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The Movers and Shakers

For your reading convenients below you will find all the Movers and Shakers published in 2019

January 2019

Welcome to 2019! To begin this New Year, I conducted a Q&A with Avinash Kothuri, the head of sales for Thinkerbell Labs. Please read below to learn about Thinkerbell Labs and the device they have created.

What is Thinkerbell Labs?
Thinkerbell Labs is an ed-tech startup based out of Bangalore, India, and London, UK working towards Inclusive education. We are trying to solve the problem of low braille literacy rates among the visually impaired. Our brainchild, Annie, is the world’s first braille literacy device for the visually impaired. Annie can help a person with vision loss in learning to read, write and type in Braille, on their own.

How and why was Annie created?
One of our four co-founders studied at a school close to a school for the blind where he would often volunteer through his schooling years. He was moved by the massive difference in learning pedagogy in his school and the school for the blind. Thinkerbell Labs was established to make a significant social impact by building a new braille learning ecosystem for the visually impaired.
Thinkerbell Labs started as a college side project dubbed as Project Mudra. We used a Raspberry Pi to build an alphabet song teacher for the visually impaired as the first prototype of a larger mission that we had envisioned. The audio guided alphabet song teacher had a refreshable braille display (RBD) tactile interface for the kids to learn letters in braille. When the project was taken for field trials to a blind school in Goa, we were amazed to see the enthusiasm with which the students engaged with it. After a series of iterations and field trials, we developed Annie, the world’s first braille literacy device for the visually impaired.
Annie’s first prototype was developed and tested in September 2014. We completed Annie’s hardware development for India, UK, and the US in February 2018. Annie was launched at the VIEW conference in Birmingham, UK, in March 2018.
The major highlight for us in the year 2018 was our first deployment - India’s first braille smart class in Ranchi, Jharkhand. This project was launched in partnership with the Government of Jharkhand.

Why is it called Annie?
Annie is named after Anne Sullivan; Helen Keller’s instructor and lifelong companion.

Exactly what does Annie do?
Annie is the world’s first braille literacy device that helps a visually impaired person learn to read, write, and type in Braille, on their own. Annie guides users through audio-tactile lessons and helps them complete courses covering grade 1 and grade 2 Braille. The coursework is interactive and gamified to keep the student engaged through their lessons and making learning fun. Annie’s lessons also provide instant feedback addressing the pain-point of delayed feedback cycles encountered when traditional braille teaching methods are used. The connected nature of the device ensures that multiple students can compete against each other in Braille games and challenges, making it a collaborative, community-driven experience. Annie is accompanied by a companion app to schedule tests and homework, experience new content and download it on the device. The teachers/parents also have a dashboard that lets them track the performance and usage of the student.

How can one purchase Annie?
To buy an Annie, email me at Sales@ThinkerbellLabs.com
You could also contact us at +91 956-190-5809 or +44 20 81237766.

Is it just for kids?
We are currently targeting students from grades 1 through 5. This is the age group where a child learns Braille most effectively. However, Annie can be used by any age group to learn braille. As the product and the content ecosystems evolve, it would enable users of all ages to pick up Braille related skills that aid in higher education and employment.

What is the feedback you are receiving from this device?
Annie has been developed through a cycle of consultations and feedback received from industry experts over the last few years. A few institutions we have worked with include Royal National Institute of Blind People and New College Worcester in the UK, and LV Prasad Eye Institute, National Association for the Blind, National Institute for the Visually handicapped and SRMAB in India. The positive feedback received from these institutions has been very encouraging to us.
We successfully launched India’s first Braille smart class at a Government school for the Blind in Ranchi, Jharkhand, in association with the state government there. 20 Annie devices were set up to teach braille to 24 visually impaired students in the school aged between 6-18 years. All 24 students had an overwhelming response to Annie right after their first use. Their inquisitive minds have been kept engaged through the interactive gamified content resulting in learning braille at a faster pace. Teachers have been able to supervise multiple students at the same time and track their progress. Annie was received with great enthusiasm by the teachers as they could now monitor 24 students at the same time.
As of today, Annie has been used for over 550 hours by them, with the average session time being 35 minutes. Students have logged over 1200+ sessions on Annie so far, with the longest session lasting for more than 3 hours.

