A Tandon Vertically Integrated Projects team takes top honors in international competition

Sixth Sense: Haptic Belt and Backpack

A wearable harness that can help the visually-impaired avoid obstacles took second place at the 2021 VIP Consortium Innovation Competition 

The VIP Consortium — a network of 45 schools in 12 countries that have implemented an initiative called Vertically Integrated Projects — holds an annual competition to choose the best projects and student teams, and this year, a group of Tandon students took home the second-place prize.

Sixth Sense, the only American-based team to place in the competition, is developing technology aimed at helping people with visual impairments navigate their surroundings. The team is building a machine-learning system that can detect physical obstacles faster than the human eye. The user simply dons a backpack containing all the needed electronics, as well as a belt containing several actuators, each of which touches a specific spot on the wearer’s abdomen.

The VIP team included Samman Sajjad Chaudhry, Joel De Los Santos, Joanna Ibrahim, Farha Pria, Nishma Shakya, Alice Shi, Sanjna Vohra, and Benjamin Wang, undergraduate students and one master's student from different majors across NYU and different years of study.

In addition to the faculty mentors Maurizio Porfiri from NYU Tandon and John-Ross Rizzo from NYU Tandon and the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, the team was mentored by Mahya Behesti, Alain Boldini, Simon Carrillo Segura, Mert Karakaya, Mohammad Tuqan, and Jacky Yuan, Ph.D. students who perform research on assistive technologies, computer vision, rehabilitation, robotics, and visual impairments.

When a camera attached to the backpack detects an obstacle, a signal is sent to the appropriate actuator, which vibrates to let the user know. (If the actuator on the upper right abdomen vibrates, for example, that signals an obstacle to the upper right of the wearer’s position.)

The students point out that the system can be especially helpful for those who live in densely populated areas, where navigation is difficult. They foresee it being more cost-effective and convenient than existing methods, which generally involve bulky, handheld devices or headphones, which pose a danger since people with visual impairments often rely on auditory clues to function.

Ray Sokola, the Executive Director of the VIP Consortium, said: “It was incredibly difficult to select winners from the many fascinating projects submitted this year. The ingenuity of VIP students as they tackle and develop real-world solutions for these ambitious challenges continues to astound me and the entire selection committee. It also demonstrates how well prepared these students will be as they transition into the workforce already well versed in working on interdisciplinary teams.”

The team got the chance to represent Tandon at the VIP Consortium 2021 Innovation Competition after a stellar performance at Mission VIPossible — an exhibition organized by NYU VIP Manager Amy Dunford and held in May that featured a selection of the school’s dozens of VIP projects, from rocketry and self-driving vehicles to urban farming and synthetic biology.

“With more than three million Americans having serious visual impairments and that number set to double soon because of our rapidly aging population, Sixth Sense is doing exceptionally important work,” said Tandon Professor Jack Bringardner, the  Director of NYU’s Vertically Integrated Projects Program. “We were proud to have them representing the school on such an important global stage and look forward to watching them further develop their system.”

To learn more about Sixth Sense, watch the team's award-winning video submission below.