GLEN GORDON: On FSCast 198, what it takes to make astronomy accessible to people who are blind or low vision. We’ll meet Kate Meredith, President of GLAS Education, and two students involved with the project, to hear how it all came together. Then Mike May, legendary GPS pioneer, joins me. We’ll hear about his life and find out what’s new in indoor wayfinding.
Hello, everybody. Glen Gordon back with you for our April 2021 edition of the podcast. We are in the midst of running a Speech and Sounds Schemes contest. Speech and Sounds are a great way to minimize the number of words you hear spoken, and use various sounds and other audio cues to present that information instead. Matthew Horspool did a great job of demonstrating one way of doing this back in FSCast 194. We’re trying to see all the creative ways that you can do this. Come up with a Sounds Scheme that you think does a pretty good job of representing information, and there could be an Amazon $100 gift card in the works for you. All the information is at blog.freedomscientific.com. There’s a whole posting on that back around the early part of April with all the details. Hope you’ll enter, and you may indeed be the winner.
Coming up on May 20th, as part of our third Thursday of the month webinar series, we’ll be doing a webinar on Pro Outlook Tips. So if you’re an Outlook user – and many, many of us are – this is a great way to find out how you can use the program a bit more efficiently. Coming up on Thursday, May 20th, at noon Eastern for that webinar. And if you can’t be there live, it’s available on demand through our Freedom Scientific Training page. That’s freedomscientific.com/training.
Coming up a week after that, at 3:00 p.m. on Thursday, May 27th, is our quarterly edition of FSOpenLine. The difference this time is that we’ll be taking your calls on Clubhouse. So if you’re not yet a member of the JAWS Software Club, join us. We have lots of events throughout the month. And FSOpenLine will be scheduled as one of those. You can also get more details by going to blog.freedomscientific.com/fsopenline.
GLEN: Time now for this month’s Power Tip, courtesy of Greg Green. And it relates to the JAWS Text Analyzer. This is a great tool for finding inconsistencies in your document. Generally speaking, it’ll find everything from long runs of spaces, odd font changes, too many things capitalized. There’s a whole variety of things we find. One way of using Text Analyzer is to turn it on by pressing JAWS Key+Space, followed by A. And then as you read through your document, JAWS will announce the inconsistencies.
But Greg doesn’t like that nearly as well as the other alternative, which is you simply press ALT+Windows+I, and that’ll move you to the next what JAWS considers to be inconsistency and explain to you what the problem is. So it’s a quick way, when you’re doing a final proofing of the document, to repeatedly press those keys, make the change, press them again. And ultimately, when you hit the end of the document, you know you’ve been told about all the things that we think might be wrong.
Thanks to Greg for sending in that tip. And for doing so, he’ll get a year added onto his JAWS license. If you have something that you use, you find really useful, but most people probably don’t know about, send it in to us. We may indeed use it on a future FSCast. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com.
GLEN: Every year at their national convention the NFB gives out the Bolotin Award to people or organizations that are a positive force in the lives of blind people. One of the recipients this past year was GLAS Education for their work making astronomy accessible to those of us who are blind. The key force behind that is Kate Meredith. For a long time she was the Education Director at Yerkes Observatory. That’s where a lot of this development work first got going. When the University of Chicago closed Yerkes down, Kate and others formed GLAS Education to carry on where their original Yerkes work left off. In addition to a variety of low-tech educational materials, they’ve also created Afterglow Access, which is software that allows analysis of astronomy data. One of the ways of doing that is through sonification.
Kate is with me on the line, as are two students who’ve worked very closely with her on this project: Katya Gozman, who’s currently an astronomy Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan; and Chris Mathews, who’s low vision, pretty much serving as the accessibility consultant on the project. Welcome to all three of you.
KATE MEREDITH: Nice to be here, Glen.
KATYA GOZMAN: Welcome, thank you.
CHRIS MATHEW: Thanks for having us.
GLEN: So I’m one of these kids who grew up in the early 1960s. And being an astronomer or studying astronomy was right up there with being a bomber pilot because I’m totally blind, and I didn’t even consider it. I assumed that astronomy meant telescopes. That you took the telescope out at night. You stared at the planets. How could someone who’s blind possibly do that? Was that true back then? Or was I wrong even then? Because I know it’s not true now.
KATE: Well, it wasn’t true then. But it definitely is more true than it is today. And that is just a terrible answer to your question. But as technology has increased, astronomy has gone to be more and more invisible. So it’s most of the wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, all of that energy that comes from stars and galaxies and quasars, black holes, is all invisible to the human eye anyway. And what we do is we take the data that comes. We capture those photons and that energy on special cameras, and we change that data into visual displays because sighted people like it that way, and it’s really pretty. But it doesn’t have to be that way. And definitely astronomy is more and more a data science as it evolves.