Do you have any plans to upgrade/ alter the device, or create something new?
Our goal is to make Annie a one-stop solution for Braille literacy and digital skill development among the visually impaired. We are working towards creating interactive content for all age groups, right from Grade 1 braille to learning requirements for higher grade students. We are also in the process of creating versatile content that could be accessed on other refreshable braille readers. We are working on progressing from early education to employability.

What is your contact information?
Our Website: ThinkerbellLabs.com

Email: ContactUs@ThinkerbellLabs.com , sales@thinkerbelllabs.com

Phone: +91 956-190-5809 or +91 953-890-4328.
Facebook: Thinkerbell Labs.
Twitter: @thinkerbelllabs.
Instagram: thinkerbell_labs.

February 2019

Soundscape
I recently conducted a fascinating interview with Amos Miller, who currently works for Microsoft Research, as a product strategist, in the group called the Enable Team. This team has been around for nearly three years and is All about creating new innovations for those with disabilities. They are a group that come together to bring ideas to prototypes, and then to products to positively impact the lives of people with disabilities.

Although Amos is blind himself, it had nothing to do with his position at Microsoft. He began his career with Microsoft twelve years ago as a strategic advisor to major Microsoft customers, such as banks, healthcare & educational organizations, and the public sector. He performed this work in the UK for seven years then moved to Singapore to do the same with Asian customers.

While working as a consultant in the UK he also volunteered for the guide dog organization there. One of the topics the organization wanted to explore was; How could technology impact the world of mobility. More specifically, how could technology enhance mobility and independence for blind and visually impaired individuals. Amos thought that while working for Microsoft, he could probably get some people together to further investigate their question, and that is how things initially got started.

A collaboration was formed between Microsoft designers, architects and technology developers, mobility instructors, and both cane and guide dog users. The Microsoft team observed mobility instructors as they did their work and watched how they trained visually impaired people during their mobility journey.

They noted that the instructors teach the “mobility skills”, but a lot of it is what cues one gets from their environment. Furthermore, it is these cues that enable individuals to orientate themselves in order to locate their destinations. One step led to the next, and the developers created the Microsoft Soundscape application. The app was built on the notion to help blind and visually impaired individuals build a richer awareness of one’s surroundings using audio in 3D space technology.

The Microsoft Soundscape application was first launched in March 2018. It is available at no cost on iPhones 5 and later. Currently it is available in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. They are working on adding more countries.

In order to hear the 3D audio, you need to use a stereo headset. Cues will be announced in one of four directions; left front or back, or right front or back. Where you hear the audio is where the particular landmark is located. One of the great qualities of this 3D audio is that you “don’t have to listen for it”. The audio sounds as though it is coming from further away, rather than right in your ear. This 3D space technology is wonderful since it allows the user to still hear environmental noises and engage in conversations, while audio cues are given! It is also important to note that the app is to be used to enhance your mobility experience, not to act as a GPS or replace your mobility skills or primary aids such as a cane or a guide dog.

The Soundscape App:
Orientation:
If a user isn’t sure where they are or which way to travel, they can hold the phone flat in their hand with the top edge facing the direction they want to go and then use the buttons at the bottom of the screen to locate nearby landmarks and navigate.

on the Bottom:
There are four buttons at the bottom of the screen. With all of these buttons, be sure to hold the phone with the top of it pointing in the direction you are facing before you press the button. Otherwise when you are walking, you can leave your phone in your pocket or bag and Soundscape will provide you with call-outs.

My Location:
Gives you information that helps you figure out where you currently are. Such information may include the direction you are facing, nearby roads or intersections, and points of interest.

