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Hotshot hacker

Computer science student changes the meaning of hacking with his wheelchair.

October 24, 2016

Rachel Bruner

Most people fret over the possibility of fraud or identity theft when they hear about hacking in the news. Stephen Chavez is altering that perspective with his wheelchair.

Chavez was born with schizencephaly, a rare brain condition that affects his motor skills. Tired of his inability to move his chair while talking to people, among other reasons, he decided to hack it. To do so, he sought help from Steve Beaty, a computer science professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver, where Chavez studies.

“If you want to change anything on your chair, you’re forced to see a dealer,” said Chavez. “Imagine you bought a car that has a 200 mph engine in it, but for some reason the manufacturer decides that you can only go 50 mph when you buy the car. To go faster, you would need to pay a dealership to change the speed setting for you.”

Beaty recommended he visit the Solid State Depot, Boulder’s hackerspace for people interested in technology, creating projects and learning from each other. The group helped Chavez figure out how his chair’s computer hardware works.

“They had the oscilloscope and logic analyzer that got the ball rolling,” Beaty said.

Chavez hacked into his wheelchair by attaching a Raspberry Pi 3 computer and a PiCAN2 CAN-Bus Board to communicate with the chair. He was then able to tell the chair what to do, which included changing the speed, controlling an LED light bar he installed at the bottom of the chair, and enabling the chair to move on its own.

“I think it’s important for people to at least be aware of the capabilities and shortcomings of their assistive devices,” Beaty said. “Stephen’s work is a major step forward for this. By understanding how his chair’s different parts communicate with each other, Stephen can now customize, and add to, its abilities.”

Chavez’s research led him to speaking at DefCon – one of the largest hacker conferences in the world – through Independent Security Evaluators, an information security firm that sponsored him. Chavez was going to pay for the travel expenses himself until Beaty helped him get the cost covered through support from several MSU Denver departments, faculty and staff.

The speech was a hit: Chavez was featured in Forbes magazine; he has attracted multiple job offers, including a full-time position from the CEO of SpiderOak, a company he was contracting for; and on Oct. 24 he presents at GeekPwn, an international hacking contest in China.

“Words that come to my mind are: he’s tenacious,” said assistant director of the Access Center Greg Root, who has worked with Chavez. “He is very independent, very persistent and determined to get his degree. I mean, he’s already working in the field.”

Chavez independently contracts while working for MSU Denver’s Information Technology Services on the security team. He graduates in December and is unsure of what he will do once he’s done with school, but for a unique reason.

“Everyone wants me,” Chavez said.

He applied to Google for a position in Boulder that Beaty recommended to him. He may apply to SpaceX to program spacecrafts. He may work with Apple researchers. For Chavez, the possibilities do seem endless.

“And because of his tenacity, this young man will succeed at whatever he attempts, I’m certain of it,” Root said. “He will not give up. He will always be an achiever.”


In honor of Disability Awareness month, the Auraria Campus is hosting several events to promote greater awareness of and respect for individuals with disabilities. These include its annual Disability Awareness Festival and the Adaptive Technology Fair on Oct. 19, which showcased accessible technologies on the Discovery Wall in the Auraria Library.