Your weekly dose of information that keeps you up to date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist people with disabilities and special needs.
Show Notes: Dr. Fernando Albertorio PhD, Co-Founder and CEO of Sunu
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DR. FERNANDO ALBERTORIO: Hi My name is Fernando Albertorio. I’m the cofounder and cocreator of Sunu, and this is your assistive technology update.
JOSH ANDERSON: Hello and welcome to your Assistive Technology Update, a weekly dose of information that keeps you up-to-date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist individuals with disabilities and special needs. I’m your host, Josh Anderson, with the INDATA Project at Easter Seals Crossroads in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana. Welcome to episode 421 of Assistive Technology Update. It’s scheduled to be released on June 21, 2019.
On today’s show, we are very excited to have Dr. Fernando Albertorio, the cofounder and CEO of Sunu to talk about the Sunu band and some of the things they are working on. We also have a local story about the Indiana school for blind and visually impaired and some work they did with the local university in order to make 3D printed Senior pictures for all of the students. After that, we have three stores about robots and how they may be able to help and/or hinder individuals with disabilities and folks in the aging population. Some different viewpoints on how people are looking at AI and robots and how they may end up changing the whole look of care. We hope you really do enjoy the show today and we thank you for listening, so let’s go ahead and get on with the show.
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So I happened to be watching the local news the other day. Usually the stores aren’t exactly happy and good, but I did see a story – and I’ll put a link to it in the show notes – to a local Fox affiliate, Fox 59. It’s by Charlene Cristobal, and the title of the story was, “3D portraits change students’ perspective at Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.” I worked with a lot of students from the Indiana school for blind and visually impaired. It’s a very good school. They use a lot of AT to help students get a good education. A lot of them do end up going on to college. I’ve worked with some of them through college and even through work after that. But if you think, if you go to a school, think of Senior portraits. Think of the pictures on the walls of all the students who graduated. They wanted to make sure that their students could access these as well, so what they did is partnered with IUPUI, which is Indiana University Purdue University of Indianapolis, here in Indianapolis, Indiana. They really printed all the seniors’ faces so they can actually go and feel the faces of the students who graduated. Very cool idea and a way to make sure that the students have access to some of the same things that their peers would have who might be sighted. In the article, they do talk with a couple of the students and how they “see themselves” by feeling it. They said, I could always feel my own face, but feeling it in the third person perspective is very different. But it does still feel the same. It also talked a little bit about ways of maybe doing this over time so that people could tell how they change over time.
The device they are using is a small camera. It takes 1000 pictures a second so that the entire 3D scan only takes about 30 seconds. After that time, they printed on a two thirds scale and give it to the students. The printing does take a day or maybe a little bit longer than that. I just thought it was a really great story and really need. It’s something that we don’t always think – when we think of access, we maybe think about computer access. We maybe think about transportation, communication. But some things we really do take for granted. I really do like that a couple local places got together and figured out how to meet this need in a very cool way.
Looking through stories of what’s going on in AT, I know there is a lot going on with robots. Some of these actually asked some pretty good questions. I thought we would address all three of these stores all at once. The three stores are “an Irish university developed a robot to battle loneliness,” over at Business Insider South Africa; “Robots to the rescue” by Anne Marie Chandy on The Star online; and “Will robots ever be better caretakers than humans?” by Rina Raphael over at FastCompany.com. While all three of these stories are very different in what they say, what they asked, and what they talk about, they do share one thing in common: robots. Not just robots, but how they interact with human beings. In my opinion, how they can help or maybe hinder individuals with disabilities.
The first one talks about a robot developed just to battle loneliness. It’s called Stevie 2, so of course it is the successor to Stevie which, I guess, was an assistant robot which was initially released in Ireland in 2017. What this is supposed to do is carry out menial chores in care homes like automatically reminding residents to take their medications. It walks around. It is really cute and it looks super happy. It has two screens on its face with this big smile and goofy eyes. I’m not going to lie, it’s a fun robot. There is a video so you can check it out. This one does relate very well to will robots be better caretakers than humans, one of the other stories in here. This talks about some different ones, some of them I’ve seen and some I haven’t.
One of the robots is the Tombot Genie, and it’s a robotic Labrador retriever puppy. It’s super cute. It says it doesn’t pee, eat, or bark. All it does is cuddle. It’ll just cuddle and nuzzle with you. It’s like having a puppy that you don’t have to take care of. It says that people do really respond to this and do enjoy having it around.
