When John A. Gardner,
PhD went blind at 48 owing to complications from eye surgery, he had
to figure out how to do his job as a professor and physicist at Oregon
State University. But it was rude awakening, trying to do his research
without the aid of assistive technology. So out of frustration, the
physicist created ViewPlus Technologies, masterminding a range of
tools to convert visually-oriented information to a medium that can
be comprehended by people of low vision, through touch and sound.
From his vacation retreat somewhere in Germany, Dr. Gardner found
time to Skype with ABILITYs Christopher JB.
Christopher JB: Congratulations on your win of the ACM SIGACCESS
Award for outstanding contributions to computing and accessibility.
Dr. John A. Gardner: Thank you. It was really for what our company,
has developed. But they had to aim it at somebody and I was standing
in the way.
JB: How did you first become interested in science? Was there a
Gardner: My father was a mathematician, so at the dinner table we
were asked math questions. Then, when I went off to school, it felt
natural to study math and science.
JB: It was always there then, nurtured by your father.
Gardner: Thats right.
JB: You lived much of your life sighted and went blind after undergoing
surgery. Did you wake up from the surgery blind, or was it a slower
Gardner: It was the day after the surgery.
JB: Can you talk about the frustration that you encountered at
Gardner: Most of it had to do with my research. I had more than a
dozen students, post-docs and visiting faculty in my research group,
and it was well funded by the Department of Energy, as well as the
National Science Foundation. We were working on a complex technique
to understand physics of defects in solids, which were practiced by
only a handful of people around the world. You had to look at nuances
of the data, you had to run checks, and you had to look at many, many,
many checks before you could convince yourself that what you were
doing was actually sensible. And when you cant see the data,
thats kind of hard to do. That was the real frustration.
JB: Was that the beginning of your involvement with assistive technologies?
Gardner: Well, I could see rather quickly that there were an awful
lot of, lets say, deficiencies in the way information was presented
and in the technologies for accessing information even if it was well
presented. Mostly in graphical information, but also in mathematics.
So I thought, well, this is an opportunity to do something about it.
So I started working on it, and that became my second research field,
which later became my primary research field.
JB: What year did you form your company?
Gardner: In 1996, one of my students came up with this new embossing
technology and we realized that finally wed found something
worthwhile. When we were unable to interest anybody in licensing and
commercializing it, we said, Oh, well do it ourselves,
and founded the company.
JB: Its based in Corvallis, OR?
JB: When we think of what people use, we tend to think of Braille,
but youve gone far beyond that. Can you talk about some of the
cutting-edge technologies youve created that make a difference
in the lives of those with blindness and low vision?
Gardner: I guess we should talk mostly about graphics. Even then,
it was clear to me that the right way to access graphics was to feel
them. But your fingers are not nearly as sensitive as your eyes. There
was a technology that had been developed a few years before by an
Australian scientist. He published his first paper on it in 1988,
and what he did was determine that you needed something you could
touch that had two-dimensions. For instance, I remember early on my
wife handed me a tactile diagram and asked me to tell her what it
was. I felt it and I said, Hmm. This feels like two halves of
a bunch of wire. In fact, it was a bicycle.
JB: You couldnt decipher it by touch.
Gardner: Right. Had she told me it was a bicycle, I would have then
been able to figure out what it was, but she didnt. And sometimes
thats not even enough. Because if youve never seen a bicycle
before, you would need to be told, this is the front wheel, this is
the back wheel, these are the handlebars. So this audio-tactile technology
It allows you to feel something and the diagram talks to you at the
same time. It will tell you: All right. Youre going to
see a bicycle, and it might give you more information. This
is a bicycle. The front of the bicycle is pointed to the right,
and so on. But then as you touch it, itll say, This is
the front wheel. This is the handlebar. For more complex things
on the bicycle, you might have more information.
We have a demonstration of how to make art accessible, which is a
picture of the Mona Lisa. When you feel it, you feel Mona Lisas
face, the background is sort of whited out because it gets too cluttered.
Youre just feeling Mona Lisa. When you touch her mouth, it will
say mouth, but if you then probe deeper, it will start
to tell you, She has an enigmatic smile, which is then
discussed by various people. A friend whos an art historian
does all this for us. By exploring that picture of the Mona Lisa,
you can learn a great deal about the painting and why its famous,
not just that its a picture of a woman and shes got a
nose and a mouth. Big deal. But why its interesting.
And then, information is included in the electronic file so you can
access it by touching it, but its not shown on the picture itself.
That would be really messy if you put the words on the picture, but
the words are there.
JB: It sounds almost as if you could explore a painting more than
a sighted person that way, youre touching it, feeling every
contour, and then you have insights from an art historian to round
it out. That could be even better in some ways.
Gardner: Were having discussions with people in art museums
who have said, Suppose we could create new ways to make art
accessible to sighted people as well? Weve shown our audio-tactile
diagrams at many shows, and its quite normal for a family to
bring up their child who is blind, the child will be exploring it
and the sighted brothers and sisters will crowd around saying, Youve
had your turn. Now let me have mine!
JB: I could see that happening. Its exciting that its
crossing over like that. I read a press release that you went to a
conference and heard parents talk about how smart phones and voice-activated
technologies are getting in the way of Braille literacy for low vision
school children, which might be happening as far as kids wanting to
read in general. Your technology, though, works with Braille. Do you
think that Braille could be made more enticing to low vision and blind
students to counter any disinterest in Braille?
