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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Algae Gene Gives Blind Man Some Light-Based Sight

What are single-celled organisms good for, you may wonder? Science has found a wonderful new use for one of them — restoring partial sight to people with inherited forms of blindness. More specifically, they took a gene from algae that responds to light and moves toward it in order to replace dead or defective photo-receptor cells that lie between the human pupil and the optic nerve.

When light enters the eye, it triggers photo-receptor cells that in turn send signals to nerve cells called ganglions. These add information about motion and send the complete picture to the brain via the optic nerve. The researchers basically hacked the ganglion cells and turned them into photo-receptors. First they used a virus to get light-sensing molecules called chrimson into one of the retinas of the lone volunteer they’d managed to train before the pandemic. He’d been wearing the goggles out on walks and told them he could see the stripes of the crosswalk.

They were able to get him into the lab in summer 2020, where he donned a pair of goggles that register light changes and send amber light into the eye whenever that happens. He also wore a cap full of electrodes so the researchers could see what parts of his brain lit up when the goggles do their thing. With the goggles on and ready to fire, the man was able to distinguish whether a black cup was in front of him, and was even able to count multiple cups correctly most of the time. Although this is not a full restoration of vision, it’s an excellent development in that direction, and we’re excited to see where it goes.

In the future, the researchers hope to slim down the goggles into something more fashionable. Combine them with these camera-enabled shoes, and accessibility goes way up.

Thanks for the tip, [foamyguy]!

Seeking Enlightenment: The Quest To Restore Vision In Humans

Visual impairment has been a major issue for humankind for its entire history, but has become more pressing with society’s evolution into a world which revolves around visual acuity. Whether it’s about navigating a busy city or interacting with the countless screens that fill modern life, coping with reduced or no vision is a challenge. For countless individuals, the use of braille and accessibility technology such as screen readers is essential to interact with the world around them.

For refractive visual impairment we currently have a range of solutions, from glasses and contact lenses to more permanent options like LASIK and similar which seek to fix the refractive problem by burning away part of the cornea. When the eye’s lens itself has been damaged (e.g. with cataracts), it can be replaced with an artificial lens.

But what if the retina or optic nerve has been damaged in some way? For individuals with such (nerve) damage there has for decades been the tempting and seemingly futuristic concept to restore vision, whether through biological or technological means. Quite recently, there have been a number of studies which explore both approaches, with promising results.

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Giving Blind Runners Independence With AI

Being able to see, move, and exercise independently is something most of us take for granted. [Thomas Panek] was an avid runner before losing his sight due to a genetic condition, and had to rely on other humans and guide dogs to run again. After challenging attendants at a Google hackathon, Project Guideline was established to give blind runners (or walkers) independence from a cane, dog or another human, while exercising outdoors. Using a smartphone with line following AI software, and bone conduction headphones, users can be guided along a path with a line painted on it. You need to watch the video below to get a taste of just how incredible it is for the users.

Getting a wheeled robot to follow a line is relatively simple, but a running human is by no means a stable sensor platform. At the previously mentioned hackathon, developers put together a rough proof of concept with a smartphone, using its camera to recognize a painted line on the ground and provide left/right audio cues.  As the project developed, the smartphone was attached to a waist belt and bone conduction headphones were used,  which don’t affect audio situational awareness as much as normal headphones.

The shaking and side to side movement of running, and varying light conditions and visual obstructions in the outdoors made the problem more difficult to solve, but within a year the developers had completed successful running tests with [Thomas] on a well-lit indoor track and an outdoor pedestrian path with a temporary line. For the first time in 25 years, [Thomas] was able to run independently.

While guide dogs have proven effective for both daily life and running, they cost approximately $60000 over an average working life of 8 years, putting them out of reach of many sight-impaired people around the world. Project Guideline is still in the early stages, and real-world problems like obstacles and traffic still need to be addressed, but there is massive potential.

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Accessibility Apps Get Help From Bluetooth Buttons

Ever hear of Microsoft Soundscape? We hadn’t, either. But apparently it and similar apps like Blindsquare provide people with vision problems context about their surroundings. The app is made to run in the background of the user’s mobile device and respond to media controls, but if you are navigating around with a cane, getting to media controls on a phone or even a headset might not be very convenient. [Jazzang] set out to build buttons that could control apps like this that could be integrated with a cane or otherwise located in a convenient location.

There are four buttons of interest. Play/pause, Next, Back, and Home. There’s also a mute button and an additional button you can use with the phone’s accessibility settings. Each button has a special function for Soundscape. For example, Next will describe the point of interest in front of you. Soundscape runs on an iPhone so Bluetooth is the obvious choice for creating the buttons.

To simplify things, the project uses an Adafruit Feather nRF52 Bluefruit board. Given that it’s Arduino compatible and provides a Bluetooth Human Interface Device (HID) out of the box, there’s almost nothing else to do for the hardware but wire up the switches and some pull up resistors. That would make the circuit easy to stick almost anywhere.

Software-wise, things aren’t too hard either. The library provides all the Bluetooth HID device trappings you need, and once that’s set up, it is pretty simple to send keys to the phone. This is a great example of how simple so many tasks have become due to the availability of abstractions that handle all of the details. Since a Bluetooth HID device is just a keyboard, you can probably think of many other uses for this setup with just small changes in the software.

We covered the Bluefruit back when it first appeared. We don’t know about mounting this to a cane, but we do remember something similar attached to a sword.

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