Around Me:
This button tells you about one thing in each of the four quadrants around you (to the left, right, ahead, and behind). This button is useful to orientate yourself to your surroundings.

Ahead of Me:
Like the name suggest, this button tells you about things ahead of you, on both the left and right. This button is helpful to explore what is coming up ahead, or what may be down a side street or intersection, especially useful when in a new area.

Nearby Markers:
This button tells you about up to four markers that are closest to you. Nearby Markers assist you in orientating yourself to using places you already know about, and have marked.

Markers:
Markers are places that you can saved. They could be places that are discoverable within the app, or they can be places you can add yourself. You can use the “mark current location” button, which is located on the home screen to add a new marker.

Automatic Call Outs:
As you approach things around you, Soundscape can call out their names from the direction in which they are located in. The app will automatically do this for such things as businesses, bus stops, and intersections. You can configure what the app automatically calls out on the “Manage Callouts” screen, and you can turn all callouts off when you want the app to be silent.

Sound Beacons:
Setting a beacon on a nearby destination allows Soundscape to keep you informed of its location by playing an audible beacon sound coming from the direction of that destination. From the home screen, you can choose to either mute or unmute the beacon. Setting a beacon is useful when you want to keep track of a familiar landmark as you explore a new area or when you are going somewhere and want to be informed about your surroundings along the way. The beacon feature does not give you turn-by-turn directions, but it does give you an audible beacon that tells you the direction to your destination, relative to where you are currently located. Using the beacon, your existing wayfinding skills, and even your favorite navigation app, you can choose how you want to get to your destination yourself.

These previously mention app features are just a glimpse of what Soundscape has to offer the user while out and about. I have downloaded the app and tried it out in my neighborhood, and it is really cool! I even marked a location, and set a beacon!

Feedback:
Microsoft encourages users to report pros and cons about the Soundscape app. Thus far, the feedback has been quite positive. They have received overwhelming feedback from college students using the app to help with navigating their campus.

First Time:
Amos recommends first time users try the app in a familiar environment to get acquainted with it. Start by figuring out what you hear, what does it mean, and start making sense of the directionality of the sounds. Place a beacon on somewhere you know the route to, and see how that plays out.

Contact Information:
To get access to Microsoft Soundscape check out their website at MicrosoftSoundscape
A simple and fun map app from the Enable team in Microsoft, particularly useful for people who are blind or low vision.

March 2019

Smart Paint

Recently I had a fascinating interview with John Lannutti, Professor of Materials Science Engineering at Ohio State University (OSU). He is using smart technologies to help blind and visually impaired people better navigate the world around them. Mr. Lannutti’s OSU team has been working on this project with industrial, city, and educational partners. They have developed a “Smart Paint” application which can help the blind community navigate cities.

John has been working with Josh Collins from Intelligent Material Solutions, located in New Jersey. They manufacture and supply oxides that are nanoscale particles having a lot of interesting material applications. They have been working together to create a biomedical application using this relatively new technology. These unique light-converting nanoparticle oxides are what makes the paint "smart." Joe Winters from Crown Technology is responsible for adding the oxides to the paint.

John stated that the goal of Smart Paint is to assist people who are blind and visually impaired by implementing a “smart paint” technology that provides accurate guidance and location services. Existing GPS solutions are not able to tell whether somebody is walking on the sidewalk or down the middle of the street. Furthermore, intersections are becoming more complex. This can be quite challenging for a blind person, as they need to find the crosswalk, align to cross and maintain a consistent crossing direction while in motion. In addition, current mapping technologies are unable to detect the exact location of a building’s entrance.

John then took the Smart Paint idea a few miles north to the Ohio State School for the Blind. He spoke with various orientation and mobility instructors there and they were extremely interested and supportive.

Working with the School and the city of Columbus, 15 crosswalks on the school’s campus were replaced with Smart Paint. Initial testing showed that the combination of a smart cane and the smart paint worked as planned but that sunlight could cause problems for the smart cane. The group has been working to develop and test sunlight insensitive smart canes that would eliminate this problem.

