Editor Ross Hammond – Looking Forward: Gesture Control with Myo

Every now and then, a new product concept comes along that has the potential to do amazing things for both the sighted and visually impaired communities. In this instance, a new product was unveiled called Myo that could drastically enhance how everyone interacts with a number of devices or computers.

Gesture control isn’t a brand new technology by any means. Multiple video game systems use it to enhance how players interact with the games they’re playing and even cell phones can now look back at users with front facing cameras to detect their movements and perform certain functions. But all of these gesture control systems have gathered data by “looking” at people or objects using visual sensors, cameras, or both. Myo takes a completely different approach, and is why it has some real potential in the visually impaired community.

Eschewing the need for actions to be sensed visually, Myo works by detecting a person’s muscle movements in their arm. Depending on the type of movement, Myo can tell a computer or device to perform a certain function. For instance, when a user is wearing the Myo armband, they can snap their fingers to start playing music using a certain program on their computer. After starting the music, the user can then press all five of their fingertips together and rotate their hand clockwise to turn up the volume. Because certain hand movements trigger certain muscle groups in your forearm, Myo can detect the electrical impulses that control those muscles and turn that information into a function that is established by the user. Certain movements, like the snapping of fingers, always use very specific muscle groups, so any false inputs are avoided. Other movements that have been developed by the Myo engineers also ensure a very high degree of accuracy.

The reason why Myo is so promising is because you don’t have to see your computer or device in order to turn gestures into a function. If you learn the various hand or arm movements, then you can use Myo successfully to perform countless tasks on your phone or computer. The learning curve is small and is the same for everyone.

Myo is currently only available to developers and those who are interested in pre-ordering a unit. It will cost around $150 and will be available to the public by year-end.


Technology – How Electrical Charge Can Make the World Tactile

I’ve said in this magazine on numerous occasions that cheap, accessible technology for the blind will only be made available on a grand scale when companies are able to figure out a way that the sighted public can benefit from the same product or interface. It’s a matter of economics–the more people you have to sell your product to, the cheaper you can offer it in order to still make a profit. Up until now, there have been few devices, whether mass produced or in the concept phase, that have been able to successfully bridge that gap. But a team of Disney engineers may have just developed a technology capable of changing that.

On the surface, the new technology is sort of gimmicky. They talk about being able to pick up a coffee mug and it feeling hairy, or running your hand across a normally smooth surface that would instead feel like sandpaper. But what hasn’t been addressed in any great detail is specific tactile markers and symbols; or more importantly, Braille.

Disney engineers have been tooling around with this new touch interface in order to morph our perception of how certain objects feel. In order to accomplish this, they use a weak electric signal that is fed through the user’s body. When the user touches an object with a common electrical ground attached to a signal generator, the effect is perceived. This strange sensation is called reverse electro-vibration, dubbed REVEL.

The electrical signal is entirely imperceptible to the user (very similar to low-grade static electricity), and creates an electrostatic field around the user’s body. When touching an object attached to a REVEL signal generator, the faint electric field around the user’s body modulates the friction between the user’s finger and the object to alter how the user experiences the texture of that object. As of this writing, they have been able to create the illusion of virtual pebbles and individual grains of sand on a smooth surface. This technology, which only requires constant electrical signals be put through the user’s body, would not require any special gloves or devices, and could perhaps even be embedded into clothing.

While this technology is new, imagine if you could wear a watch that was able to pass that faint electrical signal through your body and would be able to connect wirelessly with a common tablet computer. With that connection, and a special app installed on the tablet, the surface of the tablet could become a dynamic Braille display, capable of filling the entire screen with multiple lines of Braille. If the tablet was an iPad, for example, VoiceOver would still be present to guide you through any other function on the device, but all of the apps on the screen could be given custom Braille tags. A Braille keyboard or typewriter would also be a very easy inclusion.

While the sighted community would be able to benefit from this technology in the form of augmented reality and amusement, this could be a huge equalizer for the visually impaired community and serve as the first real way to modernize how people read Braille at a significantly lower cost than currently available technology can offer.


Technology – Fleksy Paving the Way for Visually Impaired Touch Screen Typing

As costs have fallen recently, many of you have entered into the smart phone world by way of the iPhone and its wonderful VoiceOver software that comes standard with each device. While VoiceOver is an incredible piece of software that allows a visually impaired individual to interact with a non-tactile phone, there are still companies looking to accent the software and make the overall iPhone experience even easier for the visually impaired user.

Enter Fleksy, a new touch typing text input app designed with the visually impaired in mind. Fleksy works similar to other predictive text input apps in that it can guess what you’re typing as you type it out. For instance, if you were to start typing the word “house,” by the time you typed the letters “h” and “o,” the program would already be well on its way to finishing the word, allowing the user to type faster.

