Noah: Building blind accessibility technology
Noah’s venture at a glance: Stria Labs
Stria is a student-run organization devoted to addressing challenges faced by those who are visually impaired in Northern California and beyond by harnessing the power of design engineering.
A team of high school students, Stria Labs develops accessibility technology that increases both safety and self-confidence.
One product in development is the Stria band, a low-profile smart-waistband, designed so that pedestrians avoid veering from their intended path through vibrations. The band alerts users by vibrating on the side the user is veering towards, then guides the user to correct their path until the vibration stops.
Changemakers may not always have lived experiences of the problems they are trying to solve. However, being a changemaker means active listening and learning from others in order to engineer innovative solutions together. Ignited to create blind accessibility technology, Noah and his peers at Stria Labs are developing tools for and with the blind community to promote wellbeing and safety.
How can engineering be a tool for social innovation? What role can high school engineering students play in creating a safer, more equitable world?
Those were the type of questions Noah Tavares confronted when he met Jimmy back in the summer of 2017 as a sophomore in high school. Jimmy was a young man who had recently gone blind due to a serious car accident. Although his trainer and numerous medical centers supported Jimmy, he still struggled with daily activities, like safely walking home or navigating busy streets.
Fresh out of a class entitled ‘Design Engineering for Social Good,’ Noah and his close friend, Pranav, were invigorated by design thinking. The friends were eagerly looking for a summer project that could both develop their technical skills while delivering a solution to an everyday, but underlooked problem. When reaching out to their teacher and family for ideas, both a teacher and a sister’s friend connected Noah and Pranav to Jimmy to learn about blindness. From their first conversation with Jimmy, they were inspired to co-design technology that could solve a problem Jimmy faces in his everyday life.
By working alongside Jimmy, they identified several arduous challenges faced by the blind and visually impaired community in order to brainstorm human-centered solutions to fill these gaps. Jimmy emphasized to the Noah and Pranav that one of his everyday challenges was ‘veering,’ which is when a pedestrian without vision unintentionally deviates from their straight path. “This is a two fold problem,” Noah shares, “It’s physically dangerous since on the streets they could stray into dangerous traffic. But veering also gives them a mental fear of walking.” Jimmy shared that sometimes he will travel forty-five minutes out of the way to avoid crossing a certain dangerous intersection in fear of veering.
As Noah and Pranav became invested in the veering technology, other friends and classmates asked to join in throughout the summer and into the following school year. Noah and Pranav warmly accepted everyone, organically forming a team not based on peoples’ skills, but their motivation towards the project. They quickly developed a dynamic, fluid team where members step up and take on different responsibilities based on their unique skills and interests. “Our team set the standard for what could happen outside of school,” Noah says as he and Pranav naturally formed a community of dedicated peers who find genuine enjoyment and excitement towards innovation for the public good.
Their venture, Stria Labs, is now a team is now 14+ members as of the summer of 2019. They are dedicated to creating a technological ecosystem for the blind and visually impaired that leverages everyday technology. For example, the Stria band, a low-profile smart-waistband they are looking to license as a medical device, is designed to alert pedestrians with vibrations when they veer from their walking path.
In order to properly test and create the technology, Stria Labs students build connections with the blind community to learn more about their lived experiences and receive honest feedback on the devices. Jimmy helps the team start these conversations and introduces the team to organizations in the area. The team has spoken with over 150 individuals with visual impairments, nearly a dozen centers for the blind, and tech experts across the nation to gather a holistic perspective on what it means to be blind or visually impaired in today’s world. Eager to ensure humans are the focal point and motivation of their work, they redirect this feedback to improve each prototype to ensure each device is practical and useful.
Independently funded, Noah and his team members do not accept money from their school or their parents as they want their venture to be able to stand on its own. Instead, the team applies for grants to fundraise their work. However, both parents and teachers play a formative role by encouraging the team to take risks, fail forward, and focus on the process over the product. “Without parents, none of this would be possible,” Noah says.
Noah attributes his school and home environment of welcoming to experimentation and failure as key to his own changemaking journey. When Noah was in 7th grade, he developed an app for people with celiac disease to find places to eat that met their dietary needs for a class project. Inspired by a family member who is celiac, Noah designed “a Yelp for gluten-free people,” which introduced him to the conceptual and practical applications of coding. This momentum and curiosity led him to co-create a weighted blanket for people with PTSD during his freshman year of high school.
Growing up in a validating community that encouraged innovation excelled Noah's hunger for design thinking. Noah is dedicated to creating non-traditional products that "elevate everyone's life." In practice Stria Labs enables Noah and his peers to cultivate their interests while focusing their energy towards social good. Stria Lab's commitment to innovative design and human connection exemplifies the power of young people to listen to the voices of their community and develop technology for the good of all.
Noah participated in Ashoka's STEM for Changemaker Challenge in partnership with General Motors in Spring 2019. Read more about the challenge here.
This story was drafted by Youth Years Intern Jess Fluegel.