The Next Big Idea: Vibration Notification for Deaf Athletes

V-Sports team members with ZVRS CEO Sean Ballanger, Chris Wagner and NTID President Gerry Buckley. Mark Benjamin, photo.
Story Highlights: 
  • 57 RIT/NTID students applied for the competition in the fall; the five finalist teams consisted of 16 students.
  • ZVRS provided $10,000 in prize money for the top three teams, and will sponsor the competition next year.
  • Judges based their decisions on the originality of the idea, relevance to the deaf/hard-of-hearing community, feasibility, thoroughness of research, collaboration among team members and use of facts about the product and market.
  • Students consulted with RIT/NTID faculty members, including W. Scot Atkins, Gary Behm, Wendy Dannels, Annemarie Ross, and Alicia Lane-Outlaw, chief creative officer for AllOut Marketing.

Five teams of RIT/NTID students last night wrapped up months of concept, research, design, engineering and marketing when they showed off their inventions, new technology and business concepts hoping to come up with the Next Big Idea and win a share of $10,000 in prize money.

The competition, sponsored by ZVRS video relay service, encouraged students to create a product, technology or business that would benefit the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. The teams needed to be made up of three to five members, with at least three different majors represented.

“ZVRS wanted to create a synergy and encourage members from different backgrounds to work together,” said Mark Sommer, senior director of NTID’s Outreach Consortium.

Each team had seven minutes to pitch its idea to the panel of judges: four ZVRS employees who happen to be among the 60 RIT/NTID alums working for the Florida-based company, as well as ZVRS CEO Sean Bellanger.

The team earning bragging rights of the Next Big Idea and winning the $5,000 first-place prize was V-Sports, for making a device to facilitate communication via vibration notification for deaf and hard-of-hearing athletes. Team members were Jeremiah Thompson, a business administration major from Olathe, Kan., Tyler Swob, an applied mathematics technology major from Escondido, Calif., and Michael Della Penna, an accounting technology major from Tampa Bay, Fla. Shane Qualls, an RIT/NTID engineering technology student from Olathe, and Ken Hertzog, a hearing RIT student who is a computing engineering major from Henrietta, N.Y., worked on an earlier version of the device, which won second place and $1,250 during an RIT Shark Tank competition in November.

During the presentation, students participated in a mock basketball game and were oblivious to the whistle of the referee. But when the athletes wore V-Sports as a wristband, they stopped when the whistle blew.

“Communication has always been a major difficulty in sports,” Thompson told the judges and more than 200 students, faculty and staff in attendance. “It can be very frustrating. We really want to resolve that problem.”

The unit consists of a receiver attachment that can be worn on any part of the body and connected wirelessly to one or two transmitters. A referee or coach’s smartphone would be running a software application that sends a Bluetooth signal to the receivers to make them vibrate. Different pulses could be used to signify different things.

The students tested their prototypes at Rochester School for the Deaf. Schools that have deaf athletes could use the notification system. “There’s a tremendous market,” Swob said. The schools using the devices also would be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, he said.

“I really like the idea. It’s very cool,” Bellanger said. “But I think there are other applications for it – such as on a deaf child at a playground. I think it has applications for more than just sports.”

The students said they planned to reinvest their winnings back into the product to hopefully begin producing V-Sports for sale.

Second place and $3,000 went to the Get Dancin’ team of Nicole Hood, a graphics design major from Concord, N.H., and Nic Shaw, an accounting technology major from Sun Prairie, Wis. A third team member, Samatha Braidi, a Master of Science Program in Secondary Education student from Vineland, N.J., is on a co-op and was unable to attend the presentation. Hood, who was born profoundly deaf, began dancing as a child, but never knew dance terminology or made friends with others in the class. “I fell in love with dancing,” she said. “It’s become my passion, something I completely love.” Their business idea is to open a dance studio for deaf and hard-of-hearing people, where teachers use sign language to instruct, in Rochester in the fall of 2013.

Third place and $2,000 went to team WaterSocket: Casey Jaeger, a packaging science major, Matthew Hente, who has yet to select a major, and Richie Prilenski, a mechanical engineering major. All three are from the St. Louis, Mo., area and knew each other growing up. And all three have cochlear implants. Their idea was to create a waterproof cover for the receiver portion of cochlear implants using a super hydrophobic spray. They said about 500,000 people worldwide have cochlear implants.

The runner-up teams were Galari, presenting a bed-shaking alarm activated by a smartphone, and Dose Alert, which envisioned a wristband that could store medication and shake or flash to remind the wearer to take it.

“All five groups did an outstanding job,” said Chris Wagner, an RIT/NTID alumnus and senior vice president of Business Operations and Marketing for ZVRS. “I was so impressed. The dreams and aspirations you have makes me even more proud to be an alumnus. And at RIT, it’s all about the opportunity to grow.”

NTID President Gerry Buckley said he also enjoyed the students’ presentations. “This competition shows the talent, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit our students have. This is the hallmark of an RIT/NTID education, and these are the innovators of the future,” he said. “And thanks to ZVRS for believing in all of you.”

Wagner said ZVRS will sponsor the Next Big Idea again next year.

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