KATYA: Yeah. Basically all the data we get is just a bunch of numbers in a grid, or like in an array. The data that I work with now is basically all numbers. I don’t look at a picture. I basically get a giant file full of numbers that represent different properties of the stars in a galaxy that I’m studying.
CHRIS: In terms of accessibility it makes things a lot easier because everyone now walks on the same playing field because we are all dealing with numbers. And so from a non-visual perspective, the fact that we’ve shifted more towards looking at numbers means that we can represent those numbers with things like tactile images, with things like sound. And we can do that in a way that still is able to communicate the same level of data and study as a picture used to do.
KATE: One of the things that is helping in this process of getting people more interested, of all abilities in astronomy, is that we have tools now that allow us to take – anybody to take these data and create sonifications of those data. So that’s part of what we are working on, many people are working on, is what happens when you hear data instead of just look at it. And we can also do 3D prints and tactile graphics. And so all these modalities are available.
And we found that in teaching and just life experience with the public, the more modalities you provide to people, the richer and deeper their experiences are. And it’s not just about allowing blind people to participate fully in astronomy, but it’s about creating greater opportunities and greater interest, and everyone enjoys that. But also sonification is becoming a scientifically valid way of investigating data, so all those numbers that Katya is talking about just get translated in a different way. And there’s many groups working on that across the world right now because it’s opening up a whole ‘nother area of exploration.
GLEN: There are so many different paths I want to go down. I think I’ll ask Chris, was your interest in astronomy spurred by some of the work that Kate and group have been doing?
CHRIS: Yes. So my initial contact point with Yerkes and with astronomy in general actually happened at a summer camp, and there was a summer where Yerkes was bringing telescopes out to this camp and working with the campers to get a chance to get hands-on and observe the night sky. And I had never been able to see stars. They were always too far away. And I kind of had given up hope on that. And we were kind of getting ready for that, it was getting dark, and I looked up, and I saw what I figured was an airplane and got weirdly excited because I usually can’t see those, either.
And I looked back, and I went to tell somebody about it or whatever, and I looked up, and I couldn’t find it. And there it was. The airplane hadn’t moved, and I realized the airplane was a star, and I got even more excited because I hadn’t seen those before. So I got very interested. And the next thing I know, someone was dragging me away from a telescope at 11:00 at night and going, “Go to bed. You’re, like, 10. You need to sleep.”
From there it was interesting because when I started my work with GLAS years later, my goal was to translate that experience, or at least be able to do my part to help translate that experience into something that someone without vision to be able to have that same experience. And so even as I began my work as a journalism student and everything else, I think that’s what kept me coming back was wanting to continue trying to make that difference in the way that I could, and help where I could, even if it’s not necessarily always the most scientific of approaches.
GLEN: Kate, what got you interested in astronomy from an accessible standpoint?
KATE: I got involved at Yerkes Observatory with their Teacher Professional Development. And what excited me most about astronomy was its ability to engage a huge variety of learners and get them interested in science and math in a way that gave a story to mathematical equations. And so I was really interested in that. And my predecessor Vivian Hoette at Yerkes Observatory, because of a proximity to the Wisconsin School for the Blind and the Wisconsin School for the Deaf, was incredibly dedicated to making all of the experiences at the Observatory accessible to everyone. And one thing led to another. And I just grew up, and my learning about astronomy was steeped in making things accessible. And it’s a creative, interesting adventure. And to do it with people. We had great professionals and students at the Wisconsin School for the Blind who just helped us create things. And it’s just it’s incredibly fun.
GLEN: How much of your access was relatively low tech early on?
KATE: Most of it. We made tactile graphics, and then we got into making art. We have a craft room that we lovingly refer to as the Dollar Store, which is giant, and we just go in, and we make things. And we come out with ways to explain concepts that are active and low tech. And as time went on, we wanted to take it to the next level because there’s a point at which you realize that you can have people participate in the products of astronomy, the images and the discoveries. But we wanted everyone to be able to participate in the process of astronomy, as well. And that requires a heavy investment of technology. And that’s how we got into designing accessible software.
GLEN: What were some of the challenges of taking what previously was expressed visually and expressing it sonically?
CHRIS: These are very cutting-edge concepts about sonifying data. And because we’re trying to represent so many aspects of maybe an image at the same time, I think for me personally, and for how I was able to learn through this process, it was very important for me to go back and really build up some kind of foundation so that, when I touch a piece of software, and maybe there’s these terms or concepts that astronomers are very familiar with, they’re very comfortable with these things because they do them day in and day out, and that’s how they study. But because we’ve never represented them non-visually, those concepts aren’t explained accessibly because they just haven’t had to be yet. And so when we go back and do that, it really provides a really solid jumping-off point for people like myself.
KATYA: We weren’t really even thinking that much about Afterglow. Like the first summer we were working on it was dedicated almost completely, at least the work that Chris and I and the other interns that were at the Observatory that summer were doing was dedicated to taking these concepts that a lot of astronomy is built upon and breaking them down and explaining them in the most accessible possible way.
