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CSUN Conference Spotlights Assistive Technologies

March 27, 2018

Lex Gillette, the long jump world record holder for para athletes, stopped in the lobby of Manchester Grand Hyatt last week and asked Erin for a list of nearby restaurants.

She read off choices and then helped guide Gillette to a bistro – even though Erin was miles away from the downtown San Diego hotel.

Erin is an agent for Aira (pronounced eye-ra,) a local start-up exhibiting at the 33rd annual Cal State University Northridge (CSUN) Assistive Technology Conference here last week.

Gillette, 33, lost his sight when he was 8. He wore Aira smartglasses with an embedded camera so Erin could view his surroundings. They communicated through Aira’s smartphone app.

The service is a bit like GM’s On-Star for the visually impaired. Agents view not only what the smartglasses camera sees but also have access to the user’s profile, location, Google Maps for directions and Yelp reviews for nearby businesses.

The goal is to help when needed with everything from shopping to navigating new places, giving visually impaired people greater independence and confidence.

“It works,” said Gillette, whose world-record long-jump measured 22 feet, 1 inch. “There are a number of times where I have caught Ubers to the airport and Uber will drop me off in an unfamiliar area. I have called Aira to say I am not really sure where I am. I need to get to the United check-in counter to get to my flight.”

Aira joined 115 other exhibitors showing off the latest assistive technologies at the four-day CSUN conference, which drew an estimated 4,500 attendees.

Companies ranged from Freedom Scientific, a well-known provider of screen reading software, to Sony, which highlighted specialized keyboards and accessibility features in its PlayStation game consoles.

For the past eight years, the CSUN conference has been held in downtown San Diego. But this was the last time. The event will relocate to Anaheim next year.

The conference features a broad range of assistive technologies, said Sandy Plotin, managing director for the Center on Disabilities at CSU Northridge.

“We don’t ever have a theme,” she said. “We address all areas of accessibility and inclusion.”
Microsoft's Seeing AI app can identify currency, text, color, saved faces, as well as read bar codes, for the visually impaired. (Microsoft)

Web accessibility is a perennial hot topic at the conference, she said. So is the concept of universal design -- where existing technologies are built so that they’re usable for everyone, whether they have disabilities or not. The idea is to reduce the need specialized equipment or software, which can be expensive.

Microsoft has developed a free iPhone app to help the visually impaired called Seeing AI. It taps smartphone cameras to scan bar codes and read product information to users while shopping.

The app was conceived during a hack-a-thon and became a research project within Microsoft, launching commercially last year. Today, it not only reads bar codes but also identifies U.S. currency, short text, documents, handwriting and color, which is useful for matching clothes.

In addition, Seeing AI can be taught to recognize a particular person and announce when they come into view. Users who take photos of a person get a description of their facial characteristics and expressions.

The app also will sound an alert at light in a room, so users know if lights need to be switched off without having to touch hot bulbs.

Other products do some of the same things, said a Microsoft spokeswoman. But having all these functions combined into one app adds convenience at no charge.

Today, about 63 million people with disabilities live in North America, and they control $200 billion in spending, said Simon Dermer, managing director of eSSENTIAL Accessibility, a Toronto-based website/mobile accessibility software maker for people using voice activated keyboards, head tracking cursor controls and similar technologies.

“The legacy issue around disabilities is it is dealt with in a regulatory manner – that it is something for the compliance department to deal with,” said Dermer. “But there is a massive market opportunity. It is a very important market to pay attention to.”

Dermer’s company partners with firms including Merck, Macy’s, Petco and MasterCard to help tailor their websites with accessibility features. There is a cost, but Dermer argues that it’s worth it to build customer loyalty in a large market.

At the CSUN conference, Liftware displayed utensils with leveling sensors and motors to reduce spills for people with tremors. (Mike Freeman)

At the Google booth at the CSUN conference, Liftware displayed two utensils with built-in sensors and leveling motors. They add stability for users with hand tremors or limited arm mobility due to conditions such as Parkinson’s, cerebral palsy, spinal cord injury or stroke.

Liftware Steady reduces food spills by 70 percent, according to the company. Liftware Level keeps the utensil steady regardless of how the users’ hand or arm twists. The products cost $195 each. Liftware is part of Verily – Alphabet’s life sciences research arm.

Founded three years ago, Aira – an acronym for Artificial Intelligence Remote Access – received $12 million in venture funding last year and now has 38 full-time workers. About 2,500 blind or near-blind people are using the service – with monthly plans running from $90 to $330 depending on number of minutes. Smartglasses are included.

Aira is working to create Aira Networks, where college campuses, airports, hotels, restaurants and other venues become Aira hot-spots -- providing the service to their visually impaired customers/students.

Gillette, a North Carolina native, uses Aira's smartglasses to navigate in downtown San Diego last week. (Mike Freeman)

Gillette, a four-time Paralympic medalist who trains at the Chula Vista Olympic Training Center, thinks that’s a good idea.

“I am pretty independent, so there are times when I don’t have someone who is readily accessible to tell me what the Wi-Fi password is in this hotel room, or tell me what the schedule of events is for this conference that I am attending,” he said. “So to be able to have that at your disposal is really cool and helpful, and in a lot of ways increase that independence.”

Source: The San Diego Union Tribune