Photo: Caitlin Cunningham

True Colors

Engineering students Melanie Cotta and Echo Panana invented a device that identifies clothing color for people with visual impairments.

Last spring, Melanie Cotta ’26 and Echo Panana ’26 traveled to Florida State University to compete in the ACC InVenture Prize, an annual event in which students from Atlantic Coast Conference schools pitch their ideas to a panel of judges for the chance to win $15,000. Cotta and Panana pitched Hue, a device they invented that helps people with visual impairments sort laundry by color.

To use Hue, you place it on an article of clothing and then press a button. The device, using a built-in speaker, announces the item’s color and the correct temperature for washing the fabric. Cotta and Panana came up with the idea last year while taking a class taught by Department of Engineering Chair Glen Gaudette, who encouraged them to enter the InVenture competition. After submitting a video presentation of their device, Cotta and Panana were selected to compete in Florida alongside fourteen other teams of student inventors and entrepreneurs from across the ACC conference.

Hue, Gaudette said, aligns with the mission of the department of engineering, which is designed to help students engineer solutions for crucial human needs. “A lot of times, it’s not complicated devices that people need,” he said. “They need simple everyday solutions. That’s what Hue did. It was an everyday solution to a real problem for a lot of people.”

Though Cotta and Panana didn’t win the competition, they remain excited about Hue’s potential to help people. We asked them to tell us more about their invention.  

Where did you come up with the idea for Hue? 

Panana: As part of Glenn Gaudette’s Introduction to Human-Centered Engineering class, we visited the Campus School, which supports students with complex medical needs, on laundry day. The staff mentioned that students who were visually impaired and had low mobility really couldn’t help with laundry at all, so they wanted to know how they could get them more involved. 

How did you build the device?

Panana: I had taken a class on Arduino [an electronics platform] in high school and knew it could hold a color sensor and LEDs, and through research found out it could produce sounds. We built it in the maker space at the Schiller Institute, and ordered all of the parts through the BC engineering department. 

You made Hue an entire device rather than
just an app. Why?

Cotta: The main advantage of our idea is that it’s accessible. There are a lot of color apps out there that tell you what colors things are for color-blind people, but the advantage of Hue is that there’s something physically there, which allows older people who don’t use apps, or people with limited mobility, to use it. That’s the market we were trying to hit. 

How do you make Hue a business?

Cotta: We had a Zoom question session with the judges before we flew out to the competition, and one recommended that we partner with Tide or another laundry brand to try to expand our audience that way. 

What stood out about the competition?

Cotta: They had a keynote speaker who had competed in previous years, and turned their invention into an actual company. And afterward, one of the judges talked to us and gave us tips on other competitions to apply to, which we’re going to use.

Panana: Many of the competitors were a lot older than us, and had been to many of these competitions, or founded companies that have been in the works for years. We learned from people who have done it. We got a lot of contacts from other entrepreneurs, and that’s valuable, regardless of whether we continue with entrepreneurship or not. 

Did Hue change how you view engineering?

Panana: I’ve personally never thought about assistive technology [products that help people with disabilities] as a field that engineers could be in. The only thing we’re usually exposed to is prosthetics, specifically in a hospital setting, but not in this context of helping students at the Campus School. Being able to talk to the people we’re designing for was a fun, new experience. ◽