John Gardner, PhD

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 ABILITY’s 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, ViewPlus Technologies, 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 special teacher?

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: That’s 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 process?

Gardner: It was the day after the surgery.

JB: Can you talk about the frustration that you encountered at that time?

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 can’t see the data, that’s 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, let’s 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 we’d found something worthwhile. When we were unable to interest anybody in licensing and commercializing it, we said, “Oh, we’ll do it ourselves,” and founded the company.

JB: It’s based in Corvallis, OR?

Gardner: Yes.

JB: When we think of what people use, we tend to think of Braille, but you’ve gone far beyond that. Can you talk about some of the cutting-edge technologies you’ve 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 couldn’t 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 didn’t. And sometimes that’s not even enough. Because if you’ve 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 does that.

It allows you to feel something and the diagram talks to you at the same time. It will tell you: “All right. You’re 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, it’ll 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 Lisa’s face, the background is sort of whited out because it gets too cluttered. You’re 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 who’s 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 it’s famous, not just that it’s a picture of a woman and she’s got a nose and a mouth. Big deal. But why it’s interesting.

And then, information is included in the electronic file so you can access it by touching it, but it’s 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, you’re 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: We’re 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?” We’ve shown our audio-tactile diagrams at many shows, and it’s 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, “You’ve had your turn. Now let me have mine!”


JB: I could see that happening. It’s exciting that it’s 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: That’s 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 wouldn’t fit, so you’d 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 don’t.

The other reason we don’t put it in Braille is because people who are dyslexic can also use this. Dyslexic people, by and large, don’t use Braille. By being able to both see it and feel it, makes it more accessible.

JB: Our publisher might be interested in that. He’s dyslexic and might be curious about that possibility.

Gardner: A lot of people fall in that category. Keep in mind though, we’re 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 needs—including dyslexia. Our Voiceye® software solution, sold exclusively in the US by ViewPlus, can make every printed text document accessible instantly—and 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. It’s 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 there’s an error in the Braille. If the vision teacher isn’t around, and there’s 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?” It’s nice to have a document that’s 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 doesn’t actually have any numbers, they’re 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 you’re reading this thing, it’s just a mess. You can more or less tell what it says, but only more or less. That’s what other printers print, while we print the real words. But it takes good software to do that, and that’s 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: I’m a little naïve. My brother is blind, but I’ve never touched Braille, and I’ve never seen any of these technologies that you’re referring to, like a color tactile graphic, say. When that comes out of the printers, it’s tactile as it comes out, I’m 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 it’s something that’s intended to be tactile, or whether it’s something that’s 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 it’s 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 you’re touching it on. The most popular way to do this is the big old touch pad that we sell, but there are other technologies we’re 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 it’ll 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
.... continued in ABILITY Magazine

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Excerpts from the Andrea Bocelli Issue Oct/Nov 2013:

Andrea Bocelli — Singing to the Top

John Williams — What Else You Got?

China’s Mao Di — Clap Happy

John A. Gardner PhD — His ViewPlus More

Shereen Alnowais — Corporate Social Responsibility

Ballet — The Art of Sassoon

ask EARN — Regulations

Humor — Park at Your Own Risk

Articles 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; China’s 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... subscribe

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