AT&T awards $100K for tech to help people with disabilities

Twenty-five years after President Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, AT&T called on developers to use existing technology to create solutions for people with disabilities.

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Jason DaSilva, a documentary filmmaker who has multiple sclerosis, has been working with developers on Kinesic Mouse, software that allows him to control his PC hands-free by using a 3D camera that detects facial expressions. CNET/Marguerite Reardon

To mark the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, AT&T teamed up with New York University's Ability Lab to challenge app developers to use their network and technology to make life easier for people with disabilities.

Together they launched the Connect Ability Challenge, designed to spur innovation for people with physical, social, emotional and cognitive disabilities. Winners of the contest, which saw a total of 63 submissions, were announced Monday.

In total, AT&T awarded $100,000 in cash. That included a $25,000 grand prize for Kinesic Mouse, software that uses Intel's Real Sense Web camera to detect facial expressions and head rotations, enabling people to operate their personal computers hands-free. Other winners include a smartphone app to help visually impaired shoppers find their way around a store using existing beacon technology, and one that uses Bluetooth to connect sensors to a smartphone preprogrammed with stock phrases to enable nonverbal individuals to push a button to communicate basic needs.

The ADA, signed into law on July 26, 1990, was monumental legislation intended to ensure that people with disabilities could participate fully in the workforce and their communities free from discrimination. The most visible legacy to the law has been the changes in infrastructure from cut-outs in sidewalks to ATMs marked with Braille to widespread closed captioning to fire alarms that can be seen as well as heard.

But advocates for people with disabilities say more needs to be done, as many disabled Americans still find it difficult to participate meaningfully in their communities. Technology, including AT&T's efforts to encourage more development in this area, can help bridge the gap between public policy and real life, said Marissa Shorenstein, president of AT&T New York.

"The promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act was to remove barriers that people with disabilities face. It's clear from these extraordinary submissions that technology can play an important role in fulfilling the law's mission," she said. "The winning solutions address specific challenges that prevent people with disabilities from participating fully in our society. We hope that this unique competition spurs further innovation in this area and highlights how much mobile technology can improve people's daily experiences."

The contest

The purpose of the contest was to challenge developers to use off-the-shelf technology already in existence to help solve problems for people with disabilities. While the ADA helped pave the way for an entire industry dedicated to assistive technology, the products developed have primarily been tailored to niche audiences and have been expensive. AT&T's vision for the contest was to encourage developers to use mainstream technology, such as smartphones, tablets, voice-recognition software, Web cameras, and 4G LTE wireless networks, to create affordable apps and software.

"The beauty of the contest is that the solutions the developers came up with are super simple, affordable and use technology, like the Android and iOS operating systems, that everyone is already using," said Neil Giacobbi, executive director for public affairs for AT&T. "The truth is that people with disabilities are already using this technology -- just like everyone. So why should they have to use a separate device to get the help they need in their everyday lives?"

Putting it all together

To find out what solutions people with disabilities were looking for, AT&T enlisted the help of four people to consult with the app developers participating in the contest.

For Gus Chalkias, who is blind, that meant sharing with developers his deepest anxieties about going out in public on his own.

"For me the biggest issue I face when going somewhere new is just figuring out where everything is," he said. "I usually have to ask for help, which I'm very willing to do. But it would be nice to not have to ask a stranger where the bathroom is."

The developers at Enlight, which won a $10,000 prize for the "Best Solution Impacting Policy and Society," created a smartphone application that leverages existing iBeacon technology in stores and other public places. The app enables people who can't see to scan their surroundings with their mobile devices to help them navigate.

For Jason DaSilva, an Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a decade ago, the Kinesic Mouse software -- which won the grand prize -- allows him to control his PC completely hands-free, using Intel's Real Sense 3D camera that detects facial expressions and head rotations. With a tilt of his head or a pucker of his lips, he can control the PC, joystick or keyboard, helping him regain some independence that had been lost to the disease.

Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable, often disabling, disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain and between the brain and the rest of the body. Over the years, DaSilva has lost the ability to walk and to dress himself. As of about nine months ago, he lost control of the motor function in his hands necessary to work a mouse and trackpad on his computer, which he uses to edit his films. He said he has been forced to rely on his assistant to click his mouse during the edit process as he dictates editorial direction.

DaSilva said the process of relying on a middleman to operate the computer's editing tools has helped him become a better film editor and director. But he admitted the added step is hugely time consuming. Using the Kinesic software, he's learning how to make those edits on his own again. He's also able to check email and browse the Internet without the help of someone else.

"All of a sudden, I'm regaining some independence," he said. "It's huge. It's a small thing that helps make life more normal for me. And it makes me more productive."

While other software exists that offers similar functionality, DaSilva said Kinesic Mouse works better than anything else he's tried. And it costs less than most other solutions. Markus Proell, founder of Kinesic Mouse, said his solution adapts software and hardware originally developed for gaming. As a result, Proell said his solution, which costs about $400, is priced far below that of software created specifically for the special-needs community.

In fact, he said, the cost of the software is so low, some customers in the US may not be able to get it covered by federal Medicaid insurance, which typically picks up the bill for assistive technology for people who have disabilities.

Only the beginning

AT&T's Giacobbi said that the technology industry is still in the early days of figuring out ways to leverage existing technology to help people. As mobile technology becomes more pervasive and less expensive, he said it will also be easier for developers to create solutions for people with disabilities. And he said that AT&T hopes it can encourage developers to innovate and create solutions for this underserved group.

"It doesn't take a computer scientist to realize that something like a fitness tracker with GPS could be used to help someone with a disability," he said. "We've just scratched the surface in terms of using existing technology to help people with disabilities."

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