The Smart Paint:
The Smart Paint doesn’t look any different than the current crosswalk paint, and it can be applied in the same manner. The cost of Smart Paint is only 20 percent more than the standard road paint, quite affordable.

The Smart Cane:
The individual uses a modified white cane to detect the Smart Paint, which enables portal to portal guidance. Initially the cane emitted beeps and vibrated. However, after feedback from faculty and students from the Ohio State School for the Blind, it was determined that only the vibration was needed, and the change was implemented in the latest version of the cane.

Navigation:
The Smart Paint is located on the two long vertical stripes of the crosswalk. As the blind individual walks across the street, sweeping the smart cane from side to side, the Smart Paint is detected with vibrations generated within the handle of the cane. Therefore, by encountering the left and right sides of the crosswalk, the user stays within the boundaries of the crosswalk.

Columbus Ohio is designated as a US government Department of Transportation Smart City, where they focus on the future of technology in cities. They are looking ahead to features that will be needed for autonomous cars, and even before then implementing them on non-autonomous vehicles. Smart paint is one of many technologies that will rely on the Smart City infrastructure currently being installed in Columbus.

Work in Progress:
Obstacles: They are working on implementing a sonar device with the smart cane. This would detect the presence of something in front of you.
Stoplight: With the addition of a blue tooth chip in the cane, it can communicate with the stoplight, therefore, giving the user control of the stoplight.
Pedestrian: The cane could communicate with the post at the edge of the curb to alert the entire city network that there is a pedestrian who needs to be accommodated, for both autonomous and non-autonomous vehicles.
Location Determination: The cane detects a stripe of Smart Paint at a specific location on the sidewalk, and conveys it to you via voice and/ or vibrations.
Entrance Locations: The cane could detect a stripe of Smart Paint coming out from a door entrance, then communicate the address and name of the business via voice.

Contact Information:

John Lannutti
Lannutti.1@OSU.edu
614-292-3926

Josh Collins
Josh@IntelligentMaterial.com
267-974-5102

April 2019

A short time ago, I had a very enlightening phone conversation with Lance Mathena. Read on to learn about Lance and the organization he created.

Lance lives in Lakebay, Washington with his wife of 25 years. He has four children and 8 grandchildren. Before losing his sight, he was a database administrator at Madigan Army Hospital. He also had been a continuous college student most of his life.

While at a night class at Pierce College, Lance had to sneeze. To avoid sneezing on two other students in his group, he turned his head to the right and sneezed. The next thing Lance remembered was being on a gurney and a paramedic telling someone to notify his next of kin. Lance had ruptured four discs in his neck with that sneeze!

He had emergency surgery to fuse his neck. However, they only did half the job. They had left one of the nerves pinched in his neck. About ten months afterwards Lance was reaching under his desk to pick up a pen, and he heard a pop in his neck. Lance said the pain level jumped up to about 1000 percent.

Lance found another surgeon who said he could perform the surgery, adding that it was a fairly routine procedure. Lance had the surgery in August 2014, in the town of Federal Way, but when he woke up six days later, he was in Tacoma. The surgeon had an accident during the surgery and severed one of the arteries in Lance’s neck. When the doctor had packed off the wound, he had created a blood clot that lodged in the back of Lance’s brain, which killed most of the area where the optic nerve connects. As a result, Lance has about 3 to5 percent of his vision. The remaining vision is in the lower right corner of each eye, and it’s peripheral. Long story short, it took 2 ˝ years to settle the case out of court.

After all of this, Lance went to the V A blind rehab program at American Light. The optometrist said to lance that she wanted to work with him in using what limited vision he had left. So, after a few sessions with her, he was able to independently use the bottom right corners of his eyes. It was, and at times still is, difficult to be unable to focus his eyes, having to force his muscles not to move.

