ATU422 – Morphic with Gregg Vanderheiden

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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. Gregg Vanderheiden PhD – Director of the Trace R&D Center at the University of Maryland College Park

More on Morphic: https://morphic.world
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Gregg Vanderheiden:
Hi, this is Gregg Vanderheiden. I’m the director of the Trace R&D Center at The University of Maryland, College Park, 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 Easterseals Crossroads and beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana. Welcome to episode 422 of Assistive Technology Update. It’s scheduled to be released on June 28th, 2019.

Josh Anderson:
On today’s show we’re very excited to have Dr. Gregg Vanderheiden, PhD, and he’s on to talk about Morphic, a program that will actually let you take your settings, your technology, and your other things with you wherever you go. We thank you so much for listening today and let’s go ahead and get on with the show. Are you’re looking for more podcasts to listen to? Do you have questions about assistive technology, about an accommodation or maybe how something works? Are you really busy and only have a minute to listen to podcast?

Josh Anderson:
Well, guess what, you’re in luck because we have a few other podcasts that you should really check out. The first one is Assistive Technology Frequently Asked Questions or ATFAQ hosted by Brian Norton and featuring myself and Bella Smith and then a bunch of other guests. What we do is we sit around and take questions about assistive technology, either about accommodations, about different things that are out there or about different ways to use things.

Josh Anderson:
We get those questions from Twitter online, on the phone and in many other ways. We’re also trying to build a little bit of a community as sometimes believe it or not, we don’t have all the answers. So we reach out to you to answer some of those questions and help us along. You can check that out anywhere that you get your podcast and wherever you find this podcast. We also have Accessibility Minute.

Josh Anderson:
So Accessibility Minute is hosted by Laura Medcalf. And if you’ve never heard her voice, it is smooth as silk. And you should really listen to that podcast. She’s going to give you just a one minute blurb about some different kinds of assistive technology. Kind of wet your whistle a little bit and just let you know some of the new things that are out there so that you can go out and find out a little bit more about them yourself. So again, check out our other shows, Assistive Technology Frequently Asked Questions and Accessibility Minute available wherever you get your podcasts.

Josh Anderson:
So everyone has their own settings and their own way that they like to use their computer. We changed the contrast, the backgrounds, the ribbons in our programs, and just many other features to just make the computer access a little easier. Then for individuals with disabilities, this can kind of be the difference between accessing a computer at all. But then what happens when you’re using a computer that isn’t your own personal device?

Josh Anderson:
Do you try to change all the settings? Can you even remember where to find all the settings? if you do get them changed, do you change them back for the next person or do you just muddle along with everything the way it is? Well, our guest today is Dr. Gregg Vanderheiden, and he has set out to develop Morphic, which will allow you to carry all of your settings along with you. Dr. Vanderheiden, welcome to the show.

Gregg Vanderheiden:
Thank you.

Josh Anderson:
Before we get into talking about Morphic, can you start off by telling our listeners a little bit about yourself.

Gregg Vanderheiden:
Okay. Well, I’m a professor at The University of Maryland, College Park, and direct the Trace R&D Center there along with my colleagues. We work on technology and disability. This is my 48th year working on technology and disability, and back in 1971. And so it’s been quite a long and interesting journey as I’ve watched accessibility evolve through the years.

Gregg Vanderheiden:
I was involved in the early work. I worked with Apple in the 1980s to get the first accessibility features in there. And nine of the first 10 accessibility features built into windows were licensed royalty free from our research group. And our work is I also co-chaired the web content accessibility guidelines for K one and two. And we work on the systems that are you find in the post office and airports and security places that allow people with different disabilities, including blindness to use all the different kiosks and stuff like that. So we’ve been working a wide range of accessibility across all disabilities and technologies over the years.

Josh Anderson:
Wow, you really have, and we will probably have to have you back on the show to talk about maybe the history of accessibility a little bit. But today I definitely want to talk about Morphic. So first of all, tell our listeners what is Morphic?

