UMaine assistive technology spinout UNAR Labs receives grant

From the University of Maine News

UNAR Labs receives $300,000 NIH Small Business Innovation Research award

UNAR Labs devices and mediaORONO, MAINE, August 12, 2020 – UNAR Labs, a University of Maine spinout company that develops assistive technology for blind and visually impaired (BVI) users, has been awarded $300,000 under the National Institute of Health’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I program to further prove its concept. With the award, the company plans to prototype an information access system that would help educational institutions develop accessible learning materials more efficiently.

The company’s mission is to make the visual graphic information that has become such a big part of modern daily life more accessible to BVI users on the digital devices they already have, including smartphones and tablets.

“More than 60 to 70 percent of digital content is completely inaccessible to visually impaired users — think of maps, images, photos, Facebook, Twitter,” says Hari Palani, co-founder and CEO of UNAR Labs. “We want to provide a bridge and enable BVI users with access to all this information.”

UNAR Labs’ core technology is a software platform called Midlina that translates visual graphical information into an accessible multisensory graphic that BVI users can touch, feel and hear using the haptic, vibration and audio features built in to digital smart devices (phones/tablets).

The SBIR award will allow Portland-based UNAR Labs to focus on improving the process to translate textbooks and other educational materials – including the graphical components — into a multisensory format that makes them fully accessible for BVI students. Using existing methods, this process can take two weeks to two months (depending on the complexity of the material), involves significant manual labor, and can cost many thousands of dollars, according to Palani. The company is developing a software system that aims to cut this time down to hours and reduce the manual labor that makes it so expensive.

“Translating visual information into equivalent non-visual information is not a trivial task, so we have a long research agenda to achieve this technical feat,” says Palani, who came to UMaine in 2011 to conduct graduate research on accessible technology with professor of spatial informatics Nicholas Giudice, co-founder of UNAR Labs.

The two began to explore commercialization of their research after connecting with the team at UMaine’s Foster Center for Innovation in 2017. Their path to commercialization has been deliberate. In 2017, UNAR Labs became the first team from Maine to be invited to participate in the National I-Corps program. After completing I-Corps, where Palani and Giudice conducted extensive customer discovery research, they joined the MIRTA accelerator at UMaine in 2019, built a prototype, and began to prove the feasibility of their technology. A $225,000 National Science Foundation Phase I SBIR award in 2019 helped fund this work, along with a $100,000 commercialization support grant from the Maine Technology Institute. UNAR Labs is participating in the 2020 Top Gun program, a statewide accelerator that targets startups with high growth potential.

Giudice, who is visually impaired, believes that UNAR Labs has a distinct edge in advancing this technology.

“Lots of companies are interested in this type of technology, and for good reasons, but they’re often coming at it from a technical standpoint and not thinking about it from the human side — the perceptual, cognitive aspects of it,” says Giudice. “We’re working in a field that we both have had a lot of experience in, personal and professional. This company is built out of a lot of Hari’s dissertation work and my experience as a blind scientist who has dealt with trying to find solutions to this for the last 20 years and understands what works, what doesn’t and the real challenges.”

That’s a key reason why UNAR Labs is building solutions for use in commercially available hardware (e.g., smartphones). A dedicated device with a braille display to show graphics can cost upwards of $15,000, Giudice says. For institutions, the process of producing accessible versions of textbooks involving graphic information is in the range of $20,000 to $30,000 and involves a complex, multi-step production process that requires an experienced transcriber to convert the materials to a tactile format and a second person to check that they are accurate before printing on a tactile embosser. UNAR Labs’ software would automate this process and eliminate those manual steps, setting it up so that educational institutions (or commercial production facilities) could quickly and easily prepare accessible material from standard visual materials for printing and delivery.

The company’s long-term goal is to create a suite of products that will meaningfully improve information accessibility for the BVI community across platforms and devices.

“We have met all our planned milestones thus far and are well on our trajectory toward creating a truly inclusive and accessible digital world,” Palani says.

UNAR Labs is in the process of hiring its first full-time employee, and Palani says they hope to add four more positions before the end of 2020. In addition, the company has contracted with UMaine’s Virtual Environment and Multimodal Interaction (VEMI) Lab — known for innovative research to support nonvisual information access — to help conduct some of the human usability studies with the products being developed as part of their new NIH project.