One of the listings it shows in here is the ElliQ. I’ve kind of seen this before, and is pretty neat. Think of an Amazon Alexa device but a little more – I don’t want to say aware. That’s not the right word. But it’s supposed to engage the person a little bit more. All of these were designed for older adults. This was designed for folks who are still active or will to remain that way. It says that ElliQ will actually bob its head up and down when it’s excited. It apologizes by sorrowfully looking down. If a loved one sends a photo, it’ll curiously look over at it. It’s supposed to feel lifelike, be expressive in nature. It’s actually pretty neat. It’s kind of small. I can’t describe exactly what it would look like. It is actually a pretty neat device with some other things that can help out.
In the story, I did like one part because it talked a little bit about balancing reality. It talks about if you do make a robot that looks too lifelike, people get creeped out by it and don’t want to use it. They can really not like it at all. It talks about buddy the robot, which is made by blue frog robotics, which is a more cartoon looking. Big eyes, small wheels and things like that. So that people could relate to it and like it a little bit more. But then also get into the part of is it mean to try to use these things to replace human interaction. It’s got some quotes in here from Dr. Lee Kai-Fuwho is an artificial intelligence expert and formal head of Google China. On of this quotes in here is, “Elderly people really want to connect with other people and I think giving them primitive, fake, inanimate and non-emotional robots to interact with is a cruel thing that we should not do as human beings.”
I can really see his point. Especially for those individuals who are elderly, someone to be there with them. They do want that human contact, especially if they have children or grandchildren or other family members. As we get more and more separated as a people and as humans and rely more on social media, on texting, in these things as opposed to actually talk to each other or seeing each other or physically being in the same room with each other, we might think that these things can replace actual human interaction, whereas artificial intelligence to this point hasn’t come close to replacing that human interaction. But I can see where these things could fit in to fill some of the gaps when people aren’t there, when they are not able to be around. Maybe they live farther away. Maybe there is not much family left for the individuals who don’t have a lot of family. We’ve talked about this on the show before where caregivers are hard-to-find direct support individuals. There just aren’t enough out there to fill the demand. Maybe these are a few things that could help, or maybe just help with the day-to-day things like taking medications, knowing recipes, cooking, cleaning, self-care, all other aids of daily living. I could see how they could definitely help with those.
This brings us to our last story which is robots to the rescue. This one just talked about all the different ways robots can help individuals with disabilities. It talks especially about how robots can be used by therapist for children with autism and how they will be able to relate to the robot better than they might be able to relate to another human being. And then how that can be used to teach individuals social cues, ways to interact with other human beings through his robot or life-size avatar and all the other ways these can be used. If I were lucky enough to find all the stores at the same time, we would get these different viewpoints. Not just differing viewpoints but different ways these robots can assist individuals but at the same time cannot replace individuals. I think we do have remember that with technology and make sure that we do not get to a point to where we are trying to replace actual human contact and human care by allowing robots and artificial intelligence to do it.
Output links to all three of these stories in our show notes. Feel free to read them, make your own decisions, or if you would like to weigh in on it, you can always reach us on our listener line at 317-721-7124. Drop us an email at email@example.com. Or send us a note on Twitter at and did a project.
The white cane has been an essential piece of technology for folks who are blind individually paid for many years. It does a great job of allowing individuals to navigate the world around them, but it’s kind of limited in the information it can convey. Our guest today is Fernando Albertorio, the cofounder and CEO of Sunu. They have a device that can complement the white cane and make community navigation easier. Welcome to Assistive Technology Update.
DR. FERNANDO ALBERTORIO: Thank you. It’s great to be here. I appreciate the opportunity.
JOSH ANDERSON: I really appreciate you coming on. Before we get into talking about Sunu and the band, can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?
DR. FERNANDO ALBERTORIO: Yeah. I was born legally blind with albinism, so I have low vision. Throughout my entire life, I was on a variety of assistive technology devices, my favorite one being my handheld magnifier. It wasn’t until 2014 when I met my colleagues who were working on a project which started as a community service project for a school for blind girls in Guadalajara. Essentially what they had created was a piece of new assistive technology that could complement the white cane or guide dog and augment human perception. Since experiencing the technology back in 2014, I became very curious and excited about its potential, not just for folks who are blind tech but also for people who are partially sighted and those with low vision, like myself.
My background is in science and technology. I have a doctorate in chemistry and did my postgraduate in physics at Harvard. So I was always in that world of the latest technology at the cutting edge of new inventions and devices. Throughout the years, I kept tabs on what was going on for assistive devices for folks with low vision. It wasn’t until I met my to colleagues who came up with the most revolutionary idea, and I just had to jump on board with them and explore this further.
JOSH ANDERSON: You did a great lead-in. Go ahead and tell us what is the Sunu band.
