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

Audio Description Project – Proposed Rulemaking

The following press release comes from the Audio Description Project of the American Council of the Blind (ACB):

On April 23, 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that proposes expanding the number of broadcast designated market areas required to pass through audio description from the top 60 markets to the top 100, and to use the term “audio description” instead of the term “video description.”

The NPRM seeks to modernize the terminology in the Commission’s regulations to use the term “audio description” rather than “video description.” The term “audio description” is used by the rest of the federal government and is the term used in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Additionally, “audio description” is the agreed upon international terminology for audibly describing the visual elements of videos, on-stage performances, and subjects at museum and art galleries.

On May 21, 2020, the Media Bureau of the FCC released a public notice announcing the NPRM comment due dates; comments are due June 22, 2020, and reply comments are due July 6, 2020. The text of the NPRM is available on the FCC website.

Interested parties may file comments on their own by accessing the Electronic Comment Filing System. All filings must reference MB Docket No. 11-43. People with disabilities who need assistance to file comments online may request assistance by email to FCC504@fcc.gov.

Read more about the plan to expand the number of broadcast designated market areas…

Read more about the Audio Description Project…

 

Corona Virus Statistics Website Accessible for the Blind and Partially Sighted

From Cool Blind Tech:

A Boston-based software developer wanted to make COVID-19 stats accessible

He created a website that would be easily readable by electronic braille readers and other assistive devices used by the blind and partially sighted.

Tyler Littlefield, a software developer based in Boston, has created a database of COVID-19 statistics meant to be accessible to the visually impaired.

Called CVStats.net, the site organizes up-to-date COVID-19 data in simple charts specifically designed to be legible to a range of aid devices the visually impaired use to access websites.

For Littlefield, and many other people with visual impairments, trying to stay updated during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge because many of the commonly shared charts and graphs are inaccessible, including those from the CDC and Department of Public Health.

“For many people with various types of disabilities, graphics and the information conveyed in them is hard to read and understand,” Littlefield told Vice.

“I believe in the idea of open data, data that everyone can access to help make informed decisions. Finding this lack, I created CVStats to present the data to users in a straightforward way, free of ads, click-through news articles and graphics.”

One of the main obstacles in making COVID-19 information more accessible are the conventions of modern web design. With a profusion of autoplay videos, pop-up windows, and animated inserts, many modern websites make it difficult for braille embossers to scan a webpage and convert its content into a braille printout.

“Clutter is the enemy of tactical legibility,” Naomi Rosenberg of the accessibility firm Lighthouse told Vice.

“For each of these, a blind reader is at the mercy of the designer, writer, or educator to produce quality graphics, concise image descriptions, or properly formatted tables,” Rosenberg said.

One possible alternative to visual graphs are ‘sonification curves,’ which translate graph lines into rising and falling sounds to try and convey a similar sense of magnitude, something that an aid device won’t be able to do without simple and accessible data.

Another challenge, according to Sassy Outwater-Wright, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, is that many healthcare facilities don’t post clear or accessible information about their policies.

For instance, some drive through testing sites only allow private vehicles, not taxis or other commercial vehicles, which would be important for a visually impaired person who can’t drive themselves to know before planning a visit.

“The moment that I heard everything was going drive-thru I kind of had a cringe moment because, other than in the hospital, there’s really no other way to access that testing, and for many in our community, including myself, who are immunocompromised, that puts us at a much higher risk,” Outwater-Wright said.

“We don’t get the benefit of staying in our car, we don’t get the benefit of trying to continue to social distance. We have to go in.”

For more information see Motherboard on Vice.com…

Voice-Assisted Coronavirus COVID-19 Screening

The following comes from Cool Blind Tech:

iPadApple also partnered with CDC on app and website for coronavirus triage

With voice-assisted tools released by Amazon and Apple, you can answer a few questions to figure out if you need further medical assistance for COVID-19.

Simply say, “Hey, Siri” for iPhones or “Alexa” for Amazon devices, and ask if you have the coronavirus.

These technologies are no replacement for professional medical advice, but they can help you figure out first steps at home when the health care system is overwhelmed with long wait times.

Amazon Echo

Amazon announced Thursday that it launched a screening tool for the United States that will talk you through some symptom-checkers.

“Ask, ‘Alexa, what do I do if I think I have COVID-19?” or “Alexa, what do I do if I think I have coronavirus?” and Alexa will ask a series of questions about your travel history, symptoms, and possible exposure. Based on your responses, Alexa will provide CDC guidance given your risk level and symptoms,” Amazon said in a statement.

Read the complete article on Cool Blind Tech

Read the news release from Apple

Read news release from Amazon

 

Carroll Center Opens AT Device Lab to Empower Individuals with Vision Loss

Man wearing dark glasses holds cane and smatphoneNEWTON, Mass. Through a partnership with the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association, The Carroll Center for the Blind recently launched an assistive technology device lab to help individuals with vision loss to better understand and learn how to effectively use various devices that have the power to help them retain their independence. The open-concept device lab offers access to a wide spectrum of over 18 different popular devices for use by all of the Center’s program participants.

Most smartphones and other devices now come with several built-in accessibility options. Plus, there are a wide assortment of other mainstream and specialized applications available to download which support independence for people with low vision or blindness.

Both free and paid mobile applications like Aira or Microsoft’s Seeing AI provide the ability to narrate the world through your smartphone camera—reading out street signs, printed text, and identifying objects and people. Voice activated in-home smart assistants like Amazon’s Alexa give people the ability to control household appliances, adjust lights, monitor thermostats, and so much more. Learning to use transportation apps like Uber and Lyft enable unprecedented travel independence.

Increasingly, technology is a great equalizer for people who are blind and visually impaired. While the Carroll Center offers a comprehensive variety of programs specifically concentrating on technology, some amount of technology instruction is incorporated into almost every program that it offers these days.

With so many different devices on the market, it can be challenging to choose the most applicable solutions. With the creation of this new device lab, program participants at the Carroll Center for the Blind are now able to freely explore the technologies that are best for them. They practice with these devices and applications prior to making a purchase decision that is best suited to their personal needs and budget.

“Being able to get hands-on with a variety of new technology and devices both in-class and out of class has been enlightening,” says Chris Lockley, a program participant at the Carroll Center. “Access to so many options has provided me with a sense of choice and freedom that I felt I had lost. It’s empowering.”

Access to assistive technology creates life-changing opportunities and possibilities for people with disabilities, whether at school, work, home or in the community…

Read the full story about the assistive technology device lab at article source here.

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.