Contact: Ashley Forbes, ashley.forbes@maine.edu

Photo credit: Image from University of Maine News

Q&A about captioning from NDC

Closed Caption feed on TV screenThe National Deaf Center on Post Secondary Outcomes (NDC) has recently been publishing a number of valuable resources regarding accessibility accommodations for people with deafness or hearing impairments. The latest comes in the form of a Q&A (questions and answers) with section that was particularly helpful. We picked this one to share, but please view the full resource and consider signing up for their newsletter.

Read the entire NDC Q&A resource

Captions – automatic, closed captions, real-time, transcription: What do these all mean?

Automatic captions – Also referred to as speech-recognition, automated captioning, or auto-captions, are generated by a computer with Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) technology. These captions tend to lack punctuation, speaker identification, and require a human to fix mistakes.

Many platforms include this feature, such as:

  • Video streaming platforms (i.e. YouTube automated captions or Microsoft PowerPoint Translator)
  • Apps (i.e., Translate or Otter.ai)
  • Learning Management Systems (i.e., Blackboard, Canvas)
  • Live video streaming services (i.e., Zoom, Google Meet)

Captions – Also referred to as open/closed captions or subtitles. These are captions for pre-recorded video content that are time-synced and embedded into the media. Accurate and edited captions provide equivalent access. Captions also provide auditory information that ASR technology may not be able to identify.

Real-time captioning – Also referred to as live captioning or speech-to-text services.  This service is provided by a qualified speech-to-text professional.  Examples: Live captioning for news broadcasts or by a third-party vendor streamed into Blackboard for a synchronous online class.

Transcribe/Transcription – Also referred to as a transcript. This process involves converting audio into a plain text document. Transcripts are commonly used for stand-alone audio, such as podcasts or presentations without video. They are also used as the first step towards creating captions for media. Transcripts can be auto-generated using ASR or by speech-to-text professionals.

 

Relay Conference Captioning

The following information is provided by Debra Bare-Rogers, Advocate, from the Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS).

Attending virtual event, is a great opportunity to connect. For attendees with hearing loss, this can bring challenges. Free resources are available to make online meeting participation more accessible. In Maine, deaf and hard of hearing individuals can use Relay Conference Captioning.

What is Relay Conference Captioning?

RCC (also called Sprint Teleconference Captioning) offers live and high quality captioning for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing individuals to participate in meetings (in-person or remote), phone calls, videoconferences and multi-party teleconference calls. There is no cost to use this service.

Please use this link to see a demonstration of how RCC works

How to use RCC

Schedule an RCC event at least 12 hours before the meeting time.

  1. Use this link to go to the Maine Relay Conference Captioning Event Request form. Complete the form and submit the form.
  2. You will receive an email from Relay Conference Captioning confirming your request along with a link to the captioning.
  3. At the start time of the event, (using a computer, laptop or smartphone) login by clicking on the link provided in the confirmation email. Captioning will appear in real time during the call.
  4. NOTE: During the event, if you have a question or comment you can use the text box in the bottom right corner and the captioner will speak into the call on your behalf.

If you have additional questions about RCC and other relay resources available in Maine. Debra is available via Zoom to provide 1:1 virtual appointments, staff presentations and webinars. Contact her to schedule a meeting.

Debra Bare-Rogers
drogers@drme.org 

Disability Rights Maine
1 Mackworth Island, Bldg. C
Falmouth, Maine 04105

Phone: 207-797-7656 x 113 (V/TTY)
Toll Free: 800-639-3884 (V/TTY)
Fax: 207-797-9791

TRS includes Maine Relay Services, captioned telephone services (CapTel or CTS), and 711.

Groups Call on the FCC to Improve Quality of Live Captions

Deaf and Hard of Hearing Consumer Groups and Researchers Call on the FCC to Improve the Quality of Live Captions

Closed Captioning logoOn July 31, ten national organizations, including the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), and the Association of Late-Deafened Adults (ALDA), petitioned the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to address long-standing quality problems with captioning for live television programming. The petition was supported by the American Association of the DeafBlind (AADB).

