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Emerging Technologies For The Blind

Editor's Note: The Thursday morning convention session was packed with informative items presented by blind people talking about their journey from self-doubt to self-confidence. The final speaker of the morning was Mike May of Arkenstone Computer Products. His topic Emerging Technologies for the Blind, was somewhat different. The exciting product development he discussed has the potential of helping blind people gain greater information--something all of us certainly support. Here is what Mike May had to say.

Thank you Dr. Gabias, and thank you all for accommodating me. Being invited to your convention is really a privilege for Arkenstone and for me personally. My apologies for having to rearrange the schedule.I had some misinformation about my time slot.

What I've heard here this morning is a lot of passion from everybody who's spoken. I think that's the common element that pervades most successful experiences. I want to make a few general comments--a brief description of my own background and then go into some specific exciting technologies.

What I've learned throughout all my years of schooling and work has been that I have to use a whole combination of things to accomplish tasks to the best of my ability. Before computers it was using a slate, Braille Writer, readers, and whatever I could. As technology came on the scene it was using whatever the state of the art technology was at the time--in combination with these other things. Today, at my high-tech office in Sunnyvale California in the middle of Silicon Valley, I have the latest and greatest Pentium computer with speech and Braille output. Right next to it is my Perkins Braillewriter. In my drawer is a slate and stylus with dymo tape loaded. It's always tough when I travel because my shoulder bag is always heavy with all the different gismos. I have a Braille `n' Speak, a digital recorder, and on and on. No one device does everything. So you need this whole bag of tricks. Of course, the trick sometimes is affording it, and figuring out what's best to have. The thing that I've learned as a person who wants to be successful in business is that I have to stay on top of whatever is out there by reading newsletters, talking to people, and finding good advisors. This is very important because you can't know about all of these things yourself. You can't read all of the articles about new technology yourself, so you have to depend on people who do read all of these things to find out what the latest and greatest things are. That's the general overview.

My background is that I've been blind since the age of three from a chemical explosion. I have a Master's in International Affairs from Johns Hopkins. I've had a variety of jobs--none of them very conventional. I worked as a political analyst for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Most of my jobs have been involved with product development.

When automatic teller machines came out, I was involved in that while working for a bank. I worked for the defense industry looking for ways to do political risk assessment using satellites and high technology in conjunction with conventional methods. I developed and sold a product called the Bun Warmer which kept your buns warm--and I'm not talking about the kind that go into the oven. I worked on a laser turntable. It's like a CD player except that it played regular vinyl records. I've just been in the adaptive technology industry for the last seven years.

There are a lot of interesting and innovative things happening in that industry. There are also a lot of me too products.Me too is the disparaging term that we use in emerging technology to speak about somebody who is just copying what we've already done.For those of us who like to be innovative, me too is a no-no word. We try to find something that's not a me too product. It's also important to have additional products of the same type because that spurs manufacturers along to have their product become better. For example, when Arkenstone came out with the first talking Windows product in 1991, this was very innovative. A lot of people thought it was totally crazy. Well, of course, since then there have been some other me too products--some other reading systems that are in Windows. Now it's a debate about Windows 3.1 or '95 or Windows NT . It's actually been good for the consumer that there are multiple manufacturers because it makes the products cheaper, better, more benefits to you. But, at the same time, it's more interesting to me to think about what's coming next.

I hope that Arkenstone is in the vanguard of what's coming next. We had such a great product that I think we might have sat on our laurels just a tad bit, not getting after the things that are possible in the technology area. Typically, products that are available for the blind are five or more years behind the state of the art technology. The reason is that in order to make things more affordable, you have to use commercial technology and wait until it's out in the market place before you do something with it. By the time it's out, whoever made it is working on the next generation of technology. So people who develop products for the blind are in the proverbial cycle of being behind the eight ball. Arkenstone is working on the next generation reading machine so we can reassert our position as a real technology leader with reading machines.

Since I joined the company three years ago, we've done a thing that's of real interest to me in the area of talking maps. I think most of the people in this room would agree that one of the most powerful tools you have for any social career or educational development is the ability to get around. You can't ask somebody out on a date if you can't get there. You can't get a job if you can't get to the interview--not just get there, but get there confidently. So orientation for me has been a very powerful thing--something I've worked very hard on. When there was the possibility of using technology to help with orientation, I was very excited.

I don't think many of us have had very much experience with maps. There are tactile maps, and a few things that give us some geographic orientation. But, by and large, there aren't very many tools available to us. With the advent of digital maps, that means that virtually every address can be coded into a database.

