Last night, 60+ people gathered at Pivotal Labs to hear Georgia Krantz, John Schimmel, and Zach Lieberman talk about their approaches in developing assistive technology within the arts (presenter bios are available on meetup.com). While each speaker had their own unique approach, they all brought a similar idea to their work – empathy and compassion.
Georgia Krantz spoke about some of her key findings while working with MoMA and the Guggenheim on MindsEye. One of the key challenges she has encountered in developing assistive tech has not actually been technology – it has been breaking down attitudinal barriers – while technology is a great answer to many issues, it doesn’t solve everything. When designing solutions, we need to define the problem via inquiry, observation, and curiosity. For example, many blind people wanted to use their own personal devices and mobile phones instead of the audio guides museums provide. Since they are already familiar with the devices and its user interface, they don’t have to re-learn an entirely new interface. They also sometimes preferred to download content to their devices before going the museum, or having a way to experience the content afterwards.
Creating a good user experience is at the heart of developing assistive technology. The second speaker, John Schimmel, described his experience in “Designing for 1.” While still a graduate student at NYU, he developed Ramps, a DJ system for a wheelchair bound teenager. When he started the project, he didn’t have a sense of what the finished product would be. While the initial designs his team produced were not spot on, they gave him enough insight to keep iterating and building a better user experience. Through observation, insight, and iteration, his team was able to develop a great system for a particular user.
Zach Lieberman gave an overview of his project, eyeWriter, a system that has allowed Tempt1, a paralyzed graffiti artist, to create art again.
From the site :
Tempt1 was diagnosed with ALS in 2003, a disease which has left him almost completely physically paralyzed… except for his eyes. This international team is working together to create a low-cost, open source eye-tracking system that will allow ALS patients to draw using just their eyes. The long-term goal is to create a professional/social network of software developers, hardware hackers, urban projection artists and ALS patients from around the world who are using local materials and open source research to creatively connect and make eye art.
While the system was originally designed for just 1 person to use, the project used open source software and hardware, and now has a community of users building on Zach’s original initiatives. On October 19th, 2010, the eyeWriter’s kickstarter project was fully funded.
As a collection, these innovators showed the power of identifying problems in unique ways. Many of the solutions we heard about last night were developed in close collaborations with the end users. Whether you’re designing an experience for just one person, or analyzing a system for very large instiutions, incorporating feedback at every stage will only make the final product stronger.
Thanks again to all the speakers from last night!