Friday, July 31, 2015

AT&T awards $100K for tech to help people with disabilities

Twenty-five years after President Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, AT&T called on developers to use existing technology to create solutions for people with disabilities.

Jason DaSilva, a documentary filmmaker who has multiple sclerosis, has been working with developers on Kinesic Mouse, software that allows him to control his PC hands-free by using a 3D camera that detects facial expressions. CNET/Marguerite Reardon

To mark the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, AT&T teamed up with New York University's Ability Lab to challenge app developers to use their network and technology to make life easier for people with disabilities.
Together they launched the Connect Ability Challenge, designed to spur innovation for people with physical, social, emotional and cognitive disabilities. Winners of the contest, which saw a total of 63 submissions, were announced Monday.
In total, AT&T awarded $100,000 in cash. That included a $25,000 grand prize for Kinesic Mouse, software that uses Intel's Real Sense Web camera to detect facial expressions and head rotations, enabling people to operate their personal computers hands-free. Other winners include a smartphone app to help visually impaired shoppers find their way around a store using existing beacon technology, and one that uses Bluetooth to connect sensors to a smartphone preprogrammed with stock phrases to enable nonverbal individuals to push a button to communicate basic needs.
The ADA, signed into law on July 26, 1990, was monumental legislation intended to ensure that people with disabilities could participate fully in the workforce and their communities free from discrimination. The most visible legacy to the law has been the changes in infrastructure from cut-outs in sidewalks to ATMs marked with Braille to widespread closed captioning to fire alarms that can be seen as well as heard.
But advocates for people with disabilities say more needs to be done, as many disabled Americans still find it difficult to participate meaningfully in their communities. Technology, including AT&T's efforts to encourage more development in this area, can help bridge the gap between public policy and real life, said Marissa Shorenstein, president of AT&T New York.
"The promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act was to remove barriers that people with disabilities face. It's clear from these extraordinary submissions that technology can play an important role in fulfilling the law's mission," she said. "The winning solutions address specific challenges that prevent people with disabilities from participating fully in our society. We hope that this unique competition spurs further innovation in this area and highlights how much mobile technology can improve people's daily experiences."

The contest

The purpose of the contest was to challenge developers to use off-the-shelf technology already in existence to help solve problems for people with disabilities. While the ADA helped pave the way for an entire industry dedicated to assistive technology, the products developed have primarily been tailored to niche audiences and have been expensive. AT&T's vision for the contest was to encourage developers to use mainstream technology, such as smartphones, tablets, voice-recognition software, Web cameras, and 4G LTE wireless networks, to create affordable apps and software.
"The beauty of the contest is that the solutions the developers came up with are super simple, affordable and use technology, like the Android and iOS operating systems, that everyone is already using," said Neil Giacobbi, executive director for public affairs for AT&T. "The truth is that people with disabilities are already using this technology -- just like everyone. So why should they have to use a separate device to get the help they need in their everyday lives?"