That means a whole new ball game. Arkenstone came out with Atlas Speaks , which has virtually every address in the United States in a digital database. You can use your talking computer to find out specific information about the area you want to explore. You can find out how long the blocks are in feet or meters. You can learn how far it is from here to there and exactly what the streets are called. There is all this incredible detail. It is really more than most sighted people can get from print maps. It really is helpful. It's something I use quite frequently.

Once digital maps became available, the next logical connection was with the emerging GPS (global positioning system) technology. This is a satellite system that sends out signals around the world. If you can capture those signals and link them to digital maps, all of a sudden you have a real-time indication of where you are. So, for the last two years I've been testing a product we call Strider. It uses this GPS technology in conjunction with our Atlas Speaks maps to figure out where I am, where I'm going, and to augment the other information I have. Let me emphasize that this is not a mobility device. I still have to ask for directions plenty of times and use all the mobility tools I would normally use. But in addition to those I use now, I have a talking computer in my backpack with a little GPS antenna on it. It tells me where I am.

The GPS industry is interesting because this is what's coming next. A lot of it isn't out yet. Some cars have GPS units in them which are really oriented toward helping drivers go down the highway and find their exits. They're not really oriented so much to pedestrians.That's good for blind people, too, because although we happen to walk a few places, this is a mobile vehicular society. We're taking buses, taxis, trains, and airplanes like everybody else. We need a device that works well in a car also. The really neat thing about this is that maybe for the first time we have technology for the sighted industry which is coming from an application driven by blind people. It may work the other way for a change. I've been talking to companies that are in the GPS business commercially. They're very interested in our work because it does have a much stronger component that's pedestrian oriented. This could be of use in the tourist industry.

For example, somebody flies into San Francisco airport and picks up a little unit that has all the museums and other points of interest they want to visit during their few days in the city. This unit would actually help them get to those places. The technology may flow from the blindness pedestrian arena to the sighted market, which is pretty neat.

Some of the things that are happening with GPS are really far out. One example actually came from Nike shoe company. Nike has an economic reason to reduce the number of sizes of shoes they have to inventory. This would save them literally a billion dollars a year. Suppose that, instead of having to stock ten shoe sizes, they only have to stock two. That means they would have to have a shoe that can adjust to the size of your foot. How can that be done? They need power. For a billion dollars it's worth them trying to figure out how they can generate power from somebody's shoe. They did it.

As a person walks along in a Nike shoe, a little electrical build-up is generated and stored in the shoe. It can now be used to power a little size changer thing. In the future, you'll buy a pair of shoes. If your foot expands a little bit, well--if the shoe fits, wear it.

What can we do now that our shoes can store power? We can power other things, GPS units, cellular phones. This isn't just science fiction. It's there. We're all going to be able to take advantage of it. A lot of the circuitry that goes into devices such as cellular phones has now been put into something called webcomb material. This means that the threads of your jacket are conductive. You don't have to have the circuitry in your little phone device. Your jacket is your phone. Obviously there are a lot of prototypical problems that have to be worked out, but the basic technology has been demonstrated. These are all things that lend themselves to pedestrian personal devices that allow us to communicate better, to be better oriented. If these things are cheap enough and work well enough, this is a benefit to all of the population.

Back to Strider for a minute. Arkenstone has put the project on hold. But the good news is that there is still a Strider underground that's pushing that technology along. Whether it's Arkenstone or somebody else that does this, GPS is going to play into our lives the way cellular phones have. It may take five to ten years, depending on when you can afford to get one, but you will be using one downstream. Whatever we can do as a company working in the blindness field to drive this forward, this is part of our commitment to innovation whether in orientation, or in reading machines.

I'll close with a comment that's more philosophical. It's the passion that's really making things happen for the people I'm hearing speaking up here. One of my favorite accomplishments was in skiing. I skied the first demonstration event by a blind person in the regular Olympics in 1984 in Sarajevo. President Ronald Reagan said something that really applies to all of you with passion. He said, Mike, you and all the other competitors here are testimony to all young people that they should never be afraid to dream big dreams and they should never hesitate to make those dreams a reality.

*Editor's note: During the question period which followed Mr.May's presentation, he was asked whether the development costs had been the deciding factor in Arkenstone's suspension of the Strider project. He replied, Arkenstone has spent about a half million dollars so far, and we came to the end of our rope. Arkenstone is a good software company. We decided to wait on the hardware until the general market came out with a smaller neater, slicker, more convenient device rather than trying to build our own, which is what we've been doing. It was clear from the audience reaction that the blind community will be excited to evaluate the GPS concept and the Strider device as soon as a practical model is available.


Great article. Can anyone tell me the date so I can reference it?

This was in the Summer 1998 edition of the Canadian Blind Monitor