And that, for those of us that were sighted, also required a lot of change in thinking because, since we’re so used to having concepts like these explained to us in a very visual and non-accessible way, we needed to learn how to take the concepts that we had learned visually and figure out the best way to make them non-visual, so whether that be tactilely, through feeling things, or through sound, or a combination. We even had an activity that was based upon people standing in a line holding hands at different distances and kind of doing the wave with each other, to teach people about concepts of electromagnetic waves and frequency and wavelength, energy and all of that.
And so a lot of this was also I guess for some of us, like me and other interns, we were kind of like, okay. If we’re going to do this, we’re going to go all in. We took some time to learn braille. We learned how to use a brailler, like a typewriter, all of that. That was a lot of fun. We had a day where we learned about different accessible technologies and screen readers. Basically we were all immersed and living together, and all kind of figured out how we all did things.
KATE: That was probably one of the unexpected highlights of my entire time at Yerkes Observatory as Education Director. I always loved having intern programs. But when we had that critical number of three blind interns, and the second summer we were able to get Nic Bonne, a blind astronomer from the Center for Cosmology in Portsmouth, U.K., to – they said he could be with us for five weeks. And when we actually had a working community, people working together, not only did we learn a ton, but as the community was coming in for summer camp experiences, star parties, and tours, that they got to see blind people and service dogs and everyone working at the Observatory, not just participating in some watered-down version of an astronomy experience, but actually participating in science and education, and to see how everyone grew, that was really the highlight of my time at Yerkes.
KATYA: For at least a lot of us, like sighted interns, that had maybe never ever lived or been friends with or even seen like in school, for example, someone who was BVI, also learning about the different types of accessibility that people need with different vision, which is also a very important thing to take into account when you’re designing something like the software is that, even though you might be saying, like, oh, we want to make this accessible for blind and visually impaired students, every blind and visually impaired student is going to access the software differently depending on their needs.
KATE: All the sighted interns have – I’ve watched their careers grow in the last four years, and I would say well over half of them have either emailed or asked or have shown me a project where they’re going off into their other jobs, and they’re considering accessibility. They’re doing something about it. And so this just inclusion of everybody in the life of a living observatory meant something. It had a result. And it has deepened how we do things at GLAS Education. We’ve launched a group called the Sonification World Chat in order to make sure that sighted people are aware that they have to include blind and visually impaired people in the development of sonification tools and algorithms, or they will not have accessible tools in the end. And we just have become huge advocates of that.
KATYA: There’s no universal kind of standards or codes or anything for sonification yet because it is a relatively new field. And even like for Afterglow, for example, making even the smallest of decisions such as like what range of pitch do we go from or what sounds, like what sounds like instruments or whatever work the best, those very tiny details are actually really important to figure out and adjust.
GLEN: And that seems like it’s potentially the hardest part is making that mental map of the sounds to what’s changing in the actual data.
CHRIS: Right, and I think that goes back to why it’s so necessary to, like, build this foundation that we were able to build, with the curriculum that we made and these videos about coding and all of this stuff. I would compare it to doing orientation mobility. So walking into a room, maybe a big auditorium when it is empty and you have time to orient to the space before giving a presentation, is inherently different experience than walking into a crowded auditorium when your University panel is there and, you know, maybe this is your big speech. When you have the opportunity to get oriented to that space, you are a lot more likely to navigate it confidently.
GLEN: It also sounds like, if you don’t build up that foundation, you don’t have a common language. And so using a two- or three-syllable word to explain something turns out to be a complete side trip into explaining the underlying concept.
CHRIS: Yes. And we found that a lot. And one of the terms that we coined at the Observatory is for taking something that is inherently not accessible and turning it into something accessible, we called it accessibilizing.
KATYA: It’s from the core redesigning and reimagining how these concepts are taught. It’s breaking them down into separate building blocks that are each individually digestible and really getting to the core of concepts and having to explain things that you might not think need explaining, but actually really do. Also when you’re sonifying something in the software, you need to have a way to orient the user to how the sonification works and what they should be looking for.
CHRIS: Yeah. And again, if you want to relate this to something that may connect well with those who may be listening that are blind or low vision yourself, if you are a cane user, if you are a guide dog user, that cane is very much a tool that you know how to use. You know when it’s useful. You know when it’s not. You know exactly what to do with it. You know what kind of cane you prefer. Well, if you’re going to explain a cane to someone who’s literally never seen a cane before, you can explain it till you’re blue in the face. But they are not going to know the feeling of walking down a road using a cane and being confident in yourself as a traveler because you can’t give them that experience right away.
