Last fall, University of Pennsylvania freshmen Rajat Bhageria, Ben Sandler and Joe Cappadona decided on a whim to compete at the PennApps hackathon, one of the biggest and most prestigious in the world. The three computer science majors — lowly freshmen among a multitude of brainiac upper classmen and graduate students — arrived without an idea. "There were like 1,500 people from all over the world," recalls Bhageria. "People were already hacking."

They quickly fell into a crunch-time huddle, desperately batting around ideas in hopes of coming up with something — anything that would at least keep them in the game. When Cappadona mentioned how his blind grandfather often struggled to function independently in a visually-oriented world, the puzzle pieces magically snapping into place. By the end of the hackathon 36 hours later, they'd not only hammered out a prototype Google Glass image-recognition app called ThirdEye that verbally identifies objects for visually impaired people, but they'd also secured a spot in the top 10 and set the stage to start their own company.

"We came up with this idea in literally five minutes under pressure," Bhageria says. "Even after the hackathon was over we had no idea we would actually turn it into a venture. But a lot of the judges were entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley, and they told us this could legitimately be a start-up that could help a lot of people. So we decided to do it."

Electronic eyes on the world

Imagine not knowing whether you've picked up an egg salad sandwich or ham-and-cheese at the deli. Or not being able to distinguish a dollar bill from a twenty when the cashier hands you change. Or, even scarier, imagine not being able to read the instructions on the side of a medicine bottle. That's the reality for some 7 million Americans who are legally blind. ThirdEye allows someone to hold up an object in front of the wearable, head-mounted Google Glass device, ask it to recognize what’s there, and receive a verbal reply. A true independence game-changer for those who must always rely on others to be their "eyes."

Bhageria and his team are currently working on modifications to the Google Glass app before making it available. Based on feedback from a sampling of visually impaired people at the National Federation of the Blind, they're adding the ability to read large blocks of text, such as a restaurant menu, as well as more sound prompts (beeps and verbal confirmation) that let users know when the app is taking a picture, when it's turning off, and whether they are holding something potentially harmful, such as medication. In the meantime, people can download a free Android app that lets them point their phones at objects, press a button and get a verbal description — less user-friendly for the visually impaired who have trouble pushing buttons they can't see, but a way to begin using the image-recognition technology right away.

"After doing this beta testing, it really affirmed for us that ThirdEye will — not just can — help a lot of people," Bhageria says. "Out of the 15 visually impaired people who tried it, 10 said they'd love to buy it. That's when we really decided to work on this full time."

Productivity 101

Working full-time may be nothing to the average entrepreneur, but it's another story when you're also a full-time student. Unlike their hero — Apple visionary Steve Jobs, who dropped out of college after six months — Bhageria and his team, which now also includes student marketing whiz David Ongchoco, are committed to staying in school and running ThirdEye at the same time ... at least for now.

Busy doesn't begin to describe carrying a full course load in a competitive Ivy League pressure cooker and clocking in another 50 to 60 hours a week perfecting their app. Then again, Bhageria and his partners aren’t necessarily looking to rank at the very top of the grade heap (slightly lower is fine by them). Rather they're out to put their own stamp on the world and make life better for others — a goal that's less about maintaining a supersized GPA, says Bhageria, and more about thinking for yourself and following your passions. Check out his book on the topic, "What High School Didn’t Teach Me."

"Schools really force you to memorize factoids instead of teaching you how to problem solve and inspiring you to pursue projects that motivate you," says Bhageria, who was born in India but grew up mostly in the U.S. "It's not worth it for me to spend a lot of time working on things for school when instead of getting a 98 I can get a 91. So something that would have taken five or six hours, I now try to do in two hours to give me more time to work on ThirdEye."

In a demonstration of the ThirdEye app, a user holds up a $5 bill near a Google Glass headset to identify the bill to the wear.In a demonstration of the ThirdEye app, a user holds up a $5 bill near a Google Glass headset to identify the bill. (Photo: ThirdEye)

Inspiration lives on

One of Bhageria's favorite Jobs' quotes says: "Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use."

For Bhageria, those words ring even truer now that he's experienced the soul satisfaction of running a socially conscious start-up. The team hopes to add further refinements to ThirdEye, including allowing users to point to objects for verbal identification rather than always having to hold them up. Later the app may be upgraded to recognize moving objects, such as an approaching car or person.

"We don't want to work on something that's just one thing you use in your day that really won't change your life," Bhageria says. "We want ThirdEye to be a product that if you didn't have it, your life would be significantly worse."

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App serves as 'eyes' for the visually impaired
Four students have developed Google Glass image-recognition app called ThirdEye that verbally identifies objects for visually impaired people.