DR. FERNANDO ALBERTORIO: After a couple of years of developing our technology with some of the leading organizations in the US and worldwide, we developed a technology called Sunu band. It’s essentially a smart activity bracelet or a smartwatch. At its core, it intends to improve and help with mobility, navigation, and thereby assist in improving the independence for folks who are low vision or partially sighted or blind. The way it works is that it combines sonar with haptic vibrations that you feel on your wrist through the wristband. The idea is to augment your perception, your awareness connect to obstacles and things that are within the environment. The Sunu band focuses on the tactic obstacles that are at the upper body, chest, or head level. The reason for this is that it’s intended to be a complement to the white cane and guide dog. As you very well mentioned at the beginning, the white cane helps guarantee the next step. It’s a standard of navigation for blind travelers. But there are things that the white cane can miss like obstacles to the upper body like at chest level or head level. These could be three branches, anything that is sticking out when you walking on a sidewalk in a city or even around your background or house. So the Sunu band is intended to enhance your perception to these obstacles, and the vibrations inform you to how close you are to the Apple school so that you can navigate your way around them and ultimately reduce the accident that happened.
JOSH ANDERSON: Where did the idea for this come from?
DR. FERNANDO ALBERTORIO: That’s a great question. The idea happened as a community service project at a school for blind girls in Guadalajara. Both of my colleagues, Marco, who is the CEO of Sunu, and my colleague Coali, were working at the school and noticed how the older girls were much more sedentary, less active than the younger kids. The younger kids were fearless, running around. Not all the girls were taking the orientation and mobility lessons every Thursday. So they noticed that as the older children were having more accidents to the upper body, it gradually made them less active. They wanted less to be active, running around the playground, or just engaging in any physical activity. That caught the attention of my colleagues, so it started them on this journey to understanding more about how orientation and mobility happens for folks who are blind, because the same thing can happen for adults who are living with site loss because of macular degeneration or diabetes. As you know, site loss is increasing in our country, the US, due to these diseases. Even for adults that experience more accidents, they become gradually inactive. With that, you feel disconnected, frustrated, and sadly the onset of depression happens. So the start of Sunu began with the question: how can we empower folks with technology, improving the senses, the abilities of the person with a piece of technology that could that enable them to access their environment?
JOSH ANDERSON: You said this is like a smart phone. Does this have to be paired with a smart phone?
DR. FERNANDO ALBERTORIO: Not necessarily. It is a smartwatch or smart activity band. The reason why it’s intelligent is we are the only aid in the market right now that can connect to a mobile app, whether it is iOS or android, and allow the user to customize its function. You can customize everything but the sonar and how it works. You can adjust the range. You can adjust the detection area to fit your particular needs. And you can customize quite a lot about it. But also be connected and intelligent also opens the door to a variety of possibilities. We wanted to take ability to the next level as well as providing information so that you can avoid accidents to obstacles in the environment. We basically provide you more details to the mobile app such as using our compass to know which direction you’re walking, if you’re going north or south east or west, so helping people reduce the effects of getting turned around. And then to our place finder navigation app, we can connect you directly through Google maps so that you can explore nearby places. So having the application extends the functionality of the Sunu band towards new things around navigation.
JOSH ANDERSON: That really opens up a whole world of possibilities, having all those things connected.
DR. FERNANDO ALBERTORIO: You can use it directly out of the box. The core functions of the Sunu band are the obstacle detection, of the sonar mode, so you can use that out of the box and working in outdoor settings as well as indoor environments and reduce accidents that way as well.
JOSH ANDERSON: Talking about that a little bit and the haptics, as I’m getting closer to something that’s in my way, and obstacle, does get faster, harder? How would I know something is getting close to me?
DR. FERNANDO ALBERTORIO: Just going on what you mentioned about haptics, haptics is the ability to transmit information through vibration feedback. So the information that we think transmit is quite a lot actually. As you mentioned, as you get closer to an object, what happens is the vibration becomes more frequent. As they become frequent, you are getting closer into the become constant check that means you are pretty much at it this is where the object is within your personal space, less than a foot and a half away from you. That enables you to interrogate it with your white cane or reach out and touch it, or you can simply navigate around it.
Haptic information is a very powerful tool because you can convey a lot of meetings are haptics. For instance, we have our haptic watch, and it helps you tell time through vibration pulses. So you’re able to tell the time, the hour, or you can choose to read the minutes of the day through a specific vibration code that you receive on your wrist. Once you learn what the code means, you are able to tell time in a different way. Haptics also enable you to know if you are facing north or south, which direction you are walking. So we also use haptic information to provide that direction information to you.
JOSH ANDERSON: You started mentioning it. I know the Sunu band is not the only thing that you guys make. What are some of the other items?
