RIT startups use technology for products that increase accessibility

Thursday, June 29, 2017

By squinting, Rochester Institute of Technology student Daniel Berg caused the wheelchair he was testing to move forward.

When he squinted again, the wheelchair came to a stop.

Berg, 23, who is a mechanical engineering student, is part of a team of RIT students working on a product — called Co-Pilot — designed to help people with neurological disorders use a wheelchair when they can’t operate it with their hands.

The device — a control box that converts head movements into electrical signals to move a wheelchair’s joystick — is an example of how RIT has been promoting the development of products that provide greater accessibility.

"We are leveraging technology and good design to provide better access to people who have limited access," said Dan Phillips, an associate professor of electrical engineering at RIT.

Phillips also holds the position of faculty associate to the provost for the Partnership for Effective Access Technology Research and Development.

The Co-Pilot team is at the front end of developing its product — selected for RIT's Saunders Summer Startup Program. The students are learning about marketing and conducting "customer discovery," which entails interviewing potential customers and asking them about their needs.

One accessibility product, developed by four RIT graduates who are deaf, is software —called Uni —that the Greater Rochester International Airport expects to purchase for $150,000 next month to provide instantaneous onsite communications with deaf and hard-of-hearing customers.

For future customers, a monthly fee will be charged.

The software was created by a local startup, MotionSavvy, and can be installed in a hand-held tablet. Four former RIT students who are deaf developed the product and started MotionSavvy in 2013. Two of them — Alexandr Opalka, who is the chief technology officer, and Wade Kellard, who manages data collection — continue with the company.

"We are targeting the fall for limited use — probably the areas easiest to implement now," said the airport's Director of Aviation Michael Giardino, who noted the software will first appear in a tablet at the counters of each of the seven airlines at the airport.

MotionSavvy, which is based in RIT's business incubator, Venture Creations, hopes to get a chunk of the emerging technology access market.

"We are talking to a bunch of different businesses about this — some very big companies, everything from hospitality to medical," said Ron Pettengill, who last year joined the company as its CEO.

MotionSavvy attracted investments from Wells Fargo, RIT Ventures and SOSV, whose U.S. operations are based in San Francisco.

To read the full article, click here.