As the petition explains, consumers routinely report serious problems with the accuracy, timing, completeness, and placement of captions on live programming, including local news, sports, and weather. The petition asks the FCC to build on its existing standards for the quality of captions by setting metrics for acceptable quality of live captions. The petition also urges the FCC to provide guidance for new captioning systems that use automatic speech recognition, which have the potential to provide captions with improved timing and lower cost but also routinely cause significant accuracy problems. Consumer groups and researchers also will be submitting additional feedback to the FCC, including an analysis of hundreds of consumer responses gathered by HLAA in a recent survey.

The FCC has asked for comments from the public about the petition. If you’ve had experiences with captions for live TV programming that you’re willing to share with the FCC, you can do so online.

Submit your comments to the FCC by September 13

Use this link to read the petition

Use this link to enter your comments online and remember to enter 05-231 in the “Proceeding(s)” field to make sure that your comment is added to the record.

 

Accessible Media and Services for Students

Blind person walking in mall with guide dogThe Described and Captioned Media Program (DCMP) is a leading national source for accessible educational content, providing services for students who are blind, visually impaired, deaf, hard of hearing, or deaf-blind. Families and school personnel with early learners through Grade 12 students can register for free access to over 6,000 Educational Media titles on-demand and on DVD. DCMP’s Learning Center contains a wealth of information related to education, accessibility, deafness, blindness, and other related topics. DCMP provides Media Accessibility Guidelines through our Captioning Key and Description Key, used by media professionals as well as amateurs around the world.

The Described and Captioned Media Program provides premium media designed for students with disabilities and leads as a resource for families and teachers, supported by the federal Department of Education.

A recent additions to their website, Is Your Student Ready for What Comes Next? provides a set of resources to assist students in the Transition process. Some of the resources include:

  • Map It: What Comes Next is a free, online, interactive training designed for transition-aged students who are deaf or hard of hearing.
  • The Getting a Job! online training was developed and designed for students who are deaf or hard of hearing and the professionals who work with them.  Focusing on the transition from school to work, the training offers a series of activities, supporting documents and topical videos designed to help the job seeker prepare for the world of work.  All the videos in the modules are presented in ASL, and are also voiced in English and captioned.

Additional videos and resources include:

  • Real Life 101: College Prep – With college just ahead of them, the hosts visit with some people who help students prepare for this milestone.
  • Real Life 101: Vocational Training – In this video a career planner discusses how to find the right career for the right person.
  • Paying Your Way Through College – This video helps viewers understand four-key financial aid sources: scholarships, grants, work-study, and student loans.
  • Biz Kid$ – Public television’s Emmy Award-winning financial education series of 65 videos for teens and preteens. Each video has a lesson guide, and the Biz Kid$ website has many additional ideas for learning activities.

Most of the resources on the website require a FREE DCMP membership which may be applied for on the site.

“Captioning Video” resources revised and expanded

Closed Captioning logoFor many years, we have provided a resource about captioning video content. The information was very popular and bookmarked by many. As the accessibility guidelines have expanded in recent times, we have expanded the “captioning video” resource as well and have updated information about resources where you can find software and services to help you make your content accessible.

Audio DescriptionWhere we initially discussed only the need to caption video, we have expanded the Captioning Video page to also include information about “description,” an accessibility requirement that makes video content accessible to people with blindness or low vision. We have also added information about how to create accessible audio-only content (e.g., “podcasts”).

Visit the newly revised Captioning Video (and more) resource…

 

2-1-1 Maine Adds Text Messaging

Referrals Now Available by Text Message

211 Maine logo2-1-1 Maine is a free resource providing an easy, confidential way to connect people to information about thousands of health and human services around Maine.

Every day Information Specialists help people find assistance for complex issues such as financial problems, substance use disorders, and support needs for older adults, and for simpler issues such as finding volunteer opportunities and donation options.

Mainers can now text their zip code to 898-211 and automatically connect with a friendly, Maine-based Information Specialist. The Specialist will ask the person texting what services they are looking for and provide them referrals via text to resources in their area.

Information Specialists are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week by texting a zip code to 898-211.

Mainers can also continue to use: