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A World of Bugs and Bytes

At the ZEISS Hackathon held in Munich and Bangalore at the end of January, programmers, designers and businesspeople from across the globe came together to fly the flag of better vision. They had just 24 hours to draw on their ingenuity and technical vision to come up solutions that would go a long way toward improving the lives of people with visual impairments. In the end, they all gained experience and the best ideas were honored with prizes.

Olcay is hunched over his computer, his mind focused solely on the task at hand. He’s concentrating as hard as a chess player before making the crucial move: “You’d just need to…,” he says, thinking aloud, and scribbles a few notes that at first glance look like the scrawls of a child. Problems are there in order to be solved – that’s how programmers like the 32-old Olcay think, at any rate. Breaking down a problem and finding a suitable solution that makes life easier is what makes them tick.

Florian, 17 years old, is also sitting at his laptop. He’s leaning forward and scrunching his eyes, his hair tousled, in an attempt to read the text in the programming window. He’s making little headway. The problem is, his eyes only perceive 20 percent of the world around him. This handicap often stands between the young gymnast and his goals. When he’s programming at school, he needs more time than his fellow students – even if they’ve not understood any better than he has.

On 20 and 21 January, more than 60 people like Olcay came to the ZEISS VISIONary Hackathon in Munich. Here, programmers and designers from all over the world work to develop solutions for better vision. The aim is to encourage visions and innovative spirit. At the same time, 130 hackers are busy trying to figure out the same problem over in Bangalore, India. Olcay and Florian met for the first time today. They don’t know much about one another, but Olcay’s work can help give Florian a brighter future. They are working toward the same goal: creating opportunities.

Germany needs problem-solvers

At the Hackathon, whizz-kid Olcay programs in language C#. The Frankfurt-based programmer launches the Visual Studio development environment, which is the foundation for everything he does. Florian, the gymnast with a visual impairment, will soon be able to enjoy a crucial benefit: thanks to adaptive zoom, the code he’s currently working on automatically appears larger than the others so that he can see it.

And Olcay, who works in a team with his colleague Thomas, has come up with even more improvements: a computer voice is now set to read out commands as they are input. A sound reminiscent of the school bell that rang for recess will let Florian know where he’s currently at in the source code. Once a programmer with a visual impairment reaches the top or bottom of a source code, a light will flash on the screen – that’s the plan anyway. If he forgets something – say a bracket in the code – this will be indicated by a strobe-like flashing along the bottom of the screen in a format that the visually impaired can perceive more easily. Why is this so? People with a visual impairment find it more difficult to read punctuation marks. Shortcuts are set to help them switch between functions without delay. These newly programmed tools can help the visually impaired in the same way as a ramp can assist someone in a wheelchair trying to access a building.

Nightshift ahead

But a few all-nighters are certainly in store before this can become a reality. Olcay, whose main job is to advance digitalization at a tech company, spends many evenings building codes. He writes these, one function at a time: intelligent recognition of text elements in the code to simplify navigation, transformation of the current line to enable adaptive zooming.

He consults online documentation sources, then combines and adds to them. That’s what high-level programming is all about. It’s often a question of having a flash of inspiration somewhere among all the bugs and bytes. If you forget a period or a comma, the code won’t be worth a dime.

Hackathons: digital marathons

Hackathons are held all over the world. The idea is always the same: IT specialists, User Experience Designers and businesspeople come together to work on specific challenges. Ultimately, it’s about pitting yourself against all others – just like you would in an endurance run. Who’s built the best codes? Who’s missed the point? Some hackathons offer up glittering prizes. In fact, hackers are more interested in the fame that comes with finding a solution to a problem. Olcay has already triumphed at more than 20 hackathons.

Hackers are incredibly ambitious. At the Digital Innovation Partners in Munich, they type, post and issue commands like there’s no tomorrow. Many programmers want to “build” something for Florian, who they’ve already been introduced to. They want to write a code that improves his life tremendously – and this is just what Olcay has set out to do.

Who’s scared of the digital era?

It’s in ZEISS’s best interests to drive the topic of digitalization. The hackers can also integrate the company’s hardware products into their software. The ophthalmological iProfiler plus module and the VR ONE Plus virtual reality headset were both showcased. The hackers are particularly impressed by the prototype for a pair of smart glasses that they were allowed to try out before its upcoming launch.

By the time night falls, people are yawning everywhere, their eyes are getting heavy. Fortunately, there’s plenty of coffee and energy drinks on offer, and Olcay goes through seven of these through the night. No one even thinks about going to bed. Their problems keep them awake – there’s no margin for error here. Many hackers even sleep in the building to avoid long journey times.

“We want to encourage innovation and see what’s possible with our products. This event is a breath of fresh air that does us the world of good,” says Matthias Gohl, Head of ZEISS Digital Innovation Partners. With his team of 50 people, he is in charge of accelerating the digital transformation of ZEISS. “Programmers are always creative in producing new solutions for our customers, both hardware- and software-based. Today in this complex world the development of digital tools is done quite fast”, adds his colleague Devran Uenal – known as “Cosmo”, a Senior Product Engineer who’s in constant contact with hackers.

Something Gearloose would be proud of

On Sunday morning, the hackers are sporting dark circles and messy hair. Some of them haven’t slept a wink – though Olcay took a 3-hour nap. Besides the short food breaks, no one got any rest.

Once the 24 hours were up, the 11 teams were asked to present their results. Olcay and Thomas are the first ones to present their “Code Radar”. Speaking in English, Olcay confidently explains what he’s been programming. He delves into the virtues of his codes, as proud as Gyro Gearloose. Later on, there is news from Microsoft, which was a partner to the ZEISS Hackathon just like Infineon. Even the CEO of Microsoft expressed an interest in Olcay’s work.

Following Olcay’s presentation, the others had 3 minutes to present their ideas, which included a surface scanner for tiny structures, an ATM app for the blind and a vacuum cleaner that can detect where dirt is located in an apartment. It was clear to see from the expressions on all the participants’ faces: they wanted to win this thing. The “Readdit” application for ZEISS smart glasses ultimately took first place and helped the user as a digital walking stick.

There are also talks about potential jobs. Some of the Hackathon participants asks the ZEISS employees about opportunities at the company. ZEISS has decided to wait for signals like these. “We’re not in the business of pestering people. They’ll come to us by themselves if they’re interested,” says Matthias Gohl. In the end, hackers like Olcay have to decide for themselves what path they’d like to take in their careers.

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