We asked Professor Carsten Zahout-Heil, Director of Studies for the Reliability Engineering Distance Learning Work-Study Program (M.Eng.) at Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences
Accessible and realistic – that’s how auxiliary aids should be in the eyes of Professor Carsten Zahout. Students at the Smart Accessibility Laboratory (SmAccLab) are working on technical solutions that fulfill these requirements and lead to increased participation for people with disabilities. REHACARE.com asked about the aids the team was already able to develop and found out how product engineering and inclusion join forces.
Prof. Carsten Zahout-Heil
Professor Zahout-Heil, what is the Smart Accessibility Laboratory?
Prof. Carsten Zahout-Heil: At present, the Smart Accessibility Laboratory is a consolidation of several ongoing projects that focus on one idea: How can modern technology increase accessibility in easy ways? This is not about showcasing the latest research, but about making solutions accessible to those affected through auxiliary aids that are easy to reproduce. People with disabilities are frequently unemployed or restricted in their ability to work, making auxiliary aids often unattainable and unaffordable. It also doesn’t help them if an idea might be market-ready 20 years from now.
The catalyst for this was a paraplegic, who 20 years ago built an electric muscle stimulation device with simple methods, which enabled her to ride a recumbent bike – using her own "muscle power"! I lost sight of this issue while I worked in the industrial sector, but since I switched to the Darmstadt University in 2015, I have once again gotten involved with this cause.
A product sample was created as part of a master’s degree thesis. It features sensors as part of a white cane. What makes this so unique?
Prof. Zahout-Heil: It was a jumping-off point. Even though this is not a brand-new idea, the issue was brought up again during conversations with a blind colleague.
It’s impossible to detect objects that are located from the waist up with a conventional white cane. It’s especially risky if you encounter overhanging tree branches, stairs without handrails and chains that people could run into. The idea was to add sensors that cover these areas without changing the white cane’s tactile sensation and feedback with the added weight of the electronic system. We also didn’t want to create a prototype that this "inaccessible" for blind people, but instead build a system with standard components that is easy to replicate.
As aforementioned, accessibility is an important pillar. Knowing there is an available auxiliary aid out there doesn’t help anyone, unless it is also affordable – which is why we use standard components or kits.
The second pillar is practicality and a realistic approach. Unfortunately, there are far too many concepts and products that creative minds have come up with that have no bearing in the real world of those affected. That’s also why we closely collaborate with self-help organizations, working groups, experts and volunteers who present ideas, test the concepts and help co-develop solutions.
This is the first prototype of the cane sensor. It scans the environment at two angles (up and down). Feedback to the user is provided by a wristband with two vibration motors.
Which other projects are under development or in the planning stages?
Prof. Zahout-Heil: One of our current products aims to enable blind people to better experience their surroundings and improve accessibility. We use object, color, face and image recognition, as well as text recognition and optical character recognition of street signs and company logos to make this a reality. We apply artificial intelligence that does not require an internet connection, and are simultaneously developing a "building kit" that allows the modular construction of devices. This will enable users to choose the type of recognition he or she needs or wants and the way the information should be transmitted. Options include audio output via Bluetooth or speakers or a mobile Braille display, which we are currently developing.
Another project studies a simple universal remote control that’s usable in everyday settings in public buildings or public transportation scenarios. We are also considering a "robotic guide dog", input devices for people living with spasticity and switches that give different types of sensory feedback. Another project already involves a second study and emphasizes mouse control using facial expressions and a smartphone – without the need for expensive eye tracking technology.
We are also expanding our "SmAccLab" open laboratory at this time. This lab idea is based on the fab lab concept, which aims to give students and volunteers a space to turn their accessibility ideas into reality. The lab will be equipped with various gear and tools. It is also meant to support vocation training settings and facilitate events for student groups or other interested parties. We will make devices that were created as part of student projects available to affected persons in need. The scheduled expansion of the laboratory is made possible by various grants.
Apart from that, we have a variety of ideas that we are presently not able to actively pursue because we don’t have the respective resources. Having said that, I always welcome ideas and comments and appreciate volunteers who want to support our work and efforts.
The prototype for object recognition can be worn clipped to clothing, collar or belt. The small camera takes a picture at the push of a button and transmits the content of the picture via Bluetooth (e.g. "banana" or "cat in front of the window").
What does inclusion mean to you?
Prof. Zahout-Heil: Inclusion reflects a broad spectrum that goes beyond technical and social dimensions. However, my answer specifically refers to product development. "Design for the young and you exclude the old, design for the old and you include everyone" one of my former colleagues used to say. At the time, it referred to senior-friendly design choices. But if you apply this to inclusion, to me it means factoring in all the different user groups and their needs in your concept. Everybody wins if you also include blind or deaf people in your product design. This isn’t always easy and often involves balancing contradicting requirements. Yet in this context, to me inclusion means I am not just creating something specifically for blind users, but I make sure that a product can be used by everyone and that its design doesn’t exclude anyone. It also reduces stigma and discrimination.