Lance was collecting his disability and social security benefit, but wanted and needed more than just sitting on the couch watching television. He went to a sportsman show and purchased a deer hunt from a Washington state outfitter, not knowing if he could even do it. He went out and practiced, and realized that the vision in the bottom right corners of his eyes lined up perfectly with the rifle scope. So once someone pointed out where to shoot, he could do it.

In October of 2017 Lance went on the hunt. The first thing he had to do, amongst sighted individuals, was to shoot at a target from 100 yards. This was to show the outfitter that everyone understood where they were shooting. Needless to say, Lance was sweating. Lance pulled the trigger and boom, dead bullseye. Lance said that that particular moment was a turning point in his life, because he could do it!

The next morning, they went out to hunt for deer. It took Lance four shots, but he got one, the very first day. Lance was on cloud nine for the next three days; reminiscing, joyful, not a care in the world, and being someplace that he is normally not at.

He came home from the trip a changed man. He realized that he could still have the opportunity to go out and experience some of the freedom he used to own. He then spent about six months looking for a job, even suggesting to work for nothing. Unfortunately, no one would hire him, not even the local food pantry. This was a depressing time for lance, so, to lift his spirits, he went on another hunt. In October 2018 Lance went through the process again, and came through it just fine. He got a deer on the first day, this one from 300 yards and in one shot.

With another three days to relax in the woods, Lance had been talking with Bill, a fellow hunter, and guide. He mentioned to Lance about this person who runs a nonprofit company called Home with Heroes. This company takes veterans out deer hunting. Lance thought that that was a great business, but not something he could do. Bill also added that that business was the gentleman’s way of sharing with the world, his ministry This was stuck in Lance’s head, even after he had home.

With this thought stuck in his head for a few weeks, Lance thought he had to do something. All of a sudden, the North American Association of Blind Sportsmen came into existence in his head. He realized that he would not be able to take people out and guide them. However, he could educate blind people, match them with appropriate hunts and fisheries, pair them up with the appropriate guides, and provide transportation, including air fare, lodging, meals, tags, licenses, gear, whatever was needed. Lance also wanted to be able to encourage the individuals along the way to get out and do something that they might never do on their own. In addition, help them to build some confidence in themselves and their abilities. The North American Association of Blind Sportsmen (NAABS) was founded on November 13, 2018.

Lance is the face of the organization, on the front end raising funds, meeting and speaking to outfitters, explaining and conveying the need for the services of the organization. On the back end Lance works with a volunteer force, and eventually an employee force to facilitate the meat and potatoes of getting these individuals out and doing their thing.

The best part of all of this for Lance is while he can influence the outcome, the outcomes are never about him. They are about the individual out there in the field, doing it, and making it happen!

The NAABS is a 501 c 3 nonprofit organization run by the blind, for the benefit of the blind. They fund hunting and fishing adventures for blind and vision impaired individuals through membership fees, donations, sponsorships, and grants. Their mission is to extend encouragement and empowerment to their members through successful participation in outdoor adventures they might never dare on their own.

NAABS pays for most of the expenses on these adventures. There may be small expenses that the member will need to pay, but not many, and not much.

Their sincere hope is that members who go on adventures with them will take away memories that will last a lifetime. They hope that the success they achieve with them will motivate them to change their lives. They hope that they will go out and change their world in a positive way, leaving average, and minimal survival behind forever.

Their website was just recently launched. You can go to the website, click on join, and pay the 25 dollar membership fee. At that point you will be issued a unique ID number, and will be asked to check your email for a notice regarding registration. When you go back to the site, you will go to the members area, and complete registration. Things like address, location, medical needs, food needs, medical issues, estimates of physical fitness, etc. You will be assigned a member rating based on your answers to the questions, and possibly a phone call if the answers are not clear enough. You will be allowed to apply for any and all adventures that coincide with your rating, or lower. We rate the difficulty of our adventures on a scale of 1-3. Same scale for members.

Contact Information:
Lance Mathena, President
The North American Association of Blind Sportsmen, on Facebook
Email: lance@NAABS.org
Website: NAABS.org
Phone: 253-432-6369
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