Gregg Vanderheiden:
Well, let’s start with the reason for it and then, talk about what it is. So over the years we’ve done a lot of work, building accessibility features into things and stuff like this. But one of the things is that even Microsoft did a study of all the accessibility features, they have built it and they found out that they were usable and useful to a much wider range of people than were using them, that were even aware of them.

Gregg Vanderheiden:
And that those who absolutely needed them, still didn’t know that they were there. I get calls all the time about, “Could you do X or Y or Z?” And I say, “Well, it’s already built right into your computer,” and they didn’t even know it. So Morphic is a program, it’s an extension or an add-on to the operating system and we’ve done it on Windows first. And it does a number of things.

Gregg Vanderheiden:
First of all, as you alluded to in your introduction, it makes it so that you can set up your computer and then capture your settings to the cloud. And then when you sit down to other computers that have Morphic on them, it’ll automatically bring them down and set up that computer to look just like yours. And then when you get up, it sets it all up back again the way it was before.

Gregg Vanderheiden:
So if somebody needs to have the screen in large print and blown way up with high contrast settings and in a different language, when they sit down, that all happens. And then when they get up, it all changes back. And so that’s one of the things it does. A second things it does is it makes it easier to discover that there are these capabilities in the first place. So, with Morphic, there’s a little bar that pops up. It’s got some little buttons on it.

Gregg Vanderheiden:
And one of them will say language and you click on it and it pops up the languages that are installed on that machine. You pick one and it instantly changes. You don’t have to dig around and find it’s buried someplace in the control panels and then restart your computer to get it to take effect, kind of a thing. Some people sit down to a computer and everything’s too small. There are magnifying programs, but, or you can zoom in, but then once you zoom in, everything goes off screen.

Gregg Vanderheiden:
So now you gotta go left and right, and up and down to try and see stuff, but you can actually scale this capability that’s built into Windows. It’s just that nobody knows it’s there. And those that do know it’s there don’t know how to find it, or until it’s blown up, they can’t see the screen well enough to go in to find it, to turn it on, to blow the screen up. So you got kind of a catch 22 and this, by changing the scale of the screen, everything gets larger on the screen, but nothing goes off the screen.

Gregg Vanderheiden:
It just makes the screen everything larger and everything automatically moves around to stay on screen. It’s just as if you had a smaller screen that you stretched to be bigger so that everything was like, it would be on a small screen except it’s larger because you stretch the screen larger. Usually when you sit down to a larger screen, what it does is it gives you more real estate, but it doesn’t make anything bigger.

Gregg Vanderheiden:
So again, with this, you just click on the Morphic, pops the bar, you click on screen zoom and you can either step it up or you can jump into whatever you want. And in couple of seconds, the screen is all set up to be the new size you want. And then again, when you leave, it automatically changes it back, so nobody behind you needs to deal with it. So every time we demonstrate this, even when we’re doing it to the IT department of the school and computer support people, the phrase we always hear is, “I didn’t know, I could do that.”

Gregg Vanderheiden:
And so a really big part is discovery. For some people, they only have one or two settings. So they don’t really care that they store them and move them on. They just like the fact that they could sit down to any computer click, click, click, and they got their setting that they want. And when they’re done, it goes away. For some people that says, “Well, that’s nice. That would be convenient.”

Gregg Vanderheiden:
But for people who can’t see the screen well enough, unless it’s in higher contrast. For people who can’t use a computer, it’s not just convenient, it’s whether or not you can use it or not. Imagine if when you sat down to the computer, it was all in Greek or Swahili or something like this, and you just can’t use it. And you could change the language to be one you could, but you can’t read any other menus to figure out how to do this.

Gregg Vanderheiden:
I’ve run into the restart the computer to see whether or not the auto-reset would work. And I went to restart the computer and I couldn’t figure out which of the choices was to restart the computer. So I changed it back to English, memorize where this place was. But this not just language, it could be that everything’s too small to see. I had a situation where we were doing some testing with some older people, and we always asked them what their experience with technology is.

