Stacy Kelly wants a robot.
The associate professor in the NIU College of Education’s Vision Program came to that realization after she and a trio of graduate students in the Project VITALL master’s degree program spent three days at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month.
“We need to have a robot,” says Kelly, who interacted with the machines and watched their realistic movements.
“People who are blind or visually impaired now often use guide dogs for traveling safely and effectively. How could a robot take the place of a guide dog? Dogs have a life expectancy. Guide dogs have to retire. People wouldn’t have to get a new dog every six or seven years. They could get a four-legged robot,” she says.
“Although the technology is not fully there now, it will be there soon, and we don’t want to wait until it’s there,” she adds. “We went to see the technology for the masses to think about how it could apply to the blind. We want to understand it now and know how it can help with our instruction.”
NIU’s group glimpsed myriad of mind-boggling possibilities for robots as assistive technology for people who are blind or visually impaired – all things that the practitioners Kelly prepares through the Department of Special and Early Education must know to best serve their future clients.
She and the students – Julie Hapeman, Lizzy Koster and Lacey Long – will present their findings on Thursday, Feb. 15, at the 2018 Illinois Chapter of the Association for the Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired Conference.
They also plan to publish an article about their Consumer Electronic Show adventure.
“It was the cutting edge of all cutting edges. It was the edge of the edge of the edge. That’s where we were,” Kelly says. “Everyone there was so entrepreneurial, and it was like having a crystal ball that works in being able to see the future.”
Among the coolest things they experienced: driverless vehicles.
“We had the opportunity to ride around Las Vegas in a self-driving car and other automated transportation – self-driving buses, trolleys, things that no longer require a human to get from one place to another in a timely fashion. That was just off the charts!” Kelly says.
“One of the biggest constraints for people who are blind or visually impaired is figuring out methods of safe and independent travel,” she adds. “Now, someday, they can have a car in their garage or in the parking lot and just go.”
Called “the world’s gathering place for all those who thrive on the business of consumer technologies,” the Consumer Electronics Show “has served as the proving ground for innovators and breakthrough technologies for 50 years – the global stage where next-generation innovations are introduced to the marketplace.”
NIU’s contingent financed its trip with Project VITALL, part of a five-year, $1.25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to launch a new master’s degree that provides specialized training in assistive technology.
Both students and professor were excited to see how many smart home and voice-activated technologies were powered by Amazon Echo and Google Home.
“Everybody’s linking into the same ecosystem,” Kelly says. “We have Alexa and Google Home in our classrooms already, so it confirmed to me that we’re on the right track.”
She also realized that NIU, home to the world’s first academic program in assistive technology in the area of blindness and visual impairments, has proven prescient in its long emphasis on tech.
Just talking to the many vendors about how their technologies could have additional applications for those who are blind or visually impaired sparked light bulb moments, she adds. “People were saying, ‘Oh, for the blind! I never thought of that!’ ”
Hapeman, a certified orientation and mobility specialist in the Milwaukee Public Schools, reports that her ride in the self-driving car made “an immediate impact on two of my students.”
“As I was waiting for my turn, one of my students, a 15-year-old who is totally blind, sent me a text to ask how I was enjoying the conference,” Hapeman says.
“The time she sent her message was the time I would have seen her for our weekly lesson, and it was serendipitous that her text arrived right after my Lyft ride had been confirmed,” she adds. “I texted her back that I was about to ride in a self-driving car, and her response was, ‘OHMYGOD! I AM SO JEALOUS!!!!’”
Hapeman knew she had to call her student from the car, turning the phone over to the engineer on board: “The questions she asked with all of the excitement in her voice were marvelous!”
After texting the news to another student, Hapeman realized the magnitude of those moments.
“For both of these students, the possibility that in their lifetimes they might be able to own and operate a car by themselves seemed within their grasp,” she says. “Helping these students move one step closer to one of their dreams was the greatest moment of the entire CES.”
Long, a teacher of students with visual impairments and a certified orientation and mobility specialist in the Morton-Sioux Special Education Unit of North Dakota, calls the Consumer Electronics Show “amazing.”
“There was such a diverse range of technology available. Our group used the opportunity to question how these technologies can be adapted for individuals with visual impairments across the board,” Long says.
“One upcoming product that I thought would be extremely useful was the Casio Mofrel 2.5D printer,” she adds. “Although it is being marketed to design professionals, it has the capabilities to print textures and Braille, which could increase the accessibility my students have to tactile illustrations for improved literacy.”
Koster, who has explored the potential of Google Translate for people with visual impairments, found the Las Vegas experience an informative one.
“The Consumer Electronics Show serves as a barometer for how the tech industry gauges consumer interests and needs, and their response to those projections,” Koster says.
“At present, connectivity, be it through social robots or smart home innovations, is at the forefront,” she adds. “What this means for our students and clients with visual impairment is that while select innovators are developing products to better serve their needs, consumer trends are moving toward more reliance on smart devices and automation.”
For teachers, she says, “this indicates that our students and clients will need to be well-versed in basic ‘smart’ technology in order to determine how they can work with it and adapt it as necessary.”
NIU facilitates that readiness in its graduates.
“Our field desperately needs this program,” Kelly says. “All the time and energy we’ve put in for the last several decades is paying off. We’re not at Square One. We’re at Square Million. Every single day, we’re working with the newest technology and we’re bringing it into our classroom.”