Urgon solders close up to see the work

Vision Impaired Electronics Engineer Shows The Way To Get Things Done

A funny thing happens as the average electronics hobbyist gets older: Their eyes- well they just don’t work the same as they used to. But what if your life started out with compromised vision? In this epic forum post (Google translated from Polish to English), we meet nearly blind hacker [Urgon]. He goes into great detail about his condition and how it affects not just his daily life, but also his abilities as an electronics engineer. Or conversely, how it doesn’t.

[Urgon]’s origin story is familiar. At eight years old, he disassembled his first television. His self-education continued by using his remaining vision to soak up every bit of literature about electronics that he could get his hands on. A well-intentioned but protective mother kept him away from soldering irons, fearing that the close proximity to his good eye might not bode well for his remaining vision.

If Urgon can solder 0805's, so can you!
If Urgon can solder SOIC’s 0805’s, so can you!

Despite a failed eye, and his other having quite severe glaucoma, [Urgon] has persevered. He uses assistive technologies as you’d expect, but notes that in more recent times some excellent¬†free software has surpassed some of the commercial products he used in the past.

While even the sighted among us often shy away from SMD components, [Urgon] dives right in. SOIC packages and 0805 parts don’t hold him back. Bright LED flashlights, zooming in with his smart phone, and surely a healthy dose of patience make his hackery possible.

That’s not to say that [Urgon] hasn’t had some noteworthy incidents. He’s suffered electric shock from the 400 V capacitors in an ATX PSU, burned his face with his soldering iron, and even managed to step on a DIP package. Barefoot. Yes, the pins were facing up.

But wait- there’s more! In this follow-up post, [Urgon] discusses more assistive/adaptive technologies and how hackers like you and I can focus our efforts on things the vision impaired will find most helpful.

Our hats are off to [Urgon] and those like him who persevere despite the odds. We can all learn from [Urgon]’s hacker spirit and his dedication to the craft. We recently covered some blind software hackers who have taken it upon themselves to fly passenger jets– virtually, of course!

Thanks to [Moryc] for the excellent tip!

 

Brain Implant Offers Artificial Vision To The Blind

Nothing makes you appreciate your vision more than getting a little older and realizing that it used to be better and that it will probably get worse. But imagine how much more difficult it would be if you were totally blind. That was what happened to [Berna Gomez] when, at 42, she developed a medical condition that destroyed her optic nerves leaving her blind in a matter of days and ending her career as a science teacher. But thanks to science [Gomez] can now see, at least to some extent. She volunteered after 16 years to have a penny-sized device with 96 electrodes implanted in her visual cortex. The research is in the Journal of Clinical Investigation and while it is a crude first step, it shows lots of promise and uses some very novel techniques to overcome certain limitations.

The 96 electrodes were in a 10×10 grid with the four corner electrodes missing. The resolution, of course, is lacking, but the project turned to a glasses-mounted camera to acquire images and process them, reducing them to signals for the electrodes that may not directly map to the image.

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Demonstration of the PMDG 737 being controlled by a blind user using Talking Flight Monitor

Flying Blind: Taking Flight Simulation To A New Level In Accessibility

Software developers [Andy Borka] and [Jason Fayre] have a love for aviation. They are also both totally blind. They’ve developed software called Talking Flight Monitor, and it has made flight simulation possible for anyone with impaired vision or blindness, as you can experience in the blurry video below the break. What draws them to aviation and flight simulators?

This fascination with flight is not limited to the sighted, and who wouldn’t want to experience what it’s like to be in cockpit of a modern airliner? I still recall the awe that I felt when at 9 years old, I glanced the flight deck of a McDonnell Douglas MD-80 as I boarded the aircraft. The array of lights, buttons, switches, and gauges dazzled me for years to come. I wanted to know how all of it worked. I wanted to be a pilot. A few years later I discovered Flight Simulator 4 on a 286, and I was hooked for life.

For the vision impaired this presents a problem. Flight simulators are by nature extremely visual, and they lack the text based interface that would allow a screen reader to help a visually impaired person make use of the simulator. Enter Talking Flight Monitor.

[Andy] and [Jason] have worked with PMDG Simulations to create text friendly interfaces for the 737 and 777 produced by PMDG. These ultra-realistic aircraft are available for the Prepar3D flight Simulator, and they result in a combination that blurs the line between Flight Simulator and Flight Training. By modifying these aircraft with accessible control panels, Talking Flight Monitor allows a completely blind flight simulator user to take off, navigate, and even land without ever seeing the screen.