Gregg Vanderheiden:
And this one woman said, “Oh yeah, I used to use the computer.” And we said, “What’d you use it for?” And she said, “We could email and we would chat back and forth and I did this face thing with my friends. And so we used it all the time.” And I said, “But you said you stopped using it. Why was that?” And she said, “Well, one day I heard the kids in the other room and they were saying, ‘The computer is all messed up for grandma again.'” And so I said, “You know, I’ve had my time. This is their time. So I don’t use the computer anymore.”

Gregg Vanderheiden:
And it just tore my heart out. I went, here’s this person who is on it and it was part of their life and their social life and communication with friends and how they arrange things. And they were stopped using it because they couldn’t set the computer up for themselves. And once it was set up, they couldn’t unset it up and it interfered with others. And this happened with another case where a husband and wife and the wife said that they didn’t use it anymore because the husband always complained because it was all messed up.

Gregg Vanderheiden:
And we said, “Well, you can make it so that when you log in with different people, the settings change,” and they go, “Oh that’s all too complicated. We don’t want to do that.” And of course, when they go to other places, the kids go over to grandma’s and the kid has a disability and the computer is set up at his house, but he can’t use the one at grandma’s house, but he’s supposed to do his homework. And so these things can be, not just nice to have settings follow you around. They can be whether you can use the computer or not. And so that’s what Morphic is about.

Gregg Vanderheiden:
And then there’s a fourth thing. So we talked about, preferences moving around, discovering and knowing about things, or just being able to do things that are buried. One of the things that we put on there that kind of surprised us was, at the community college we have one of the buttons. You click it and it just, let you select a part of the screen and it kind of captures it. There’s a way of doing that with hotkeys on a Mac and there’s a way of doing it with a snippet tool in Windows.

Gregg Vanderheiden:
But, that was just too complicated for a lot of the kids to figure out who, and once they launched it, it had so many options. Having just one button they’d click, they could select the screen and then they could paste it into a report. And we thought that would be good [inaudible 00:12:40] the nontechnical type. And we had several people say, “This is perfect for my programming course.” And I’m going, “Programming course.”

Gregg Vanderheiden:
“Oh yeah, we write this code and we’re supposed to send pictures of it or snippets of the code to have [inaudible 00:12:56] and things like this.” And, it’s always so hard to do. And I have friends who, one guy who failed out of the class because he just couldn’t figure out how to do all these kinds of things. And I’m going, “Computer programming.” It turns out that people are now teaching computer programming not because the people are going to be programmers, but because people have got to have basic understanding of computers and what computer programs are.

Gregg Vanderheiden:
And so everywhere from English to art, to computer science, they’re needing to do things on the computer that some of us just know how to do naturally and other people are struggling. And by the time they get to the end of their computer course, they know how to do all this stuff. But the question is at the front end, what are some of the issues that are stopping people? And sometimes it’s there are just so many options that it makes it hard to do.

Gregg Vanderheiden:
And we actually have things where we’re forming, letting people take a standards offer packages are complicated and get simpler versions of them. So, you can take Microsoft Word and have it so the menus, it’s the ribbons are much simpler for people who don’t need to have all that function. There’s like 11, minimum of 11 and sometimes 12 and 13 ribbons full of stuff. And so we have one that’s really simple that has all of these are the basics.

Gregg Vanderheiden:
And then we have another one that has probably essentials from all of the ribbons on one ribbon, so that you can just say on one rib and then everything that you want is basically there. You don’t have to go mucking around, looking all over the place to find things.

Gregg Vanderheiden:
The last thing that we’re working on, that’s just coming up next is, something we call installation on demand. If you go to the library and you need a screen reader, they’ll often tell you, “Well, up in the such and such room, we have a computer and has a screen reader on it,” and that’s the doc computer at the library you can use. But you’re down here and and you’re in the reference and your colleagues and everybody else down here, and this is where their books are that you’re supposed to be using an upstairs is where the computer is.

Gregg Vanderheiden:
So the ability to be able to sit down to any computer, and if you need special software and it’s not on the computer to have that software automatically brought down and installed and then configured and set up just like yours. So it’s like, if you need glasses, you can walk in, sit down to any computer, and the glasses will show up and the prescription will show up that you need to use it. Versus saying, the only computer that you can use with glasses is up in a room up stairs someplace.