And I think the same is very true for all of these concepts that we’re talking about is, as someone who has been visually impaired my whole life, and who uses auditory means to think about things, maybe some little sound thing that they thought sounded cool or was interesting is really disorienting to me, or confusing, or too loud, or too high or whatever. And I can’t expect that everyone’s going to know everything all the time. But as we have done at GLAS, building the community so that I can teach and other people can learn, and then they can teach me things, and I can learn, and having that constant revolving door of information and exchange of experience is something that is so important that I don’t want to be on projects that don’t have that anymore.
GLEN: Given our discussion about how sonification of data is not going to make a whole lot of sense without more of a background, I still think it might be interesting to play a couple of sonifications just to give people a bit of a sneak peak. Kate, can you think of a couple of good examples?
KATE: Yes. We’ve got sonifications of a galaxy, which would give you an example of when we are sonifying a two-dimensional grid, which is what an image for sighted people really comes from is a grid of data. We can sonify that. That’s like what we do in Afterglow Access. You hear a pop at the beginning, and it will proceed upward, and you will hear all of the sounds as it crosses each one of these lines of data, and it will sonify each line simultaneously, and each tone from left to right is different and across the image, and you will hear it at the volume that it would be based upon how much light energy was captured in each one of those little spaces. And it pops again at the end of the image. [Sonification example clip]
There’s also the sonifications of light curves from the Astronify project, and that’s a very different type of data. That is a line graph, a change over time. So you hear a sound that starts, and you will hear the rise and the fall of the light energy as a planet passed in front of a star. And so that’s a very different type of sonification. [Sonification example clip]
GLEN: I think it’s probably worth talking about how people who were not involved in this project originally can gain access to some of the resources. What’s available? Everywhere from students and teachers to blind researchers who might be interested in the field.
KATE: Getting in touch with your Teachers of the Visually Impaired really in terms of students in your state, connecting with them, likely that they’re connected with some of these projects. But reaching out to me is just fine, and Katya will help me manage all those emails that come in. And I’m just at firstname.lastname@example.org, and your screen reader will read that “gloz” education because it’s G L A S, just one S, education.org.
We continue to post a lot of our material at the Perkins School for the Blind Pathways to Technology blog. They get a pretty good readership there. So I produce blog posts and put them up there so people know what’s available. So we’ve had quite a few in the last year there. So that’s how I try and let the BVI community know what’s available. And we do try and stay in touch with the National Federation of the Blind in terms of letting them know what is available. But getting a clearinghouse and a place to put these resources is really our next step.
GLEN: But to Chris’s point in particular, without some of the hands-on resources, the online ones are going to make less sense.
KATE: Right. And the directions for producing those are available. So like for example we’ve got very meticulous directions for using an umbrella for explaining what is a dome of the sky? What is the celestial sphere all about? Because imagining the sky as a dome is really key to how we point telescopes, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense if you don’t have any vision. And so starting there. So how to produce those on your own, all those are available now. And that’s through – we have those posted at skynetjuniorscholars.org.
GLEN: And what about Afterglow Access? Is that online software available to anybody?
KATE: Right now it’s available if you’re taking a college course, if you’re an astronomer, if you have an account with Skynet, or you’re a student who’s working through some online curricula. We do not have a way yet for anybody to upload their own images or work with sample images. So that is not widely available. You really have to be connected with an educational institution right now to get a hold of that.
GLEN: Okay. Is there anything that I have not asked about that would make sense to discuss now that you sort of know the arc of our conversation?
KATE: When we got the Bolotin Award from the National Federation of the Blind, it was really about how we do things, not necessarily the cutting-edge things we’re producing, but how we do it. And that’s an honor. It’s truly an honor to be recognized that way. And it’s with the team that we manage to do it. And I love, you know, my favorite line is I just love being Astronomy Good Fairy. You want to be part of this. I just figure out how to help make that happen and bring the people together. And then I just stand back and watch the magic happen.
GLEN: This was great. I thank the three of you for joining me. What I take away most from this is really the collaborative nature of all that you’ve done. And I’ve not talked to many other people who have been quite this collaborative and quite this deliberate in mixing people who are blind with people who are not in real-life situations. It’s great to hear about.
CHRIS: Thank you.
KATE: Okay, thanks, Glen. This was great.
KATYA: Thank you.
GLEN: I’m very pleased to welcome Mike May to the podcast. Many of you are familiar with him because his name is kind of synonymous with GPS. Although he’s currently Chief Evangelist for GoodMaps, he spent close to 20 years as CEO of Sendero, releasing a variety of navigation applications. But Mike is also an athlete, a motivational speaker. He had a book written about him called “Crashing Through.” And generally a man with a great story to tell. So Mike, welcome to FSCast.
MIKE MAY: Nice to be here. And nice talking to Glen, who’s synonymous with JAWS.
GLEN: We both have been around the block for a long time.
GLEN: I read “Crashing Through,” the book written about your life, and learned a couple of things early on. One is that you went blind at age three as the result of a chemical accident. And the second is that you were quite the daredevil in terms of riding a bicycle, climbing ham radio towers, and a list of other exploits. Were you always that way?
