Southington Eighth Grader Nabs National Invention Award for the "Message Mask" | Connecticut Public Radio

Southington Eighth Grader Nabs National Invention Award for the "Message Mask"

Jun 13, 2016

It was one of those days that will stick with 14-year-old Lucca Riccio. 

His mother, Tina Riccio, told the story about Lucca's grandmother: "We got a call at eleven that she wasn't probably going to make it through the day," she said. "So I left work, I grabbed the kids. I went to the hospital." 

Once they got to the hospital, they tried talking to her, but the oxygen mask got in the way. Other relatives couldn't talk to her, either, because the oxygen machine was so loud. 

Lucca was frustrated. His grandmother was frustrated. So he turned that frustration into an idea. 

"I was trying to think of something that would get rid of the noise of the oxygen mask, but amplify the person's voice at the same time," he said.  

Lucca's always been a tinkerer.

"I don't know if Lucca's like this in school, but he breaks everything at home," his mother said. "We don't allow him to touch anything, and we pretty much walk around saying put that down. Put that down. It doesn't belong to you. Put it down. Because he will touch and break everything."

Lucca rolled his eyes. "I don't break everything," he said.

"You break everything," his mom shot back. "He needs to see the inside of it. He needs to see how it works, his sister's stuff. It causes huge problems."

What fascinates him about how things work?

"I'm not really sure," he said. "I feel like when people sell something they always make it look sellable so people will buy it. And then I remember one time one of my toys broke, and I went on the inside and everything was so different, and I'm like, 'Geez this looks nothing like the toy.' The way it worked, one wheel would spin another wheel and that would make the toy move. So I really got interested with that." 

He took that curiosity and applied to the idea that came to him, after sitting by his grandmother's bedside.

He took a special microphone, that cancels background noise -- kind of like a hearing aide -- and attached it inside an oxygen mask. He then connected the microphone to a wireless receiver that sent the signal to a speaker. This way a person could talk while wearing the mask -- and even talk on the phone because the wireless technology, known as Bluetooth, connects to cell phones.

Lucca talked with the oxygen mask over his face, without the mic on. He was hard to understand, and that's the point. 

"So this is what my grandmother sounded like in the hospital, everything was super muffled," he demonstrated. 

Then he turned on the mic. "It makes everything clearer," he said. "It gets rid of all the other sounds in the room." 

He calls it the Message Mask. His grandmother passed away before using it herself, but his invention landed top prize at the National Invention Convention and Entrepreneurship Expo as the most marketable creation. He beat out over 260 other student entries from 15 states. 

Lucca Riccio with his mother, Tina Riccio, left, and his teacher, Lindsay Ekegren.
Credit WNPR/David DesRoches

His invention was made possible because his school, Joseph DePaolo Middle, requires students to participate in a project-based learning experience. Here's Lucca's science teacher, Lindsey Ekegren, explaining it. 

"I think it's really great," Ekegren said. "It's letting us see the interests that kids have outside of school too, and we're letting them connect it to science. And it's just been fantastic."

Lucca's mom credits the school and the organization that sponsored the Invention Convention with nurturing her son's gift.

"I'm a language teacher, my husband is involved in real estate," she said. "We wouldn't push this. We wouldn't  pursue this for him. It's not something that we would even think about. And so the fact that this district does this, promotes it, and gives someone like Lucca this opportunity, is really great."

While his grandmother never got a chance to use the Message Mask, Lucca says he's just happy that he's helping others connect to their loved ones.  

"I just feel glad that I can help someone," he said. "It's just like, giving back to the community." 

The Message Mask is patent pending.