But Fleksy has taken this process a step further. Their algorithm not only predicts the word you’re going to type, but predicts it based on what letters are near the word you’re intending to type as well, making it an even “smarter” program choice for the visually impaired. In a product demo, they show someone typing the word “arrange” to be sent in a text message. The word appeared on the screen quickly, but the user typed the letters z w y s b h r. The program recognized that all the letters of the word “arrange” were within close enough proximity to the letters that were typed and so that’s the word that was displayed, rather than the jumbled text.

Now, while predictive text is not perfect, and certain words are typed close enough to each other on the keyboard that there may be mistakes, this is a very large leap forward in touch typing and it should enable anyone who knows the general layout of a classic QWERTY keyboard to type faster than they would normally be able to while using the iPhone. Fleksy will allow the user to send the text via text message, email, or copied for use in other apps.

The makers of Fleksy, Syntellia, have submitted the app for Apple’s approval and hope to launch it in the app store soon. They’re also hoping that Apple likes the keyboard option enough that they may consider building it into their VoiceOver system.

For those of you with iPhones, check the app store in the coming months for any updates. If you try it out, let us know your impressions in the Reader’s Forum.


News – Recent Apple Product Unveiling Has Potential Impact On Visually Impaired Community

On October 4, I watched a live blog as Apple introduced its newest iteration of the iPhone. While many were expecting a completely redesigned iPhone 5, what we’ve been given is an iPhone 4 on steroids–dubbed the iPhone 4S. The shape of the phone remains unchanged, but it is sporting some nice software upgrades. The most notable is something called Siri, which I’ll explain in more detail in a minute. While this new phone didn’t necessarily wow the tech world–who were waiting for some incredible new device–the impact of this most recent Apple Update Event could be large within the blind and visually impaired community.

First, with the newest iPhone 4S coming out next week, pricing has dropped drastically on the older models. While the new 4S will start at $200, the standard iPhone 4 will now be $100 with a two year contract. But the biggest news is that the iPhone 3G will now be free with a two year contract. While the 3G model isn’t the latest and greatest, it is still an amazing device that will continue to be supported by Apple. For any of you who have been on the fence about buying a smart phone, now might be the best time to do it. As multiple writers have said here in the past, while there is a learning curve involved, the voice-over software on the iPhone makes it the most accessible smart phone choice out there.

Now, onto the newest upgrade–Siri. Siri, as it was explained, is going to be your humble personal assistant. Available only on the newest iPhone 4S, Siri is able to listen to a host of voice commands and respond in turn. What is so remarkably different about Siri, though, is its ability to understand commands in normal speech. Instead of saying, “Call Dad’s Mobile,” you can say, “Can you give my Dad a call?” More than that, it can handle voice-to-text as well, so saying, “Text Bill and let him know that I’ll be a few minutes late” will result in a text message to Bill alerting him of your delay exactly how you spoke it. When creating a text message, Siri will compose it and read it back to you, giving you the opportunity to edit the message or simply say, “Send.”

Siri goes way beyond calls and text messages, though. If you ask, “How is the weather going to be today?” Siri will read you the forecast. You don’t even have to talk that official. You can simply say, “Will it be chilly out today?” and Siri will tell you something like, “No, not really. The high for today should be around 76 degrees.”

The potential for software like this is incredible, because it creates a communication bridge between you and your phone without the need to see or touch anything. In a way, it even makes voice-over moot. I’ve spoken before about how the future of technology for the blind will be drastically improved, and available at a much lower cost, when there is mutual use for both the blind and the sighted. Siri is a massive leap forward in that direction, and its implications, should it work properly, are huge.

Technology – A Super Glove That Can Be Built At Home

As technology advances, devices and hardware that would have been prohibitively expensive years ago can now be had at a fraction of the price. Not only that, but with a little know-how, some incredible things can be created in a home workshop that have the potential to really improve the independence of blind and visually impaired individuals.

Case in point, a new glove has just been developed called the Tacit. The glove– which is actually just something that you wrap around the back of your hand and loop over your middle finger–is equipped with four directional sonar sensors that scan the area in front of the user in a wide sweep. As the sonar sensors detect objects in front of the user, they send a signal through a controller to two small cushioned servo motors, which apply light tapping pressure to the back of the hand. As the objects get closer, the pressure increases, letting the user know the object’s proximity to them. The sensors are sensitive enough to detect the distance to objects from one inch to ten feet away. The device is powered by one 9-volt battery and is entirely self-contained within a custom made neoprene wrap.

What’s nice about this device is that is takes virtually no training to learn how to use it, and since it doesn’t impede any motion of the hand, the user’s sense of touch is still available and it can be used in conjunction with a cane.