MIKE: Well, I certainly remember that all of those highlights that people tend to hear about were things that had underlying fear and trepidation along with them. I mean, we all know that teenagers, young adults, maybe particularly boys, tend to feel invincible. And I think I was no different in that sense. And I look back on some of the things I did and think, ooh, wow, that wasn’t such a bright idea. But somehow I’d always come back to it. When I did speed skiing, and I’d get to the top of the run, and I’d think, oh, my. Butterflies. I didn’t sleep last night. I’m going to do this once, and then I’m never going to do it again. And I’d get down to the bottom of the hill, and I’d think, oh, you know, maybe just one more time. And those kind of mind games were things that I definitely had going on internally. It wasn’t a matter of being fearless. It was just really a matter of being hungry and curious.
GLEN: It’s interesting because some people, when they hear about these things, don’t assume that it comes with any trepidation.
MIKE: Yeah, absolutely. And my speed skiing coach, by the way, who had the world record, over 130 miles an hour, he said that what we’re doing, speed skiing, is only dangerous if you’re dumb about it. So if you’re smart, you train, you have the right equipment, the conditions are right, and you do it in a really smart way, then it’s not really that dangerous. It’s only dumb and dangerous if you don’t do those things.
GLEN: What was your college major?
MIKE: Well, I started out at UC Davis, University of California Davis, in electrical engineering. And after about two years and wading through all the chemistry and physics and math, I realized I wasn’t going to get out of Davis if I didn’t switch to an easier major that was on less of a rigid schedule. And also getting materials in those sciences was really a challenge. I remember it took a year to get my first calculus book in braille because there weren’t a lot of transcribers who knew calculus braille. So I ended up with a political science bachelor’s.
GLEN: Which is probably how you started working for the CIA.
MIKE: You realize with a B.A. in Political Science, there isn’t anything you can really do. So I went on to get a master’s at Johns Hopkins in Washington, D.C., in International Affairs. And of course the CIA was in the vicinity in McLean, Virginia, and they were recruiting. And I applied for a job, and that’s how that came about.
GLEN: Did it fulfill your spirit?
MIKE: Well, it certainly was something I did primarily because of curiosity because in the ‘70s working for the CIA was not a politically correct thing to do. I mean, they were famous for killing people and assassinations and the kind of things you didn’t really want to be associated with. Under Jimmy Carter, that started to change. But still, all of my roommates said, “You want to do what? Work for the CIA? That’s crazy.” And which of course got me going because I thought, well, I’d be the first blind guy. What would it be like? It’s a highly print job. How do you do a print job when you can’t see, particularly a high-volume print job? And so all of those things really got my curiosity up. And when I was selected, after applying and going through a long process of a security clearance, it all of a sudden made sense, and I was glad I joined.
GLEN: How did you do it with all that printed material?
MIKE: They were very committed to making it work. Admiral Stanley Turner, the Director of the CIA at the time, he said, “We will make this work. And if you have any problem along the way, you call my office directly.” And he was very serious about that. So their computer department got a Triformations braille embosser, the old things the size of a washing machine; and all the cable traffic that my sighted colleagues got in print was kachunked out in braille. And I would have a stack of braille two feet tall every morning when I came into work of all the things that I needed to read.
So then they realized that, hey, we need to filter this stuff. Let’s do keyword searches. And how do we focus in on Mike’s country so I don’t get the whole printout of the world? I could just get my countries and my issues. And so they started doing some of the early versions of filtering and just giving me relevant material, which brought that stack down to let’s say six inches tall.
GLEN: I’m trying to figure out how working as a research analyst at the CIA was the path to being at Arkenstone. What happened in between?
MIKE: Oh, in the ‘80s, first I worked for the Bank of California on automated teller machines. This was the first that they had really started to be made available. And then I went to ESL and worked for the defense contractor, and then split off with some friends who started Finial Technology.
GLEN: I think I’m one of the few people who remembers the Finial turntable, a laser turntable.
MIKE: Yeah. I was really pleased to know that that very important segment in my life, which was absolutely fascinating, before the CD got any kind of foothold, playing a vinyl record in a better way, without a needle, in a contactless fashion, was really a huge, huge breakthrough that a young team of engineers who didn’t know any better set out to do and actually accomplished.
GLEN: Let’s talk about your arrival at Arkenstone. How did that come about, and what were the first things you worked on?
MIKE: Well, it came about because I had moved to Ashland, Oregon in 1988, thinking if I start another company, I want to do it in a place where I choose to be. And Silicon Valley was so congested, and I thought, I need to get out of here. So I was in Ashland for six years with some other entrepreneurial efforts. And it’s a tough place to start a business, maintain a business. And at some point I was on an airplane with Jim Fruchterman – I think I was flying to an ACB conference, or NFB conference – and happened to sit next to him. And he told me he was going to be looking for a VP of Sales in this new company Arkenstone he had. And one thing led to another. I applied for it. He hired me. And we moved from Ashland back down to Silicon Valley. That’s where it all started in late 1994.