Putting it all together

To find out what solutions people with disabilities were looking for, AT&T enlisted the help of four people to consult with the app developers participating in the contest.
For Gus Chalkias, who is blind, that meant sharing with developers his deepest anxieties about going out in public on his own.
"For me the biggest issue I face when going somewhere new is just figuring out where everything is," he said. "I usually have to ask for help, which I'm very willing to do. But it would be nice to not have to ask a stranger where the bathroom is."
The developers at Enlight, which won a $10,000 prize for the "Best Solution Impacting Policy and Society," created a smartphone application that leverages existing iBeacon technology in stores and other public places. The app enables people who can't see to scan their surroundings with their mobile devices to help them navigate.
For Jason DaSilva, an Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a decade ago, the Kinesic Mouse software -- which won the grand prize -- allows him to control his PC completely hands-free, using Intel's Real Sense 3D camera that detects facial expressions and head rotations. With a tilt of his head or a pucker of his lips, he can control the PC, joystick or keyboard, helping him regain some independence that had been lost to the disease.
Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable, often disabling, disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain and between the brain and the rest of the body. Over the years, DaSilva has lost the ability to walk and to dress himself. As of about nine months ago, he lost control of the motor function in his hands necessary to work a mouse and trackpad on his computer, which he uses to edit his films. He said he has been forced to rely on his assistant to click his mouse during the edit process as he dictates editorial direction.
DaSilva said the process of relying on a middleman to operate the computer's editing tools has helped him become a better film editor and director. But he admitted the added step is hugely time consuming. Using the Kinesic software, he's learning how to make those edits on his own again. He's also able to check email and browse the Internet without the help of someone else.
"All of a sudden, I'm regaining some independence," he said. "It's huge. It's a small thing that helps make life more normal for me. And it makes me more productive."
While other software exists that offers similar functionality, DaSilva said Kinesic Mouse works better than anything else he's tried. And it costs less than most other solutions. Markus Proell, founder of Kinesic Mouse, said his solution adapts software and hardware originally developed for gaming. As a result, Proell said his solution, which costs about $400, is priced far below that of software created specifically for the special-needs community.
In fact, he said, the cost of the software is so low, some customers in the US may not be able to get it covered by federal Medicaid insurance, which typically picks up the bill for assistive technology for people who have disabilities.

Only the beginning

AT&T's Giacobbi said that the technology industry is still in the early days of figuring out ways to leverage existing technology to help people. As mobile technology becomes more pervasive and less expensive, he said it will also be easier for developers to create solutions for people with disabilities. And he said that AT&T hopes it can encourage developers to innovate and create solutions for this underserved group.
"It doesn't take a computer scientist to realize that something like a fitness tracker with GPS could be used to help someone with a disability," he said. "We've just scratched the surface in terms of using existing technology to help people with disabilities."

A bionic hand in five days: how tech innovation is changing lives

Assistive technology is giving disabled people more control over their lives, but businesses and charities have a long way to go on accessibility and affordability
Bionic hand
Nicky Ashwell is the UK’s first patient to receive a lifelike bionic hand. Photograph: Laura Lean/PA Wire
For those who need it, a bionic limb can cost up to £80,000 and take three months to make. However, by using 3D scanning and printing, a Bristol-based start-up reckons it can provide an amputee with a bionic hand for less than £2,000 in less than a week.
Using the latest in advanced robotic prosthetics, Open Bionic’s prototype hands generate movement in the fingers in response to electrodes connected to muscles in an amputee’s arm.
“It’s an intuitive way to operate the hand and it give them (amputees) back a freedom of movement that they had previously lost or were born without in some cases”, Joel Gibbard, the company’s founder, has said.
A winner at the recent Tech4Good awards, Open Bionics’ prototype is emblematic of a gradual, but burgeoning interest in how new technologies can help meet disabled people’s needs.

So-called assistive technology has the potential to “transform the level of dignity and independence that disabled people experience in their everyday lives”, argues Constance Agyeman, manager of theInclusive Technology Prize at the independent charity Nesta.
Despite emerging interest in this space, however, current solutions are frequently expensive, unattractive and too narrowly-focused, adds Agyeman. “The feeling from a range of disability network organisations is that a lot of the big manufacturers are very much tied to the healthcare sector… which means there is a limited range of assistive technologies for disabled people to access.”

