. . . field reports from a creative catalyst in the Pacific NW

b.a.t.s. & smart tools for the blind

Ian Birchall is a family friend whom I have known for many years. Ian has been blind for much of his life, but has not let his disability get in the way of very much. He’s an accomplished musician, recently earned a degree in computer engineering at Providence College an now works in Rhode Island as a assistive technology consultant. His story is an inspiring one.

Picture 29Last summer, during our summer vacation back East, I learned much from Ian about the orientation and mobility challenges that people with visual disabilities face everyday. About 78% of blind people in this country are unemployed. The reasons are not because of lack of ability, but center around access and mobility issues. Many “orientation & mobility” services made available for the visually impaired are woefully outdated, expensive and not mapped to new ADA standards. I spend a good part of last summer learning about this issue and became interested in building bridges to blind mobility professionals who are driving innovation in this arena. I talked to some amazing researchers, mobile technologists, orientation and mobility experts, environmental designers who are focused on universal design and accessibility, game designers and technologists.

Last summer I met with 2 forward thinking Bellevue City Planners…Senior Transportation Planner, Franz Loewenherz and Comprehensive Planning Director, Paul Inghram…to share more about this project. About an hour into our meeting and seeing both the need and the potential for improving mobility efforts, they had offered up the City’s ADA data assets in the service of this project. Here is the note he sent me with a link to his presentation to the American Public Works Association, an organization focused on developing and supporting the people, agencies, and organizations that plan, build, maintain, and improve our communities.

Screen shot 2013-07-16 at 4.22.48 PMexcerpt from email from Franz…

Hi Genevieve – It was great meeting with you today.  As promised, here is a link to an ADA Presentation to APWA.  On slide 61 through 70 you’ll see some screen-shots from the ADA viewer interface that City of Bellevue staff can reference.  It would be wonderful to see this data made available externally via an app that helps people with disabilities get around Bellevue.        –  Thanks, Franz

AH! Transparency. Open Government. Sharing of assets… I like this guy! Would LOVE to see the City of Bellevue as a key driver of this initiative…bringing research, transportation, planning, technology and community together…throught a public service and scholarship effort such as this.

Other thought leaders I have reached out to include: UW Professor of Language and Communication, Crispin Thurlow (UW/SMARTLab), Environmental Designer, Roger Whitehouse,  Co-founder if the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University, Donald Marinelli, Executive Director of UW Digital Futures Lab, Jason PaceScott Berfield, Executive Producer at UW Bothell’s Center for Serious Play), Msoft Data Vizualization Designer, Callie Neylan (white paper: I Can Hear Walls: Designing for the Blind), Msoft Principal Development Lead, Chris Weare, Game designer (Co- Creator of Blindside game), Michael T. Astolfi, UW Boeing Professor in Computer Science and Engineering, Richard Ladner , and Blind IT Cloud /Virtual Specialist and Disabled Access Specialist, Christopher McMillan. Each of these professionals are working in different arenas…but every one expressed great interest in sharing the work they are doing to further advance these innovative accessibility initiatives.

I’m fortunate to live in the Pacific NW, a community with a vibrant culture of innovation. I’ve reached out to potential academic and industry partners to try to create some dialogue around this opportunity/challenge and to create a possible incubation platform for blind/mobility experts and advocates, engineers, technologists and designers to develop efforts on and open platform. Social innovator and technologist, Joe Justice,  created a great model of open development (100mph car developed in 3 months) that has shaken up the automotive industry with Wikispeed: Rapidly Solving Problems for Social Good. An interactive platform like this, grounded in an academic setting, could bring together innovative minds from all over the world…blind developers, haptic design/technology experts…audio engineers, gaming/simulation designers….environmental designers and urban planners. Already there are so many brilliant folks working in this arena…making their own breakthroughs, discoveries and innovative design soluctions.

Ray phone by Qualcomm

ray phone by Qualcomm

For now, I’ve named this effort the BATS (Birchall Accessibility Technology Systems) dev project, after my inspiring friend Ian. Hoping I can stir up some good new fashioned “anti-disciplinary” collaboration…bringing together research from many areas…to explore overlaps and collaboration potential among the blind people, advocates and professionals who intimately understand blind/mobility issues to enhance mobility for people with visual disabilities. Wayfinding maps/models for navigating cities, neighborhoods and buildings stored in the Cloud…enhanced, shared and downloaded by blind commuters and travelers. The impact to veteran rehabilitation and to workforce training/employment would be profound.

The vision of such a technology was a sort of audio/tactile based Grand Theft Auto simulation experience…allowing a visually impaired person the opportunity to “walk through” an environment and practice navigating it…over and over…until it is familiar. Currently, if you are blind and get a job, you are given “orientation and mobility services”, which cover a O&M professional orienting you in your new environment for about 1-2 hours per week. Most of these specialists are using outdated methods and analog tools.  (ie. Wheatley Boards, etc…). Needless to say, the learning curve for navigating a new work environment is not only steep…but daunting, to say the least.

I’m working on my Silicon Valley pitch… Xbox Kinect Nike+ meets –> MindCraft meets –> Grand Theft Auto meets –> the Wheatley Board (Tactile Diagramming Kit) meets–> Wally, the Seeing Eye Dog.

Will keep on this trail…and keep you posted on any new developments.

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