Gardner: Thats an interesting thought. We discovered when we
began developing this technique that words on the diagram are not
converting to Braille. There are several reasons for this. One, Braille
is pretty big. If you took the words off the diagram and converted
them to Braille, chances are pretty good it wouldnt fit, so
youd have a big mess. So we just have tactile copies of whatever
text is on there. Sometimes, if the figure is enlarged, you can read
the tactile copy, but it has to be enlarged quite a bit. It also depends
on whether you know the shape of letters. Most blind people actually
do, but some dont.
The other reason we dont put it in Braille is because people
who are dyslexic can also use this. Dyslexic people, by and large,
dont use Braille. By being able to both see it and feel it,
makes it more accessible.
JB: Our publisher might be interested in that. Hes dyslexic
and might be curious about that possibility.
Gardner: A lot of people fall in that category. Keep in mind though,
were not just in the Braille business. We are a company that
is providing equal access to information, for every member of the
learning community, while reducing the cost to schools, universities
and organizations servicing citizens with vision needsincluding
dyslexia. Our Voiceye® software solution, sold exclusively in
the US by ViewPlus, can make every printed text document accessible
instantlyand in 58 different languages, just by sending it to
any printer. This technology is fast becoming the software of choice
by people with dyslexia and those who do not currently read Braille.
JB: I read this about your company: ViewPlus is the only
company in the world producing desktop printers that produce color
tactile graphs and ink with Braille combined. Could you expound
on that? Is that your most innovative technology?
Gardner: There have been other embossers that could print ink, and
preceding us there was a Japanese embosser that would print ink. Its
very nice to have the ink words as well as the Braille words, because
then the piece of paper becomes accessible to everybody.
For example, a child who is blind may not be as fluent in Braille
as he could be, or sometimes theres an error in the Braille.
If the vision teacher isnt around, and theres also ink
on there, he can just poke the elbow of the kid next to him and say,
Can you tell me what this says? Its nice to have
a document thats universal, meaning that a person who is blind
and a sighted person can both read it.
The difference between our product and what has previously been on
the market is that ours actually prints the words that are supposed
to be there. Braille is a form of shorthand, so when you convert the
words to Braille, there are a lot of shortened words, a lot of abbreviations,
contractions and things like that. Typically in English, the number
of letters is reduced to about 70 percent, for example, of the ink
letters. Braille is also very strange. What you use to represent Braille
or used to use on a computer was a computer Braille code so that blind
people could compose computer programs in which every Braille character
is represented by an ASCII character. These have some relationship
to real Braille. For example, the numbers are different from the literary
Braille numbers, because literary Braille doesnt actually have
any numbers, theyre represented by a code. So these are real
numbers, but the computer numbers are actually punctuation marks.
So 1 is actually a comma in literary Braille. So when youre
reading this thing, its just a mess. You can more or less tell
what it says, but only more or less. Thats what other printers
print, while we print the real words. But it takes good software to
do that, and thats as much the difference as anything else.
We support our embossers with first-rate software. And, in answer
to your question, we are the only company in the world, with embossers
providing color tactile graphics, braille and text in ink all
on the same page.
JB: Im a little naïve. My brother is blind, but Ive
never touched Braille, and Ive never seen any of these technologies
that youre referring to, like a color tactile graphic, say.
When that comes out of the printers, its tactile as it comes
out, Im assuming? So the blind person can touch it right away
and kind of see it that way? Is that how it works?
Gardner: It depends on whether its something thats intended
to be tactile, or whether its something thats just for
reading with Braille on it. Either one we can do on our printer. So
if you had my bicycle example and it was prepared in Braille, it would
have the word bicycle on it somewhere as the title, and
maybe even some additional information. It comes off the printer and
then you can read it. If its audio-tactile, it comes off the
printer and you need to somehow associate with a device that can communicate
with the computer, so that the computer knows what part of the diagram
youre touching it on. The most popular way to do this is the
big old touch pad that we sell, but there are other technologies were
developing that will be used in the future. So you take it off, put
it on the touch pad, and then touch the bicycle wheel and itll
start telling you what it is.
JB: That sounds more appealing than mere Braille. Can you talk
about some of the problems teachers face in meeting the needs of low
vision students? Are there some areas you still want to address?
Gardner: Oh, sure. There are always going to be things that need to
be done. Bigger, better, faster. I think right now one of the frustrations
I have is that because Braille has such a mystique about it, somebody
has to be trained in Braille to use it. You must take a two-year course
in Braille to be certified transcriber....
in ABILITY Magazine
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from the Andrea
Andrea Bocelli Singing to the Top
John Williams What Else You
Chinas Mao Di Clap Happy
John A. Gardner PhD His
Alnowais Corporate Social Responsibility
Ballet The Art of Sassoon
ask EARN Regulations
Humor Park at Your Own Risk
in the Andrea Bocelli Issue; Implementing the Final Rule; Ashley Fiolek
Worth the Flight Delay; Humor Park at Your Own Risk;
Geri Jewell Breath Addiction; Long Haul Paul Keeping
Cool; Shereen Alnowais Corporate Social Responsibility; ComEd
Providing Energy; OrCam Point the Way!; John Williams
What Else You Got?; Ballet The Art of Sassoon; Chinas
Mao Di Clap Happy; Andrea Bocelli Singing to the Top;
John A. Gardner PhD His ViewPlus More; ask EARN Regulations;
ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences...