App contest with an altruistic purpose

Daniyel Grancich holds a 7-inch digital screen projecting a pair of eyes.

The eyes squint, bulge or tear up to correspond with the spoken words "Please," "I'm sorry" and "Thank you." The words are spoken in nine different languages.

The eyes are built into an application called "Look At Me" that runs on mobile phones and tablets. It's an "eye contact avatar" designed to familiarize kids on the autism spectrum with social cues built into those three polite phrases.

When Grancich, an autism researcher, heard about an app-building contest centered on autism, she immediately wanted to build something to help normalize "socially loaded phrases" that autistic children often have trouble with, she said.

"The important thing is natural human voices," the UC Irvine student said.

As the contest began, she was grouped with three other UCI students, and they were off.

Computer science student Anthony Stramer started scouring Facebook for friends who could speak the short polite phrases in as many languages as possible.

After pulling together art and photos for the eyes, he and another computer science student, Mark Zepeda, set out furiously coding the creation.

Along with a fourth member, Nora Kabbara, they each spent about 60 to 70 hours on the project.

They finished at about 5 a.m. Friday, just in time for the judging. That evening, 20 student teams presented their creations at UCI's Autism AppJam.

In a frantic two weeks, they identified a need in the autism community and built a digital tool to serve that need through an iOS or Android device.

UCI and the Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders of Southern California teamed up to host the contest, hoping to harness the talents of students to build resources.

"The community really needs more tools," said Gillian Hayes, who bridges the gap between the two organizations as a faculty member and technology director.

Almost 110 students presented their creations.

Some built brain games. Others created tools like "I'm Lost," which sends out an SOS beacon complete with the phone's or tablet's location.

"I feel like the best ones were the nongame ones," judge Patrick Dawson said.

He preferred applications that presented resources for adults living with autism or parents with young autistic children, "which struck a chord with me," he said.

Dawson, the lead gameplay engineer on Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft, has a 2-year-old and 4-year-old. Both are on the autism spectrum.

He and eight other tech luminaries who have personal experience with autism judged the apps on their relevance to autism, uniqueness, creativity, usability and other criteria.

The winning application, "Visual Reader," showed the user words that, when touched, revealed whatever object they spelled. The hope was to teach an autistic child the relationship between the string of letters and the physical world.

The creators of "Visual Reader" said they wanted to keep it simple. Doing so won them $1,000, gift bags from sponsors and trips to Blizzard and Google.

Beyond those prizes, contestants like Brian Wance echoed a sense of purpose.

He conceptualized an application based on a simple hide-and-seek game he watched an old friend play with his autistic son years ago.

He and computer science students who spent long bleary nights coding said they hoped to distribute the app for free regardless of whether they won.

"If I'm going to devote my time to something, this is worth it," Wance said.

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