Gregg Vanderheiden:
And so that’s another, one of the things that we’re looking at so that people who need special software can use any computer in any lab. I mean, we’ve had students where they come in and the computer that has the AT on it is being used by somebody else and they’re not allowed to kick the person off. So even though there’s six computers open, they have to sit and wait for the one that has the AT on it to come free, because a lot of times all the workstations are full and they can’t have one setting open, that has AT on it that nobody is using just because nobody needs it right now. So the ability to have all of the stations be open is part of it as well.

Josh Anderson:
Well, I think that’s great. And especially being able to take your settings with you, because I know, especially talking about screen readers, I’ve worked with a lot of college students and some of them listen to the screen reader at a level I can actually understand. And then others turn it up so fast that I’m like, “I really hope you know what you’re doing because I have no idea what that even says anymore.” So if you don’t know the keystrokes or how to turn that back down, even though it’s accessible, it wouldn’t be accessible to you to actually be able to find that setting to change that back.

Gregg Vanderheiden:
That’s right. And we’ve also had what we call high stakes testing. This is where you go in and you’re going to be tested. And the output of this test determines whether or not you get into college. This is high stakes. This is your future and can depend upon the score of the test. And you go in and they say, “Well, we don’t want you to come in with your own screen reader because we don’t know if you’re hiding answers inside the screen reader.” At that speech rate, [inaudible 00:17:28].

Josh Anderson:
[inaudible 00:17:28].

Gregg Vanderheiden:
That’s right. And then you’re wearing headphones. Anyway. So they come in and they sit down and you sit down to a machine that’s set up with the screen reader, but it’s all wrong. So it’s kind of like, you need to take the test, but you can’t take your glasses in there because you might have answers written on the rims. And they say, “But I can’t take the test without glass.” And you say, “Well, okay here, use mine.”

Gregg Vanderheiden:
It’s like, I’m sorry. Your glasses are better than nothing for me. Although sunglasses are worse than nothing for me. But I still am now going to have to try and take the test while I’m squinting and trying to figure out how to read this rather than having it just be my natural. So, with Morphic again, you can have it so that all you would take in when they sat down that, that machine would be set up exactly like there’s the same speed, the same punctuation, the same shortcuts, everything, but it would have no answers buried in it, of course. So there are other places where all this can come in, very handy and then allow for a level playing field.

Gregg Vanderheiden:
We had one other one that was really, another sad story was we were talking to somebody about internships. And for people with disabilities, internships are five times more important than they are for anybody else. Because a lot of people are afraid to hire somebody with a disability. Some, because they don’t think they’ll be able to [inaudible 00:18:58]. But some just say, “Well, even if the probability of them doing the job as the same as anybody else, if I hired them, I would never be able to fire them.” And I say, “Are you worried about legal?” And they go, “No, no, no, no. It’s not that I would get sued. It’s that I just couldn’t bring myself to fire them. I would feel so bad. So instead of hiring somebody with a disability that might not work out because I feel so bad letting them go, I just won’t even hire them in the first place.”

Gregg Vanderheiden:
And it’s like, “So to be nice to them, you are going to not hire them at all?” And thy go, “I know that doesn’t sound good, but yeah, because I would feel so bad.” So internships allow them to bring people in and have them work when there’s no promise of working beyond the end of the summer. And then they discover and they go, “Hey, he said, these are some of the most, the best workers. They are the most reliable, they can do the job. I want to keep this guy or this girl.”

Gregg Vanderheiden:
And the problem they had is individuals who needed assistive technologies [inaudible 00:20:10] just not in two different places. They said, “We don’t take people who need assistive technologies in our internship program anymore. Because by the time they get in and they get their computer all set up, the internship is either so far along. They’re so far behind everybody else. Or in one case, the internship was over before we ever got the person really all set up on their AT. So we just don’t have them. We just don’t bring those people with AT in anymore.”

Gregg Vanderheiden:
With Morphic, you could have it that while they’re still doing their morning briefing and being toured around the place to show where the cafeteria and the bathrooms are, they would come in and plug in and it would download, install the software, configure it, and their computer would be ready before they were ready to sit down to use it. I mean, and the same thing for someone taking in job for the first time. People just get on the job and sometimes it takes weeks or a month before they finally get the AT in and it’s set up and installed and configured and things like this. So this is another place where it could have a really big effect.