Talking Flight Monitor makes flight possible using over 70 keyboard shortcuts. Both autopilot control and full manual control of the aircraft simulation are possible. Compatibility with standard simulation software is maintained in such a way that tutorials for programming flight computers not controlled by Talking Flight Monitor will still work. It even includes its own voice, so it does not require a screen reader to use.

Our hats are off to [Andy] and [Jason] for their hard work, diligence, and true application of the Hacker spirit. Thanks to [Mike Stone] for this most excellent tip.

[Note: The images in this post are produced by a community of blind flight simulator users who are not concerned with visual quality. They have been intentionally left blurry.]

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Giving Sight To The Blind With A Wave Of The Hand

[Jakob Kilian] is working on a glove that he hopes will let the blind “see” their surroundings.

One of the most fascinating examples of the human brain’s plasticity is in its ability to map one sense to another. Some people, for example, report being able to see sound, giving them a supernatural ability to distinguish tones. This effect has also been observed in the visually impaired. There are experiments where grids of electrodes were placed on the tongue or mechanical actuators were placed on the lower back. The signals from a camera were fed into these grids and translated in to shocks or movement. The interesting effect is that the users quickly learned to distinguish objects from this low resolution input. As they continued to use these devices they actually reported seeing the objects as their visual centers took over interpreting this input.

Most of these projects are quite bulky and the usual mess you’d expect from a university laboratory. [Jakob]’s project appears to trend to a much more user-friendly product. A grid of haptics are placed on the back of the user’s hand along with a depth camera. Not only is it somewhat unobtrusive, the back of the hand is very sensitive to touch and the camera is in a prime position to be positioned for a look around the world.

[Jakob] admits that, as an interaction designer, his hardware hacking skills are still growing. To us, the polish and thought that went into this is already quite impressive, so it’s no wonder he’s one of the Hackaday Prize Finalists.

Braille Keyboard Finds Its Voice

If you have a serious visual impairment, using a computer isn’t easy. [Dhiraj] has a project that allows people fluent in Braille to use that language for input. In addition to having a set position for fingers, the device also reads the key pressed as you type. With some third party software it is possible to even create Word documents, according to [Dhiraj].

You can see the finished product in the video below. This is one of those projects where the idea is the hardest part. Reading six buttons and converting them into characters is fairly simple. Each Braille character uses a cell of six bumps and the buttons mimic those bumps (although laid out for your fingers).

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Get Your Tweets Without Looking

Head-mounted displays range from cumbersome to glass-hole-ish. Smart watches have their niche, but they still take your eyes away from whatever you are doing, like driving. Voice assistants can read to you, but they require a speaker that everyone else in the car has to listen to, or a headset that blocks out important sound. Ignoring incoming messages is out of the question so the answer may be to use a different sense than vision. A joint project between Facebook Inc. and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have a solution which uses the somatosensory reception of your forearm.

A similar idea came across our desk years ago and seemed promising, but it is hard to sell something that is more difficult than the current technique, even if it is advantageous in the long run. In 2013, a wearer had his or her back covered in vibrator motors, and it acted like the haptic version of a spectrum analyzer. Now, the vibrators have been reduced in number to fit under a sleeve by utilizing patterns. It is being developed for people with hearing or vision impairment but what drivers aren’t impaired while looking at their phones?

Patterns are what really set this version apart. Rather than relaying a discrete note on a finger, or a range of values across the back, the 39 English phenomes are given a unique sequence of vibrations which is enough to encode any word. A phenome phoneme is the smallest distinct unit of speech. The video below shows how those phonemes are translated to haptic feedback. Hopefully, we can send tweets without using our hands or mouths to upgrade to complete telepathy.

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Braille On A Tablet Computer

Signing up for college classes can be intimidating, from tuition, textbook requirements, to finding an engaging professor. Imagine signing up online, but you cannot use your monitor. We wager that roughly ninety-nine percent of the hackers reading this article have it displayed on a tablet, phone, or computer monitor. Conversely, “Only one percent of published books is available in Braille,” according to [Kristina Tsvetanova] who has created a hybrid tablet computer with a Braille display next to a touch-screen tablet running Android. The tablet accepts voice commands for launching apps, a feature baked right into Android. The idea came to her after helping a blind classmate sign up for classes.

Details on the mechanism are not clear, but they are calling it smart liquid, so it may be safe to assume hydraulic valves control the raised dots, which they call “tixels”. A rendering of the tablet can be seen below the break. The ability to create a full page of braille cells suggest they have made the technology pretty compact. We have seen Braille written on PCBs, a refreshable display based on vibrator motors, and a nicely sized Braille keyboard that can fit on the back of a mobile phone.

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