Increasing the pace of innovation

In an attempt to broaden the scope of assistive technologies currently available, Nesta awarded £10,000 to each of the 10 finalists of its prize to bring their ideas to market. The list includes a free-to-use communication aid, an “evolvable” walking aid, a one-handed lap belt for wheelchair users and a hearing loop listening app.
In a similar competition last year, Google recognised – among others – a network of volunteers who use 3D printers to provide prosthetics for free. The e-NABLE community received a $600,000 grant to advance its work. In a UK version of the competition, RNIB, the charity for the blind, won an award for its development of “smart glasses” that improve the sight of individuals with limited vision.
According to Agyeman, “Unless you have a deep understanding of what it means on a day-to-day basis to experience what a disabled person is experiencing, it’s very difficult to cater to those needs.”
Virgin Media seems to have taken that message on board, this week launching a £1m partnership with disability charity Scope. The partnership, which marks a paring down of Virgin’s 27 different charity relationships, will see experts from Scope working alongside the company’s internal innovations team.
The alliance will build on existing trials of assistive technologies undertaken by the company over recent years, such as a bluetooth-enabled system that automatically tracks and records the vital health stats of individuals with conditions such as hypertension, obesity and diabetes.
The funding will also help Scope disseminate information and training around assistive technologies it is using in the four specialist schools it currently runs. Examples include “switching devices”, which enable computers, tablets and other learning equipment to be controlled by everything from eye movements to hand gestures.
“There is always more tech companies like us can be doing,” says Katie Buchanan, head of sustainability at Virgin Media. “Technology is moving quickly, so I think we have a role to play to help [disabled] consumers as well as charities to keep up with that pace of change.”
According to Scope, 27% of disabled adults have never used the internet, compared to 11% of non-disabled adults.

Making the right technology

For Jaime Purvis, an expert in screen-reading software at the Digital Accessibility Centre, a non-profit working on digital inclusion, the tech industry needs to move faster on assistive technology.
“There’s more being done now than three or four years ago, but it’s still not as widespread as it could be … There are a lot of [disabled] people being left behind because they don’t have access to the hardware that tech companies are creating,” he says.
Making the tech industry aware of the “huge market potential” for inclusive assistive technologies would help galvanise activity, he suggests. It’s an argument disability charities are increasingly comfortable with, according to Tamsin Baxter, head of partnerships at Scope.
Baxter cites the final report of the independent Extra Costs Commission, published in June, which puts the spending power of disabled people in the UK at £212bn per year. Individuals with physical impairments, for example, incur disability-related costs of almost £300 a week, the report states.
“With 53% of households in the UK having a connection with or being touched by disability, it’s not a niche group [so] there’s real value in seeing disabled people as a group of consumers,” says Baxter.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

3 lessons from developers who have embraced assistive technology

Executive Director Karla Jutzi, right, watches as assistive technology trainer Michael Babcock works his iPad at the Alaska Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Anchorage, Alaska on July 20, 2012.
Image: Alaska Journal of Commerce, Michael Dinneen/Associated Press
When the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law 25 years ago, few could have imagined just how much would change as a result of the legislation.
Fewer still could have imagined a world where almost anyone has access to pocket-sized computers that would open so many doors to people with disabilities.
Today, we have apps that can help the blind see, give words to those who can't speak and enable independence for people who would otherwise be forced to rely on others. To celebrate these advancements, Apple debuted a new collection in iTunes Thursday, highlighting apps that take advantage of accessibility features on iOS devices. The selection includes apps that help people with hearing and visual impairments interact with the world around them, those that enable communication for people with autism and apps that encourage learning at all levels.
We talked to some of the developers on the front lines of accessibility about what they've learned while creating these powerful apps, here's what they told us.

1. Design matters — even if your users can't see your app

Design is a fundamental part of any app. But even the most seasoned software makers find they need to rethink many aspects of design and user experience they would otherwise take for granted. While Apple makes its accessibility tools, like VoiceOver, readily available, developers often find making their app truly accessible requires a much more nuanced approach than what they're used to.
Winston Chen, a developer with a background in enterprise software, originally created Voice Dream Reader as a way to help him get through his reading list. The app extracts text from web pages, PDFs, ebooks and other files and uses text-to-speech to allow people to listen to their reading lists.
Voice Dream Reader

