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Engineering freshmen David Ongchoco, Rajat Bhageria, and Ben Sandler created an app for Google Glass that would help the blind "see."

Credit: Tiffany Pham

Four Penn freshmen are working on a startup that helps visually impaired people “see the world.”

Last fall at the PennApps hackathon, Engineering freshmen Rajat Bhageria, Ben Sandler and Joe Cappadona won the title of top 10 finalist with their Google Glass app. Named ThirdEye, the application is virtually an image-recognition system that can recognize the texts and shapes presented in front of the device’s built-in camera. In a video the team made demonstrating the product, the Glass reads out the amount of a dollar bill and the instructions on a bottle of medicine.

The app aims to help visually impaired people feel more independent by letting them “see” what’s going on in front of them, Bhageria said. The team was inspired by Cappadona’s blind grandfather, who wanted to rely on himself when getting the right amount of change or taking the right kind of medicine.

Last December, the team brought their product to the National Federation of the Blind’s Baltimore headquarters and immediately secured a partnership with the institution. NFB tested ThirdEye on more than 10 visually impaired individuals and provided feedback to help the team further improve the product.

College freshman David Ongchoco, who later became ThirdEye’s chief marketing officer, met the three co-founders while writing an article about ThirdEye for Philly. The story generated publicity for the product, and Bhageria invited Ongchoco to join the team after PennApps. He has been working on partnerships and promotions for ThirdEye ever since.

“The fulfilling part about doing this is that we are trying to solve a very specific problem, which is helping handicapped people do things that we normally take for granted,” Ongchoco said.

Ongchoco was not the only one who wrote about ThirdEye during PennApps. Bhageria and his team thought their project had great potential, so they set up a website, printed out posters and started marketing ThirdEye even before the judging of PennApps began. Because of their efforts, the team gained the attention of multiple tech firms and media companies before launching as a startup.

“They also did a great job in marketing; they even said that you can use ThirdEye to recognize faces if you forget the names of people you met before,” said Engineering freshman Qiao Han, who attended PennApps last semester.

ThirdEye helped contribute to a growing focus on health within the PennApps community.

“One of the major themes of PennApps is health, but not a lot of people there are working on health projects,” Han said. “Those who are working on health mainly focus on emergency treatment or health training, so their idea of targeting people with disabilities stood out.”

The health focus carried over to this semester — last weekend’s spring PennApps introduced a partnership with Perelman School of Medicine to encourage hackers to develop health-based apps.

Now as 2015 begins, the ThirdEye team is looking to establish more partnerships and further improve their product. They have been working with a professional advisor from Silicon Valley on developing business strategies and were recently contacted by Google.

Since Google Glass is not currently available to the public, the ThirdEye team hopes to produce a tangible product to distribute to its customers.

“Our next step is to get more investors, get more advisors and eventually distribute the product in the long run,” Bhageria said.

Bhageria also expressed his interest in testing ThirdEye on visually impaired individuals on Penn’s campus. “We are Penn students, and it would be great if we can actually help somebody on this campus,” he said.

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