GLEN: What did you know about sales back then?
MIKE: Well, I think what I’d learned at the Finial laser turntable company played a lot into both marketing and sales because that’s what I was VP of at Arkenstone. So a lot of it was in the planning and the structuring of dealer networks and figuring out the products that we could sell. And I really enjoyed being on the innovation of both the first reading machines, which were dedicated reading machines before it went to software-based optical character recognition. And then also that’s where the first GPS started. So Arkenstone was a very pivotal point in my career.
GLEN: I remember the first related product that Arkenstone came out with was something called Atlas Speaks, which were essentially talking maps where you could explore the environment around you.
MIKE: I remember clearly going on what we called our 45-City Tour of the U.S., going to all the Lighthouses and different agencies and presenting Atlas Speaks. And one of the most enjoyable things was being at a conference and have somebody walk up, and they’d say, “I live in so-and-so Arkansas, and I know that’s not going to be on any kind of digital map.” And I’d type it into the computer, and it would come up on Atlas Speaks, and I could tell him about the intersections and the points of interest in their neighborhood. And people were blown away. I mean, it really was a revolutionary product, and one of the most exciting things at those conferences.
GLEN: Arkenstone pretty quickly turned away from the whole idea of doing GPS products. But yet you still seem to really believe in them. Am I getting the story right, first of all?
MIKE: Yeah. There was quite a turning point around 1997-98. The board of Arkenstone looked at the financials and just said, you know, we’re spending some excess amount of money developing the GPS, which was called Strider, and it’s just not happening commercially. And it really was premature for a commercial GPS product, particularly one that’s in a backpack with a laptop and an external keypad and external antennas. There was way too many connections for this thing to be practical.
And so the company made the decision to stop development. And I really did believe in it as a blind person. I just said location information is so important to me and how I get around and how I conduct my life socially and professionally. I want this to happen, and I think other blind people will pay for it. So I talked to Jim and agreed that, if I went off and started my own company, and I raised X amount of money, then I could take over the product and try to commercialize it, which is exactly what I did.
GLEN: When you started the company, how much of your own hide was on the line?
MIKE: Oh, completely. I mean, I didn’t get a salary for a couple of years. And then I got Charles LaPierre involved, and same thing with him, you know, we were not getting paid much in the early days. And as you know, in the adaptive technology business, a lot of things are paid for by the Department of Rehabilitation – 70 percent, 80 percent, something like that. And Rehab would not pay for a GPS device in those early days. And it took a long time, maybe 2003 or ’4, before Rehab started funding this for clients. And then that made a big difference in the available market, and it made it possible for others to compete because it originally was just me on my soapbox. And then HumanWare got involved with Trekker, and then we got GPS onto the PAC Mate. And once there were more players, then all of a sudden this legitimized the product.
GLEN: What kept you going in those early dark days?
MIKE: There’s always this decision when you’re an entrepreneur. You have lots of skin in the game, and when do you throw in the towel and when don’t you? And I always drew the line on I’m not going to take out a second mortgage on my house. If it gets to that point, it’s time to move on and do something else. But we had lots of successes. And when Rehab started buying and sales took off, and then we became a Braille Note dealer and a PAC Mate dealer, that kind of hardware helped to fund the attachments that went onto those devices. So it made Sendero viable. And key factor for research and development and new products were grants. So we got lots of federal grants to the tune of, let’s say, five million dollars. And that was really key because the GPS market was such a small part of what’s already a small market.
GLEN: So jump ahead now to 2021. There’s Google Maps, there are Apple Maps, these services that blind people can use, at least for getting basic directions. Where do you see the niche now for custom GPS apps for folks who are blind?
MIKE: Well, the real differentiation between the two is that the Apple and Google Maps and HERE Maps, they’re geared for sighted users, and they’ve all made attempts at making their apps more accessible. And they do a great job of turn-by-turn navigation, walking or in a car. What they don’t focus on is all the verbosity, let’s say, leading up to a turn. You’re approaching a turn. You’re going to turn in this number of feet, all the detail. And then once you turn, confirming that you’ve turned and telling you where the next turn is. So the niche is really in the accessibility apps giving that kind of narration and confirmation that a blind person needs and a sighted person does not because they can see the blue dot on their screen, and they get that confirmation visually. We want that verbally.
GLEN: The holy grail for many of us has been indoor navigation. And people have been talking about it for ages and ages. Can you sort of set the stage as to where we’ve come from and where we’re going?
