Meet CHAD, the brainchild of a 16-year-old striving to make life easier for countless people with trembling hands and other ailments that limit finger and hand movement
CHAD is a tiny circuit board sewn onto a baseball cap that works like a computer mouse.
Instead of clicking with their hands, users point the hat at the screen and tilt their head to move the cursor. They click by biting down on a device used by skydivers to take photos and connected to the cap by a cable.
It's the latest invention for Gavin Ovsak, an Eden Prairie High School junior and budding entrepreneur. This week he is showing off his hands-free mouse at the prestigious Junior Science and Humanities Symposium in Bethesda, Md.
Next week, after he goes to prom, he heads to California for the Intel International Science Fair on May 9.
He has also come up with Mapquest-style software for getting around spacious and confusing buildings, like his own high school.
For the lanky, yellow-haired boy who counts the inventor of PayPal among his top heroes and performs on a comedy improv team, earning a spot among the best young science minds is a dream fulfilled.
"What really drives me is I like putting myself to the test," Ovsak said. "I love putting myself out there and giving it my all."
Gavin's mother, Cathy Ovsak, remembers her little boy doing things the unconventional way.
"We called him my puzzle boy," she said, because he turned jigsaw puzzles upside down to solve them.
It's that ability to see things differently that helps him see possibilities that others often overlook, his teachers and mentors observe.
"He wonders about how he can do a thing better," explained Conn McCartan, Eden Prairie High's principal.
One day, Ovsak asked for a meeting to discuss his idea for software that he was calling RoomGuide. It was designed to help visitors find their way around the big high school. With roughly 3,300 students, its day-time population is greater than many small towns.
"He said, 'I've been thinking about school maps and I have an idea. Can I sit down and show you what I can do for the school?'" McCartan said, recalling his conversation with Ovsak.
The principal didn't really know what his inquisitive student had in mind, and was blown away by the demonstration.
"I forget that he's a high school student," said McCartan, who describes Ovsak as mature beyond his years and possessing a vigorous intellect.
Ovsak built the original CHAD, or "circuit head accessibility device,'' over winter break as part of an online science course he took through Intermediate District 287.
He came up with the idea the same way he comes up with most of his ideas - by kicking around different ideas in his head and chatting about them with family and friends.
"I talk about it a lot. I doodle down ideas," he said. "When I should be paying attention, my mind is elsewhere. Sometimes I'm sitting on my bed and I jot down things."
Most of his work is done at his computer, in his bedroom.
But he says the ideas can pop up anytime, so he always keeps a notebook handy.
It's filled with sketches and jottings in handwriting so cryptic only he can decipher the meaning.
Since he created the original CHAD, he has modified it based on feedback from people who have tried it out. He's now on his third version of CHAD and plans to move from prototype to production mode this summer, in the hopes of selling his invention.
Recently, Ovsak visited the Courage Center in Golden Valley to ask patients there to take CHAD the Third for a test drive.
Scott Moffat, of Andover, was one who tried it.
With a slight turn of his head and a bite down on the "clicker" in his mouth, Moffat was off and running.
Moffat has a rare disease known as primary lateral sclerosis (PLS) that affects the movement of his arms and his ability to talk, walk and swallow.
Said Moffat, after a successful run with CHAD: "Something like this would be very nice."
Allie Shah • 612-673-4488