Josh Anderson:
You guys have actually been working on this for quite a while now. And you’ve got a pretty big team working on this, is that correct?

Gregg Vanderheiden:
Yeah. So it’s evolved. What I just talked about, the four of the five things I just talked about, only came up in the last year and a half. We were working for, on the proof of concept of, can you do preference portability. Companies can do it for their own products. We talked to Microsoft and you can log in, in different places and it’ll bring all your Microsoft settings, but it won’t bring all of the settings for the other things you need in the AT and things like this, because it’s really tricky.

Gregg Vanderheiden:
And so we’ve done proof of concepts. We did some initial work here, and then we did a project in Europe with about 25 partners over there, looking at it across, and we were trying to see how broadly it could be applied. So we were looking at TVs and phones and computers and smart houses and everything else. And we were able to demonstrate that you could do it across basically any technology on a proof of concept.

Gregg Vanderheiden:
And of course doing a proof of concept is 120th or 150th of what it takes to actually make something that you can distribute. It’s real easy to do with smoke and mirrors when you have complete control and you just want to show that, well, we proved that it is possible to technically do this, but trying to do something that actually will work. Following that we got some funding from the United States.

Gregg Vanderheiden:
And so we now have a team of about 25 people in 14, got 12. I don’t know if I could go back and count the number of countries that are, working on moving this from proof of concept to something that actually can be distributed. And so we’re now in pilot tests. We have it in Northern Virginia community college. We have it in some libraries in Virginia and in Florida, and we have it in American Job Centers in Virginia and California and trying it out.

Gregg Vanderheiden:
And it was actually in working with these pilot sites that we discovered that just carrying your preferences around, it was just as valuable as before, except that it doesn’t help if people don’t know about and can’t find and don’t use. And there’s a whole group of individuals that could be helped without buying even special technology with this stuff that’s now being built in. Companies are building more and more. Microsoft, Apple look at this stuff, will open up in iPhones and there’s a gazillion accessibility settings in there.

Gregg Vanderheiden:
But people don’t know them, don’t know how to use them. They’re too hard to get to in some cases, especially on the computers. The control panels are wonderful, but they’re hard to get into. So we have this team from all over and it’s working on moving this forward. And we’re just now up the next step from here is, within the next 12 months, I will be releasing it more generally so that people can just get it and download it and use it, and then it goes from there.

Gregg Vanderheiden:
Then we have to shift from sort of grant based funding over the next 18 months to having a stand on its own. So it’s going to have to be able to go out and be valuable enough that they can stand on its own. One of the key things by the way is, that in order to do this, of course you’re storing people’s preferences. And so we are setting up a privacy council, composed of privacy rights advocates and digital privacy experts to oversee everything that’s going on and all of the work that we’re doing.

Gregg Vanderheiden:
Unlike other places where the preferences, they share transport your preferences, but they also then data mine them and sell the information. Everything we’re doing is under the strict privacy policy, overseen by privacy advocates, zealots, if you will, people who think that that’s the most important thing in the world so that we can make sure that this thing stays completely, for the benefit of the users.

Josh Anderson:
And if our listeners want to find out more about Morphic, how would they do that?

Gregg Vanderheiden:
Morphic.world, M-O-R-P-H-I-C.world is the site that we have right now that provides sort of the basic information about it. And that’d be the place to go to watch it evolve if when you want to see it go from, the stage it’s in now to forward.

Josh Anderson:
Perfect. Well, Dr. Vanderheiden, thank you so much for coming on here today. We’ll make sure to have you back on in about 12 months or whenever Morphic comes out, and maybe have you on to talk a little bit more about your rich history and accessibility.

Gregg Vanderheiden:
Thank you very much.

Josh Anderson:
Thank you. 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 at INDATA Project, 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.

Josh Anderson:
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 Easterseals Crossroads in Indianapolis, Indiana. Thank you so much for listening and we’ll see you next time.