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UBC team wins prestigious tech competition by helping the blind "see" sound

Photo: Ericsson
Photo: Ericsson

A team called SoundVision, representing UBC, has won the first-place EUR 25,000 prize at the 2016 Ericsson Innovation Awards, for their development of a mobile device that converts 3D spatial information into sound, enabling blind individuals to identify their surroundings more effectively.

The Ericsson Innovation Awards is a global competition open to students around the world, who are challenged to develop innovative information and communications ideas in collaboration with Ericsson experts.

“Our team is passionate about innovation that makes a positive difference, and it has been an amazing experience to work with Ericsson’s experts and take the next steps toward commercialization,” said SoundVision team member YK Sugishita.

Imagine coming to work every day without being able to see anything,” began the company’s pitch to the judges. “Would you be able to find the doorway to a new building while blindfolded?”

The four-person SoundVision team was led by 24-year-old Sugishita, and was made up of fellow UBC undergraduates, Tanha Kabir, 18, Jonathan Ho, 21, and Karan Grover, 18.

“Imagine coming to work every day without being able to see anything,” began the company’s pitch to the judges. “Would you be able to find the doorway to a new building while blindfolded? Can you imagine how even simple tasks like avoiding sandwich boards and overhead obstacles can be dangerous? Can you imagine how difficult it would be to avoid the sea of people, all the cars and all the other obstacles just to get to work? These are some of the challenges we’ve identified through our extensive research and interviews with visually impaired individuals.”

This year’s competition tasked students with presenting innovations that will impact the future of cities, citing the fact that about 70% of the world’s population is projected to reside in urban areas by 2050, which will place unprecedented strains on the environment and the economy, not to mention the supply of broadband technology.

The jury was chaired by Ericsson’s Head of Region Northern Europe & Central Asia, Charlotta Sund, with jury members including Swedish Prince Daniel, the City of Stockholm’s chief information officer Ann Hellenius, Google’s Senior Director & Head of EMEA Public Policy and Government Relations Nicklas Lundblad, and Nobel Media CEO Mattias Fyrenius.

“Innovation forms part of Ericsson’s DNA and has kept us at the forefront of our industry for 140 years,” said Ericsson Chief Human Resource Officer Bina Chaurasia. “The Ericsson Innovation Awards showcase great ideas that can shape the Networked Society. This year’s finalists will make a decisive contribution toward tomorrow’s smart, sustainable cities.”

Four finalist teams were selected in mid-March, narrowed down from a total of 843 teams from 72 countries.

SoundVision beat out an American team from MIT, as well as the third-place team from Cyprus, and the fourth-place team from Spain.

With the prize money, the team hopes to have about 100 units field tested by the end of the year, and to launch a Kickstarter campaign to spur product development.

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