South Surrey high-school student Ethan Hinchliff has designed a cellphone app that helps visually impaired people shop.

South Surrey teen has knack for apps

White Rock Christian Academy student Ethan Hinchliff's program helps visually impaired shoppers.

A South Surrey teenage innovator’s efforts to help his visually impaired neighbour has grown from an after-school hobby into something that has the potential to help thousands of people.

Ethan Hinchliff, a 16-year-old White Rock Christian Academy student, has created the SeeWithMe cellphone app – a camera-based program that can identify items aloud to the user.

The finished product has been in the Apple and Android app stores for only a few weeks, and costs $9.99, but Hinchliff – who began developing SeeWithMe two years ago – has already helped his No. 1 customer, Peninsula senior Alice Kozier, who the teenager says “is like a second grandma to me.”

“She is a great family friend… and when she started to lose her sight, obviously it was difficult for her,” Hinchliff said.

“We had her over for dinner one night, and she was wondering how she could identify stuff. I’d been helping her with her phone, so she asked me to find an app for her,” he explained. “I looked, but the things there were apps that used buttons and other things (tough for a visually impaired person to see).”

That moment “put Ethan on a quest to help her,” Hinchliff’s father, Mike said.

When installed, the SeeWithMe app opens through a smartphone’s speech-recognition program – Siri, on iPhones, for example – and its interface is similar to that of a cellphone camera.

Users scan the bar code of an item, and a voice identifies it.

The teen has always had an aptitude for technology. He took an interest in computers – websites especially – at seven years old, and over the next three or four years, taught himself how to code websites via lessons he found online.

“Then I’d just play around. That’s the great thing about code – you can just try something and see if it works. And when you find something that works, you build on it.”

Coding for a phone app was a new challenge – “It’s extremely different,” he said – but after a few months of trial and error, he’d gotten the hang of it.

Eventually – after many hours of work after school and on weekends – Hinchliff finally had a working app, though the bar codes he was scanning weren’t providing any information. What he needed was access to various stores’ databases, so he could match the codes with the item descriptions.

“It’s proprietary information, so not a lot of companies were willing to do it,” he explained.

Eventually, after making contact with as many companies as he could, Save-On-Foods showed an interest.

A vetting process to make sure the 16-year-old programmer– as well as his application – was trustworthy took months, but eventually the green light was given to add the company’s inventory into the SeeWithMe database.

“It’s been a great partnership with them. They’ve been supportive and have helped me do some marketing, too,” Hinchliff said.

Last week, Save-On-Foods promoted the app on the company’s Facebook page, writing “Thank you, Ethan, for your innovation. We are so proud of how you were able to help our wonderful community.”

Hinchliff’s app also caught the attention of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, who are also supporters of the WRCA student’s work. In June last year, he spoke at the organization’s annual general meeting and received a positive response.

“I was really motivated by speaking with him, and I encouraged him to move forward,” said John Mulka, the CNIB’s executive director and regional vice president for B.C.

“Ethan came to us two years ago, and I just can’t believe what this has come to now. I see it as a real opportunity for our clients.”

Hinchliff, too, was enthused to receive CNIB support.

“I saw how I could help my neighbour… and the CNIB has over 100,000 clients, so if I can help all those people, too, that’s a great bonus.”

While the app currently can only identify inventory at Save-On, Hinchliff is working to get other businesses on board – especially in eastern Canada and, eventually, the United States.

In the meantime, however, users have the ability to add custom items to their accounts – things perhaps found at other stores – via the SeeWithMe website, and the program has other uses, as well.

Through the website, Hinchliff explained that users can add custom bar codes to anything – not just groceries.

“You can label your house keys, or CDs – because they can be hard to tell which one is which – or you can label and add instructions to medications,” he said. “You just create a bar code, print it out and tape it to the item. You can get really creative with it if you want to – even adding something like best-before dates.”

There have been challenges along the way.

While he hasn’t often felt the sting of discrimination due to his age – “It’s almost better because people see it as more of an accomplishment,” he said – it has presented a few logistical programs.

“I’m still in school during the day, so it’s hard to organize meetings. Also, I can’t drive yet – I still have my ‘L’ – so that can make it difficult, too.”

Looking ahead, Hinchliff – in addition to eventually passing his driver’s test – will continue to try to bring more companies on board, while also working on new versions of the app.

“It’s nice to see the end of this phase of the project – it works and it can start helping people,” he said.

“I think there are opportunities to expand what the app can do, maybe finding a way so it can identify not just bar codes, but other things.

“I’m really excited for the next phase.”

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