DR. FERNANDO ALBERTORIO: We have a mobile app that we are working on right now. The idea is to extend and facilitate more navigation information to low vision and blind pedestrians. Keep an eye out for that. That’s a new exciting development that we are working on. As well as new and exciting hardware technologies. We want to be a leader in assistive devices. Right now we are focusing on blind and low vision, but we see the possibilities in many areas.
JOSH ANDERSON: I know a lot of things that are may be created for folks who are blind or low vision really do have uses for folks maybe with print disabilities and things like that. You mentioned magnifier, and I know I’ve used it for folks who just have a print disability, maybe dyslexia or difficulty reading. Even though this device wasn’t made for them, it still has some good applications for them. So I’m glad you guys are thinking outside just a word of individuals who are blind or visually impaired.
DR. FERNANDO ALBERTORIO: It’s very exciting the opportunities we have. Our vision is a world where people are not seeing us as disabled. All we have are broken environments that can be fixed or crossed through technologies that empower our abilities. With Sunu band, we see its application in the deaf and blind community. We’ve seen other folks using our haptic watch feature who are completely deaf to have a different kind of watch. We are very interested in exploring how our technology can be applied to them in different areas.
JOSH ANDERSON: Can you tell me a story about someone that uses the Sunu band and how it has helped them out?
DR. FERNANDO ALBERTORIO: We have various stories to share. One of our community members here in Boston is using the Sunu band. He’s been with us since our early prototypes. He says that when he learned the Sunu band, when you learn how to use it, he picked it up and started exploring with it after the tutorials. Within about 15 minutes, he was exploring his home with it. Immediately he felt that it was an extension of his senses. I’ve heard this a lot through other users that with the Sunu band, I’m actually getting that enhancement, almost like having a sixth sense. I’m feeling my surroundings, viewing for objects and obstacles to me, and I’m feeling those as I’m walking about or exploring a new place. It’s reducing that stress and providing information to me in a new way. Your brain is used to receiving the information as a visual through the eyes, but when that is not available, your brain can still receive and process the information in a totally new way. It was very interesting learning from Chris and some of our other users in terms of how they are perceiving their environments through the use of the technology. It complements his mobility with the white cane. He still uses his cane to get around. Other folks who may have low vision, like myself – I use my eyesight to get around, but it’s in the situation where I need the Sunu band to enhance my awareness to anything that can hit my head, is where it’s amazing for me. I feel like I have that extra sixth sense when I’m walking about.
JOSH ANDERSON: How much does the Sunu band cost?
DR. FERNANDO ALBERTORIO: The Sunu band retails for $299.
JOSH ANDERSON: And if someone would want to purchase it, where were they go?
DR. FERNANDO ALBERTORIO: They can purchase it directly through our online shop at www.sunu.com. You can click on the buy button. That will take you right to our online store where you can make your purchase securely online.
JOSH ANDERSON: Just to let our listeners know, here at INDATA Project, we are the AT act for Indiana. I know that we have the Sunu band and our library. So if it’s something you may want to try out, try to find your local AT act and they may have one available to you can try out and see how it works and those kinds of things so that you can go out and purchase your own if it’s something that really fits your needs.
DR. FERNANDO ALBERTORIO: I would mention that we are also working with a few distributors and resellers across the country, so you may find it to one of your local retailers. You may want to check. If you have an organization that you think would definitely benefit from having Sunu band, right to your local organization and asked them. Get a Sunu band so that I can try it out and tested and make them aware of it.
JOSH ANDERSON: If our listeners want to find out more, where were they go?
DR. FERNANDO ALBERTORIO: You can email us strictly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Someone from our customer service team will be happy to speak to you, either through email or on the phone. Also you may want to check out some of our partner distributors and resellers around the US. If you are listening from any other country around the world, we are excited to share that we are in over 50 countries working with some of the largest organizations worldwide since we’ve come out onto the market early last year. There are definitely many ways to reach out to us or our trusted partners.
JOSH ANDERSON: Thank you so much for coming on the show today, talking about the Sunu band and all the great things you guys are working on.
DR. FERNANDO ALBERTORIO: Think you so much. I really appreciate the opportunity to be here.
JOSH ANDERSON: Do you have a question about assistive technology? Do you have a suggestion for someone we should interview on Assistive Technology Update? If you do, call our listener line at 317-721-7124, shoot us a note on Twitter @INDATAProject, or check us out on Facebook. Are you looking for a transcript or show notes? Head on over to our website at www.EasterSealsTech.com. Assistive Technology Update is a proud member of the Accessibility Channel. For more shows like this, plus so much more, head over to AccessibilityChannel.com. The views expressed by our guests are not necessarily that of this host or the INDATA Project. This has been your Assistive Technology Update. I’m Josh Anderson with the INDATA Project at Easter Seals Crossroads in Indiana. Thank you for listening, and we’ll see you next time.
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