What is even more impressive about this particular device, though, is that it is a Creative Commons licensed Do-it-Yourself project, meaning that if you know someone who is good with electronics, they could download the parts list, schematics, and necessary code off of the internet and build it for you.

This device is important for two reasons. It has shown us that incredibly useful mobility devices can be easily created using inexpensive existing technology. This device would be a perfect complement to current mobility training and would provide more information about the world surrounding its user–which is always a good thing. Moreover, it’s a design open to the masses. A company didn’t develop this for a profit and patent its design. The creator recognized that this device would improve both mobility and independence and wanted to make it available to anyone. In an environment where inventions are protected to an almost-militant degree, this is a breath of fresh air.

Technology – How Computing Could Heat Your Home

It’s a fact that we, as humans, create a ton of data–something which has been outlined in previous articles in this magazine. As our population grows and technology improves, our need for a larger data network will increase as well. As a result, companies are trying to figure out ways to improve and enlarge networks while simultaneously offering secondary services to consumers.

Enter Microsoft, and their idea to heat homes with cloud servers. Computing “in the cloud” is really the future of data storage and accessibility. But as more people begin using it, the need for more servers to handle the increasing stream of information is becoming apparent. As a way to both increase their number of available servers and help consumers, Microsoft believes that they can heat apartment and office buildings by using the radiant heat off of the servers themselves.
Their report stated, “Physically, a computer is a metal box that converts electricity into heat. The temperature of the exhaust air (usually around 40-50 degrees Celsius) is too low to regenerate electricity efficiently, but is perfect for heating purposes, including home/building space heating, clothes dryers, water heaters, and agriculture.”

This idea basically turns all of your usage of the internet into a way to heat your home–kind of like attaching your stationary bike to a generator, but without all of the exercise. The benefits are definitely abundant, though. Carbon footprints will be reduced as data usage increases, which will further reduce the amount of fossil fuels we use for heating purposes. Heating costs will be taken care of for many people in various applications from normal room heating to water heaters and dryers–which will save consumers a lot of money–and Microsoft will be able to expand its network and offer consumers more reliable service as well.

Instead of creating some massive underground server farm that sucks energy like a vacuum and wastes all of that heat, Microsoft’s idea offers a solution to the problem that will actually help people without requiring any change in behavior. On paper, it seems like a perfect symbiotic relationship between the corporate and public world.

I’m always cautiously optimistic with these kinds of things, so it will be interesting to see if its execution, should it occur, will stay true to their pure idea. These deals can either work incredibly well for all parties involved, or one or both parties can get greedy, demand more of the other than is reasonable, and the whole thing falls apart. This proposal really has some great potential, so I hope that of the two scenarios, the former plays out.

Technology – Bringing Real Touch to Touch Screens

Last week, Alena Roberts wrote an article about the financial inaccessibility of Braille technology. In my response to her, I said that as far as I can tell, the only real way that any sort of tactile technology could become truly affordable is if it can have a functional use in both the blind and sighted communities. With access to both markets, companies will be developing the product or products for a much larger pool of consumers, which will then reduce the cost. Unfortunately, at the time of that reply, that was as far as I could go, as I had no real solution or product idea. It seems now that there may have been a huge change.
Currently, there are a few crossover products or features that are used by both blind and sighted individuals. Off the top of my head, I can think of the vibration feature in cell phones (which was actually originally developed for the blind) and voice-to-text software, which has become very popular as a time-saver in lieu of typing. But now, researchers are developing touch screens that are capable of offering tactile feedback that is accurate enough to display real Braille lettering.
Apparently, this is not a new study. Research has been performed to create what’s called “programmable friction,” which yields more of a sticky sensation than anything crisp. But a new concept, called “tixtels,” or tactile pixels, is being experimented with to create a fine electrical field that can be felt by touch. The display, using something similar to static electricity, will allow the user’s skin to feel the touch interface. This could mean that buttons or icons will be felt, and possibly images as well.
This is exactly the type of technology that will be a game-changer for access to Braille, and education for the blind in general. With a display like this, that appeals to both the sighted and the blind, manufacturers will jump all over the opportunity to offer it in their newest devices. By using these displays, everything from Braille text to tactile pictures would be instantly available and at a cost many times lower than what is currently offered. Without all of the moving parts that come with the current displays, reliability will be increased and maintenance costs would be greatly reduced as well.
This is perhaps the most promising piece of crossover technology I’ve come across yet, and I really hope that some of the big guns in technology (I’m looking at you, Apple) decide to incorporate this into their future products.