Image: Voice Dream LLC
After it was released, Chen began to hear from a group of users he had no idea he was reaching: people with dyslexia. Kids and adults with dyslexia were using the app to for help with reading. He soon decided to focus completely on helping users with special needs and committed to learning about what that entails.
It really involved a bunch of things that are counterintuitive from a developer standpoint
It really involved a bunch of things that are counterintuitive from a developer standpoint, one guy told me that I should hide a big part of the screen," Chen recalls.
The reasoning, he explained, was that many people with dyslexia also have difficulties concentrating so the app should reduce the amount of text that appears on the screen at any given time to eliminate potential distractions. "From a developer standpoint, I'm thinking 'oh, I'm going to waste all that screen real estate.' "
Likewise, the creators of TapTapSee, an app that specializes in photo recognition for the visually impaired, learned that some common design paradigms — like display ads — were incompatible with user experience. The app, which identifies everyday objects to people through the photos they take, relies on a custom-made image recognition API.
But maintaining an API of that magnitude requires investment, and the company realized early on they would need to think about monetization in different terms than many developers, explains Julia Gallagher, who heads up customer service and social media for TapTapSee,
"A lot of apps utilize ad space in order to help curb costs, but since TapTapSee's interface is designed specifically for blind and visually impaired users, we realized that implementing ad space would only hinder the functionality of the app for our users," Gallagher writes in an email to Mashable, adding that the company tries to take advantage of grants when possible to avoid passing the extra cost to users. "Elements like minimal design, intuitive navigation, and fast but accurate results were also huge priorities for us."

2. New devices open up new opportunities for everyone

Hardware and software improvements often go hand in hand and this is true of accessibility-focused apps as well. The effects of more powerful processors and sensors, larger displays and wearables are particularly profound for those who rely on technology for everyday communication.
"The increased performance and memory of the devices has really allowed us to make our software more powerful and smarter," explains David Niemeijer, the creator of Proloquo2Go, an app that helps people with Autism and Down Syndrome communicate with those around them.
Niemeijer, who has already created two Apple Watch apps, said he sees a big opportunity with wearables in particular as extensions of existing technology. The watch counterpart to Proloquo2Go, for example, allows people who have fine motor challenges to more easily control certain functions of the app.
Proloquo apple watch

Proloquo2Go's APple Watch app.
Image: Proloquo2Go
This isn't limited to smartwatches alone.
BlindSquare, an app that uses a combination of VoiceOver and Foursquare data to help the visually impaired navigate the areas around them, is increasingly taking advantage of iBeacons.
By using the small bluetooth enabled devices, BlindSquare is able to help users navigate indoors as well. When a room or building is equipped with the battery-powered devices, the app is able to provide indoor navigation guidance. Each beacon has a specific message or direction associated with it so any time someone comes within range of that beacon, the message is played.

3. Know your users — all of them

Most developers, regardless of the type of apps they're creating, understand the importance of rigorous testing ad getting to know their users' needs through feedback. But for developers for whom accessibility is a top priority, this process often requires striking a more delicate balance.
Ilkka Pirttimaa, the creator of BlindSquare, says he spends a lot of time talking with users about what features or updates they want. The trickier part, he says, is balancing those requests while maintaining the right user experience.
"An app like this can get bloated with features and that's not nice if it becomes too complex," Pirttimaa says. "Even though I listen to my customers about what they would like to have I'm not doing whatever they say they need to have. It's about how to do it correctly."
Sometimes your app needs to optimized for two different sets of users.
Sometimes your app needs to optimized for two different sets of users.
Jonathan Izak, the founder of SpecialNeedsWare, the company behind Autismate and other apps to help with learning, notes that apps in his field need to be designed with both the individual with special needs in mind, as well as their teachers and caregivers,
"One thing that we've learned very strongly over the last five years is that while you're looking to suit the various needs of those with special needs, it's very important to take in mind those who are going to be creating the content or personalizing the tools for those with special needs," Izak explains. "Whether it be a parent, family member, a teacher or a therapist, a lot of the tools were not really built with those individuals in mind. When you really start to think about and look at their needs, it brings about a new way of thinking. "