MIKE: It is the holy grail, and it is the new frontier. And I’ve worked on a grant in 1995 at Arkenstone for an indoor system. And the problem has always been that dead reckoning systems, which don’t require any infrastructure, have an accuracy that accumulates. So you walk a hundred feet, and your position is off by 15 feet. Well, that’s not too bad until you get to 300 feet, and you’re now off by 45 feet. That doesn’t work indoors. And that’s been a really hard nut to crack. We worked on a number of different grants, another one called Talking Lights around 2008 or so where fluorescent lights were used to zero out the error in that dead reckoning system. But it still required a lot of hardware and a lot of infrastructure development.
So it wasn’t until six or eight years ago when Apple came out with iBeacons that all of a sudden commercial ventures started to get into the game and say, hey, wait, this can work. And you had Bluetooth beacons put in all the baseball stadiums. But the MLB, what do they call it, not the MLB app, but a similar one which is used for getting around in a stadium, it was completely visual. So that was the start. And then a lot of companies built purpose-made apps for Macy’s and the Apple Store where you could use some Bluetooth beacons. And then a number of companies, blindness companies got involved, you know, BlindSquare and Lazarillo, and there’s lots of others using Bluetooth beacons.
And it was a good practical solution, but mediocre. All of a sudden it was, okay, well, now we can kind of get around indoors, but the accuracy varies a lot. And Bluetooth and iPhones were not meant for reliable, robust, directional communication. And that’s really where the indoor navigation industry has been for the last six or eight years. And this brings us up to 2020, when GoodMaps, which I joined in 2019, which was formed that year, started out with beacons, and then quickly realized these impracticalities and came across a LiDAR and camera-based solution which would mean much less infrastructure because you’re doing all of the scanning and the indoor positioning and the mapping electronically, with a laser and a camera, and you don’t have to install a bunch of beacons. So all of a sudden the cost to the venue owner for having an installation is cut in an order of magnitude.
GLEN: And does that technology allow giving incremental directions? Or is it simply only good enough to tell you where you are?
MIKE: That really gets to the heart of where some of the other indoor apps are today. They really were based around point-to-point. You have NaviLens, for example, which are big bar codes that can be placed in different locations and work pretty well at some transit agencies. But it’s point-to-point navigation. It’s not turn-by-turn, like we’re used to outdoors. So with the GoodMaps Explorer app, and with this LiDAR camera-based positioning, you can have actual turn-by-turn routes that get the accuracy consistently down to a few feet.
GLEN: Do you ever see a day that someone could sort of do their own do-it-yourself indoor navigation on demand? So for instance, I’m going to a conference at a busy hotel. It may not be a blindness conference, but I want to map the areas where I’m going to be going so I can get guided directions.
MIKE: Oh, absolutely. And it’s been done to some extent already. There’s an app called Clew, C L E W, that does exactly that. And I walked into a Walgreens, and I started recording my Clew route at the beginning. And I had somebody show me where the pharmacy was. And then I saved that route. And then when I went back out of the door, out to the front door, through all the different aisles, I followed that Clew breadcrumb route, if you will, that’s also based on camera positioning, and it worked pretty well. There’s a lot of difficulties with that, and drawbacks, and it doesn’t work great outdoors. But it’s really a good example of what can be done.
And certainly as the iPhone and other devices have LiDAR built in, I think it’s not that long before we’ll see a day when you can get pretty good custom routes built, which would be really important because even if we are able to make the technology cheaper and scan a lot of buildings, there’s still going to be lots of places that people want to do their own thing.
GLEN: So you’re bullish on this stuff.
MIKE: I’m optimistic, at the same time skeptical because I’ve spent 25 years seeing indoor navigation not come to fruition. I am skeptical. But I draw the parallel with voice recognition. I worked on this in the Bank of California in 1980, and we were sure that within a year it would be the preferred technology. And voice recognition really didn’t become consumer appreciated and used until 2005, ’7, ’10. It took a long time. And I think that’s the case with indoor navigation. It’s taken this time to percolate and to finally get to something that looks pretty viable.
GLEN: A couple of unrelated questions. I don’t know anybody who’s met one President. You seem to have met four.
MIKE: I could say five because I met Joe Biden when he was Vice President.
GLEN: How, I mean, how?
MIKE: You know, just coincidentally, when I was at the CIA, Jimmy Carter came over for some meetings, and I got a chance to just shake hands with him. And the funny thing about that was that the Secret Service said, you know, “Will your dog bite the President?” And I said, “Well, she won’t bite anybody else, so I don’t think so.” Well, you know, they don’t really like smart-ass answers.
MIKE: And then President Reagan was after the Paralympics and the Olympics at Sarajevo in 1984. I got invited to the White House because of my skiing at the Olympics there. And then Bill Clinton came to – it was actually through Arkenstone. He landed at Moffett Field, where Arkenstone had its offices. And I met him outside Air Force One. And then with President Obama I actually had got to have meetings when he first came into office. First it was around stem cell transplants, and then it was around what could be done for disabilities. And we had a meeting of about 10 of us. And then the 2010 Paralympics in Vancouver I was on the White House delegation, and after that we were invited to the White House. And that’s where I met both the Obamas and the Bidens in the Map – ironically, in the Map Room in the White House.
