up an exhibit of their device. Then they'll make a 20-minute presentation to the judges. The judges will select nine teams to compete for the top prizes.

Diane Rover, an associate dean for Iowa State's College of Engineering and the faculty mentor for the team, said the students received assistance from faculty, staff and alumni. Several companies also donated equipment to the project.

Mishler said the contest has been a learning experience. He's learned about a new operating system, picked up a new programming language and applied what he learned in his courses to the team's project.

But will the team meet Bill Gates?

Mishler said that's one question about the contest he couldn't answer.