News – Currency Identification App for the iPhone

Many of you are aware that the iPhone is one of the best mobile devices available to the visually impaired today.  Well, chalk another one up for the iPhone, because there is now an app which will identify US currency.

The application utilizes the camera in the iPhone to recognize all American currency–from the one dollar bill up to the hundred dollar bill.  Unfortunately, those of you with thousand dollar bills will just have to wait for an update.

Money, especially American money, can be tricky sometimes.  While everyone has their own way of recognizing the bills already in their possession, any new bills feel exactly the same.  That money in your hand could be a few ones, or a few twenties.  European countries have provided a solution to this problem by introducing different sized bills for each denomination.  These differences allow the blind and visually impaired to easily identify the bills in their hand without any outside help.  America just hasn’t implemented anything like this yet.

The app is especially smart as well, and can identify bills if they are folded, making it a fast-acting app for users on the go who don’t feel like waiting for a currency identifier to let them know what they’ve got.  You also don’t have to worry about getting the whole bill in the camera’s view, either, as the bills are visually different from one another.  The app is programmed to recognize the sometimes subtle differences between the bills and read off the money you have quickly and correctly.

For any of you who own and iPhone, you can find the app in the app store.  It’s called the LookTel Money Reader, and is on sale for $2.


Technology – Cloud Computing and What it May Mean for Accessibility

While the term “cloud computing” is relatively new in our vocabulary, it has been used for quite some time.  The majority, if not all of you, receiving this magazine via email are computing in the cloud.  What that means is that you can access your email everywhere because it is all stored in an online database instead of your computer’s hard drive.  Gmail, for example, allows its users to store thousands of emails on its servers so that you can check your email everywhere and on any computer or enabled mobile device.

Cloud computing has gained increasing popularity for other applications as of late due to its ability to make important data available at a moment’s notice, whether it involves that crucial presentation to the board or a television show you recorded but haven’t watched yet.  With wireless internet, 3 and 4G high speed services in certain mobile phones and devices, and increased connectivity across a variety of programs, cloud computing has finally found an environment where it can change the way we use computers in our everyday lives.

Another change will affect how computers are built, as well.  By utilizing cloud computing, hard drives with massive storage capacity will become obsolete.  If the majority of your data is stored off of your computer, there’s simply no need to have it anymore.  Devices like the iPad and the Kindle have already begun doing this by removing the need for a conventional hard drive and replacing them with smaller, less expensive flash memory chips.

But the real benefit of this new computing style lies in its ability to make computers universally accessible.  Currently, your computers all run an operating system like Windows or Mac’s OS X.  They require a hard drive to store all of the files that direct the countless processes the computer must complete in order to function.  But what if that bulky operating system was replaced with simple software which could run some necessary applications, but its main duty is to simply connect you to a more advanced system stored somewhere else–your computer in the cloud, so to speak.  Your “cloud computer,” as we’ll call it for the purposes of this article, could be available anywhere, on any device capable of accessing it.  All accessible software, like your screen reader, would be available everywhere as well because it would be tied to your “cloud computer.”  You would no longer need to rely on a home base to access your data.  By incorporating a thumb drive, you could easily hook it into any computer, cue up an accessible login, and access your entire computer, with all of its adaptive software, from anywhere in the world.  Incorporate a smart phone or mobile device and you will quickly find that the computing world is without any doors or barriers.

Technology – Non-Profit to Buy Satellite and Provide Free Internet

A non-profit organization called A Human Right is attempting to buy one of the world’s largest communications satellites from Terre Star, its bankrupt owner.  The purpose of this purchase is to provide free internet access to the poorest regions of the world.

The school bus-sized satellite could easily be moved above places like Papua New Guinea, where less than three percent of its population has internet access.  They believe that internet access, like clean water and shelter, has now become a necessity–a way for developing countries to help themselves.

Currently, the group is asking for one hundred and fifty thousand dollars to put in a decent bid on the satellite.  While this money will only get their foot in the door, it will open them up to numerous potential investors who would be able to invest capital into this philanthropic business venture.  The company also plans on developing and distributing inexpensive satellite modems so that users can hook themselves into the network on the ground.

There will be miles of red tape to slice through, a great deal of planning, and probably a lot of luck to make this all work out.  Satellites don’t come cheap and other communications companies looking to expand their networks are probably clawing for the opportunity to add one of the best pieces of equipment floating above Earth to their fleet.

Still, with all of those obstacles in the way, this group has a chance to offer something for free that many of us take for granted every day.  If they’re successful, education, healthcare management, political involvement, and economic growth are all distinct possibilities for countries that could use improvements in every one of those categories.  The internet is one of the most important tools for success in any endeavor, and while it may not be an inalienable right, it is certainly crucial for development in today’s increasingly complex technological world.