The Imagine Cup team with the year’s most HackCollege-relevant project has to be Team Note-Taker from Arizona State. Their project, which has been in development for three years, gives low-vision students the ability to effectively take notes in class. It’s amazing.

As it currently stands, there’s no magic bullet for low-vision students to stand on an even playing field in a classroom setting. Many use small telescopes called monoculars to see the board, but the time it takes to pick it up, find the right spot on the board, memorize necessary information, and get it on paper puts these students at a disadvantage. Head mounted cameras are another option, but they alienate these students from their classmates, and hinder collaboration. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires legally blind students to be provided with a copy of class notes, but research has proven that writing down notes yourself dramatically improves recall.

These are all issues that the team’s leader, David Hayden, has dealt with himself as a legally blind student, and the note-taker system has been designed from the ground up as his own perfect solution. The Note-Taker system is a DV camera with built in servos that allow for pan, tilt, and zoom, all controlled from a tablet PC. The camera’s view is displayed on one half of the tablet, where multitouch gestures allow students to seamlessly zoom and pan to any part of the whiteboard at the front of the room. The other half of the tablet screen is used for taking notes, either with a keyboard or stylus. I can see just fine, and I would use this. The fact that it can actually help people in need is icing on the cake.

Team Note-Taker has advanced to the second round of the Imagine Cup Worldwide Finals in New York. Photo courtesy of Chuck LawtonWhile the idea is solid, it’s the software that really brings it all together. Note-Taker can record to the tablet throughout the lecture, and stores a timestamp for every word you write in your notes, enabling students to revisit any part of the lecture when preparing for a test. If the professor suddenly obstructs the camera’s view, a quick sliding gesture will pull up a recent stillframe of the video, allowing students to continue copying notes. One button will switch the camera to a high-contrast black and white mode, perfect for reading the board. This team has been polishing the product for three years (the first prototype was held to the desk with clamps), and it shows.

Two students, including Hayden, have used the device in actual classes for 300 hours over several semesters, and they’ve incorporated ideas from dozens of other low-vision students who have weighed in over the years. The self-assembled prototype they brought to New York cost appoximately $3,000, but they expect to cut that by 75% in the near future. The team hopes to start marketing the device in the US to state and local governments in the near future, and I have little doubt we’ll be seeing it in classrooms within the next few years.

UPDATE: Team Note-Taker took second in the Software Design competition, the best finish this year by an American team.