GLEN: Pretty cool. I guess we should touch on your surgery. It seems to be a topic that the media was fascinated with at the time.
MIKE: Oh, yeah.
GLEN: But it sounds like, even though you got some vision back, it was not nearly what was hoped for.
MIKE: Yeah, well, I went into it thinking that something was better than nothing. And again, I was curious, and that’s why I went ahead with the surgery. And there was 50 percent chance that something positive would happen, but to what extent nobody knew. And as it turned out, I got good vision in a couple of ways. I had very good color detection, which is pretty exciting when you haven’t seen color since you were three years old, and motion detection. So if something was moving, even throwing a ball to me I could catch it in the air. And that’s a big deal. But I still couldn’t read print, recognize faces, or have depth perception. And that has a lot of practical implication where you think about mobility and reading.
So I still use braille and audio and a cane or a dog because my vision doesn’t do those things for me by itself, although it does augment mobility from the standpoint of I can walk around and use the dog for what’s in front of me, and I can look off to the side and say, oh, there’s a yellow house. That’s my landmark for where I need to turn. So I appreciate the value, but it still is very low vision.
GLEN: Have you found that, as you have aged, you have become less daring?
MIKE: I think so. I think it’s natural to become more circumspect as you get older. But I consciously try to remind myself not to lose the pioneering spirit, the curiosity. And maybe I do less risky physical things. But I’ve got to tell you, when I’m skiing down that mountain, and I’m going a little faster than I should be going, and I’m thinking, oh, boy, I don’t want to get hurt because I’m not going to heal as fast as I used to, I don’t necessarily slow down. So I’d say yes and no.
GLEN: It’s really fascinating to me that you can have the thoughts about not wanting to get hurt, but that your body doesn’t essentially clench up so much that it increases the chances of you getting hurt. I think that’s an amazing quality.
MIKE: I think you’re right. And that is something that you’re right. And that is something really key when you’re doing a physical activity. If you tense up, that’s the worst thing you can do.
GLEN: What got you going on the public speaking circuit?
MIKE: When I went into the new vision experience, 1999-2000, and I started getting over-the-top media interest, every network, every local station worldwide, it was nuts. And I had to have people managing my media contact. At that point I said, and I discussed this with my key blind friends, it’s better to manage the media because they’re going to go with a story no matter what. So it’s best if you get out there and manage the message. So I really took a lot of initiative in telling the story and making sure that something didn’t come out of my mouth that could get misconstrued because lots of editing goes on. And over the course of doing thousands of these interviews and speaking engagements, I got better at it.
GLEN: I think my real question about the public speaking had to do with how do you come up with a meaningful message; right? It’s one thing to say, oh, yeah, be great to go speak for this sales convention. But then of course the date draws near, and you have to figure out what to say that they’re going to be interested and motivated by.
MIKE: I think there’s a lot of messages that resonate no matter what the subject is. And my message is there’s always a way. And I talked about workarounds. And that really applies to everything. So what I need to do when I go into a company and I speak is to find out what are their specific challenges so I can relate those messages of there’s always a way and there’s workarounds to their particular situation. And then I tell them some interesting stories from my background that demonstrate how I’ve found the workarounds.
GLEN: There seem to be several themes that always come out in media material about you. What’s something that you’re proud of that nobody knows?
MIKE: Hmm. I think what I’m proudest of is the individual impact I’ve had on certain people. And I could point to any number of ones that don’t – they don’t make a story in and of themselves. But I know that I’ve impacted somebody’s lives. I’ll give you one example of when I worked my first job as a camp counselor in Enchanted Hills Camp. And I was 23, and a guy that was 47 was going through a life change from being an accountant, and he worked as a counselor. And we became close friends.
He ended up getting an O&M degree and working in the blindness field in Australia and Japan and Canada. And he passed away at age 92, just a month ago. And in his obituary it was mentioned about me that Ralph had gone off and made this life career change because of Mike and other blind people that he’d met. And those kind of individual stories, of which there are lots, I think I’m most proud of.
GLEN: Wow. That is a great story.
GLEN: Mike, I really appreciate you joining me on the podcast.
MIKE: Well, thanks for having me on, and thanks to everybody who’s developed all of these tools that we have in our very large toolbox to get things done. I mean, you can’t do the workarounds if there aren’t things to work with. So I’m very grateful to Vispero, Freedom, and to everybody else who’s worked in this field.
GLEN: That pretty much does it for FSCast 198. If you’d like to get in touch, it’s always great to hear from you. Write to email@example.com, V I S P E R O dotcom. I’m Glen Gordon. We’ll see you in a few weeks.