This student tech team might just be the Pinoy Bill Gateses in the making

This student tech team might just be the Pinoy Bill Gateses in the making

Competing in Microsoft’s most prestigious student competition, Team Opticode is turning their tech dreams into virtual reality.

Art by Ina Jacobe

Think of your most brilliant idea, the one that you think can change the world. Is it an app that’ll allow you to translate your dog’s barks into human speech? Or maybe it’s a Jarvis-like robot that can cure the common cold? The more we become used to a world that enables such things, the more we think, “Hey, I could do that too.”

Finding the means to do it, however, is the biggest challenge. Scholarship opportunities are rare, and government-sponsored development programs aren’t always enough to develop raw talent into professional skills. Yet in the world of information technology and computer science, Filipino talent flourishes. In the last few years, our country has become the hub for so many tech start-ups and even more business process outsourcing opportunities. Why is that? Not only are we capable of speaking in English well, but so many Filipinos can program, code, and design just as well as any Silicon Valley genius.

One such example is Team Opticode, who is about to compete in the world’s most prestigious student tech competition: The Imagine Cup. Hosted by Microsoft, the Imagine Cup provides students all over the world the chance to turn their tech ideas into something tangible. Team Opticode was one of the winning teams of the first-ever Imagine Cup Southeast Asia Finals, where they bested other students from ASEAN countries and three guest markets. This allowed them to be one of the 54 student teams who will pitch their project in the World Finals with the hopes of winning US$100,000 and a mentorship session with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

Days before the World Finals in Seattle, Young Star sat down with Christian Lou Cepe, Jasmine Pearl Raymundo, and Rochel Reyes, students of Lyceum of the Philippines University-Laguna and members of Team Opticode to talk preparation and understanding their audience. Most importantly, they introduced us to Minerva, their award-winning app for the visually impaired.

YOUNG STAR: Hi guys! What roles do you each play on the team?

ROCHEL REYES: I’m charge of the marketing for Team Opticode. I do advertisement, and work on the business model.

JASMINE RAYMUNDO: I’m the research director of the team. I think it’s very important to be very careful to be taking note of people’s feedback, because we have a very specific audience for the app.

CHRISTIAN CEPE: I’m the team lead and the developer of Opticode. I’m the one does all the technical aspects of the project, like designing the graphics, the programming itself, and even creating the websites.

Can you walk me through your project? I understand that it’s a virtual assistant for the visually impaired.

CHRISTIAN: Our project is basically an app for visually impaired people. It is named Minerva, and it can run on Android phones.

MINERVA, THE APP: Hello, I’m Minerva. Swipe up if your eyes can see, swipe down if not.

CHRISTIAN: If you open Minerva, you will be asked if you are a blind person or not. First, is the blind mode.

MINERVA: Blind mode activated. Tap screen to recognize things and swipe screen to navigate categories.

CHRISTIAN: For the blind mode, we have different categories. First, the describe mode can identify different objects and human faces. It can even predict their age and their facial expression. Next is the currency mode. It can recognize the denomination of any bill. As of now, our app only supports Philippine peso bills. Next is the common color mode. It can basically identify the accent color and dominant color of an object. It can help them identify the color of their clothes. The next is the reading mode. It can read text from any reading materials. The last category is the weather mode. It can give you information of the weather in your current location.

That’s cool. How long did it take for you guys to develop it?

CHRISTIAN: The prototype was done within one month, but the develop is ongoing until now.

What are you guys currently polishing in terms of the development of the app?

CHRISTIAN: We are currently validating our app with different organizations for the blind. And some of them have suggested some features, and we’re currently working on it. One thing they suggested is the TalkBack integration. They’re currently using [the app] TalkBack, and it works like if you tap this thing, it’ll tell you the button that you tapped. With that, we have integrated TalkBack into Minerva so that they can use Minerva more often and more easily.

Given the app’s origins, what made you decide to change it into something for the blind?

ROCHEL: Our team lead actually showed a video on a Microsoft engineer who was blind, and he wanted to see the world, wherein his technology could help visually impaired people. That’s why we started Minerva.

How did you guys integrate Microsoft software and technology in the app?

CHRISTIAN: We used different APIs (application programming interfaces) from Microsoft Cognitive Services. They’re used to create different software and apps which can be used as artificial intelligence in the cloud. We’ve used the face API, and the custom vision API, and the Bing translator so it can be used in different languages.

You mentioned that you’ve tested the app with local organizations for the blind. What has been their feedback so far?

ROCHEL: I’ve asked them how they’d want to pay when using Minerva. We’re currently using the subscription model, but most of them, because they are blind, they aren’t using debit or credit cards. So they would rather have it prepaid. Even though they’re blind, they still use to text or call with their local SIM cards. They can just use it as though they are loading their phones with credit.

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