J.J. Meddaugh

Assistive technology conferences have traditionally been planned from the inside, with their roots often steeped in the specialized technology companies we've worked with for decades. But when a mainstream industry group, which included members from the startup-focused website TechCrunch among many others, tackled the overarching topics involved with visual impairment and technology, a much different perspective was shared.

Sight Tech Global, owned by the Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in California, presented its first conference virtually this past December. The conference focused on the macro trends in technology and artificial intelligence, and their intersection with assistive technology. Attendance was free. Panels included a discussion of autonomous vehicles, which included both leaders of blindness nonprofits and automobile manufacturers, and a discussion on AI bias, which tackled some of the pitfalls of using technology to make assumptions about people or objects. Where other events have recently focused on the now, Sight Tech Global focused on the future, both near and far, and frankly, this was a refreshing change.

The attention to detail given to making the event accessible often exceeded that provided by traditional conferences in this space. First, the entire event was made available online for no cost, using YouTube to deliver the main content. All main stage and breakout sessions were live captioned, and it was evident that speakers were given training on best practices. For instance, many panelists would identify themselves whenever they spoke, to help listeners associate voices with names. Transcripts for all main stage sessions were also made available, making it easier to more quickly peruse or pinpoint content after the event.

But beyond all of this, the level of content and depth of conversation exceeded what many other events have provided in the past. Instead of just giving a simple demo of a new app, designers were asked about the fine details and the tools used to create the leading technologies of today. Discussions were sometimes developer-focused, and sometimes big-picture focused, but presented in a way that allowed participants both inside and outside of the industry to learn from the content. People who are blind or visually impaired were generally portrayed as sophisticated individuals with a wide variety of needs and expectations. I encourage you to delve into the conference sessions, but here are a few moments that caught my attention.

A Conversation with Saqib Shaikh

Day 1 began with an interview with Microsoft's Saqib Shaikh, Co-Founder of Seeing AI. The Seeing AI app is one of the most popular tools for reading text, identifying food labels, and sorting currency. Shaikh spoke about the early days of the app, which was developed as an experiment at a 2014 hackathon. Through a lot of persistence and research and development, the app came to fruition a couple years later.

Seeing AI's development is based largely on user feedback. For example, developers learned that some people used the face recognition feature to identify the faces of United States presidents on paper money. This helped lead to the current currency recognition channel. The latest major update includes support for LiDAR, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging. Available on the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max, it uses augmented reality to place objects and landmarks in a 3-dimensional field that can be heard while using headphones. This innovation could provide additional assistance while navigating, or serve as a better way to understand the layout of a room. Much further off in the future, the identification of a sequence of frames—in other words, describing streaming video—is something that the app may try to convey.

Shaikh sees a fundamental change in how Microsoft and its employees view disability, saying:

It's much more just something that every team does by default. It's no longer this thing we ought to do. It's a thing that is our responsibility and that we do do. So, there's definitely a long way still to go. And I'm not going to say that things are perfect. But as I look across such a huge company, I've definitely seen big strides over the years.

Game-Changing Technology

In the next panel, more technology leaders spoke of plans for enhanced or future products, often giving much more insight than would normally be shared publicly.

Greg Stilson, Head of Global Innovation for the American Printing House for the Blind, spoke of early research into a dynamic tactile display, designed to act as a full-page braille reader and graphics tablet. Most braille displays available today include a single line of fixed-width braille cells, with many 40-cell units costing $3,000 or more. A full-page display would overcome many of these limitations.

As Stilson explains, "the idea with this display is to basically utilize a lot of the mainstream capabilities for AI object recognition, scene detection, image filtering, and be able to really focus to bring that paper textbook into an e-textbook kind of concept for blind or low vision students." This would allow students to tactually follow a book in real-time along with their peers.

It's what he calls the "impromptu learning process." The eventual goal is to allow someone such as a teacher to connect to this tablet using a standard HDMI video cable or via a wireless technology and then the graphic or information could immediately be felt on the tablet.

Humanware Founder and CEO Gilles Pepin highlighted his vision for the Victor Reader Trek, a portable book player and GPS, which is often used without a smartphone. Its utility may expand dramatically with some of the new features in development. These include using built-in cameras to provide an audible view of your surroundings using computer vision, and including indoor navigation support provided by the emerging GoodMaps platform. These and similar features can help someone find their exact destination down to the foot, since GPS alone often is less accurate.

A Wearable that Gives Directions

In a panel of inventors, Keith Kirkland, Co-Founder for WearWorks, described a new wearable designed to help people get from point A to point B using haptic or vibration feedback. Unlike other wearables, which focus on detecting objects in the user's path, the Wayband uses map data to provide directions and guidance while walking. When facing the correct direction, the band will not give any feedback, indicating the correct direction of travel. Turning away from this direction will increase the amount of haptic feedback, such that turning 180 degrees would provide the most feedback because you are facing the wrong way. Simon Wheatcroft used a prototype version of the band to run 15 miles of the New York City marathon independently as a blind person. The company is aiming for a June 2021 launch for the Wayband, which is expected to retail for $249.

The Future of Computer Vision

Computer vision, according to panel moderator Roberto Manduchi, is "the art of teaching computers how to interpret images and details." It's a big part of the technology behind apps like Seeing AI or Facebook's image tagging features. Panelists explored what they felt were some of the next frontiers for this ever-changing technology.

For Danna Gurari, Director of the Image and Video Computing Group at the University of Texas at Austin, advancements in the near future will improve how images are described in context. If coming across a picture of a shirt on a shopping website, one may be interested in specific characteristics, such as if the shirt has a pocket. But at home, the interest may be focused on whether a shirt matches a particular pair of pants. Improvements also need to account for poor lighting situations or bad camera angles, sometimes-inevitable circumstances when pictures are taken in a nonvisual manner.

The ORBIT (Object Recognition for Blind Image Training) Dataset is a project spearheaded by the University of London and Microsoft AI. It is collecting thousands of videos from users to build a set of data that will help to both recognize common objects of interest to the blind and visually impaired as well as potentially provide a means for recognition of personal objects. The project has gone through two phases of data collection and hopes to release its set of data publicly in the future.

For Cecily Morrison, Principal Researcher in Human Experience & Design at Microsoft, a user-centered, hands-on approach is pivotal to realizing these futuristic-sounding ideas;

Many of the people that we work with, they've built their lives up, they're successful in doing what they're doing. And all of a sudden, you drop this technology and say, how would you use it? And it's like, I've got strategies. I've got my way of being. But we've also found that these early adopters are also people who can push the vision the furthest once they have the technology in their hands.

Indeed, it's often the edge, or unimagined use, cases that drive the growth and development of emerging technologies.


Some may wonder why so many major organizations chose this time to launch a mainstream conference focused on technology for people who are blind or visually impaired. Saqib Shaikh puts it eloquently:

I often think that disability can be a driver for innovation. And we can look back at so many of the innovations that we're depending on today, from speech assistance, speech recognition, text messages, on-screen keyboards, or the touch screen—they all have their origins in these challenging problems of someone with disability and someone, an innovator, coming together in a partnership.

When the power and leverage of large mainstream companies is combined with the knowledge and experience of users of their products, huge advancements in technology can quickly occur. Sight Tech Global shows us a glimpse of what is possible, and also how a truly inclusive conference should be run and managed. You can pre-register now](https://sighttechglobal.com/conference-registration/) for the 2021 conference, which will be held December 1-2 and presented at least in part virtually. And why not? It's absolutely free to attend.

This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.

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February 2021 Table of Contents

J.J. Meddaugh
Article Topic
Conference Coverage