ATU462 – Vectis with Derek Yerger

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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:
For More information check out: https://alternatedevices.com/vectis/
Web accessibility webinar info: https://www.eastersealstech.com/a11y/
Accessible Memes Story: http://bit.ly/3cEPN6T
Accessible Voting Stories:
Los Angeles County Story: https://wapo.st/2TqEozN
Savannah, GA Story: http://bit.ly/2IojmeM
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Derek Yerger:
Hi, this is Derek Yerger and I’m the president of Alternate Devices. 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 in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana. Welcome to episode 462 of Assistive Technology Update. It’s scheduled to be released on April 3rd, 2020.

Josh Anderson:
On today’s show, we’re excited to have Derek Yerger on from Alternate Devices, and he’s going to talk about the Vectis. We also have stories about accessible memes and accessible voting. Now let’s go ahead and get on with the show.

Josh Anderson:
Indata and Easterseals Crossroads are proud to announce our accessibility for web professionals, 2020 webinar. During this, you can join renown web accessibility professional, Dennis Lembree, for a full day of training. This webinar training begins with a background on disability, guidelines and the law. Many techniques for designing an developing an accessible website are then explained. Basic through advanced levels are covered.

Josh Anderson:
The main topics include content structure, images, forms, tables, CSS, and ARIA. Techniques on writing for accessibility and testing for accessibility are also covered. If you are involved in web design or development, don’t miss this wealth of practical knowledge. We’ve been doing this for a few years and Dennis really does a great job. This is a pretty in depth training for web professionals, but if you are a web professional and you’re interested in making websites more accessible, you should definitely join us. This will be held on May 13th, 2020 from 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM and we will put a link to the website with more information over in our show notes.

Josh Anderson:
So speaking of website accessibility, what about memes? Let’s start our day off here with a fun story. And this is over out of the Pittsburgh city paper written by Hannah Lynn. Title of it is Even Memes Should be Accessible. And researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are trying to figure out how.

Josh Anderson:
So memes are those funny pictures, or maybe a GIF on the internet that you find. You probably see these on Facebook, Twitter, those kinds of things quite a bit. But if you’re visually impaired and can’t see that, then maybe if you’re real lucky, the screen reader will actually see the joke, but it’s not going to really tell you about the picture. And actually reading this, what they did was, instead of making a description of the picture or the meme, they paired it with music that kind of gives the feel of what it is. So kind of, if you think of a wah, wah, wah, something of that sort, they paired that with the text in order to kind of give it a little bit more of the feel. It’s a really good idea. It’s something a little bit different, but it’s a fun story. I’ll put a link to this over in the show notes, but I do like the very end of this.

Josh Anderson:
One of the gentlemen there, talking to [Jer Gleason 00:03:09] says, you see this in accessibility where people are like, why are you working on memes when you could be helping blind people go to work or do their jobs? Then Gleason says people forget to prioritize recreation or fun. So again, just a fun story. We’ll put a link to that over in the show notes, you can go check it out. What’s nice is it also has some links so you can actually listen to some of these accessible memes.

Josh Anderson:
We’re still a long way away from a general election here in the United States, but I found two good stories about voter accessibility. If you’ve ever kind of used a voting machine or a paper ballot, or really any of those, they’re not super accessible. And every state is kind of different. Sometimes precincts are even different. But I found these two stories, one out of Los Angeles, California, and the other out of Savannah, Georgia.

Josh Anderson:
So the first story is from the Washington Post and it’s titled Los Angeles County’s New Voting Machines, Hailed for Accessibility, Dogged by Security Concerns. it’s by Nina [Sadeja 00:04:07] and Joseph Marks and we’re going to talk much about the security concerns. We’ll kind of keep that part out because that’s something that I’m sure everyone’s kind of been working on since the 2016 election and some issues and kind of fears that kind of came up with that.

Josh Anderson:
Let’s focus on the accessibility part. One thing it says under this new system, voters have two options. You get a mail in ballot with prepaid postage, or you can use new county owned touchscreen machines at any of about a thousand polling locations. So you don’t just have to go to your local precinct. You can kind of go anywhere, which just in itself, that is kind of an accommodation.

Josh Anderson:
It says the machines themselves feature oversized buttons and could be adjusted for people in wheelchairs. So you can bring it back down a little bit. Voters can choose from 13 different languages and can also listen through earphones if they have impaired vision or just prefer audio.

Josh Anderson:
And it says these machines also have a printout on paper that records your votes so that you can verify them before you feed them into the ballot box. So that can give you a little bit of kind of peace of mind. And it doesn’t really get much more in depth on the accessibility features or the things they’re doing for individuals then that.

Josh Anderson:
Now our other story comes from WSAV3 out in Savannah, Georgia. It’s by Jessica Combs and Alex Bozarjian and it’s titled Secure the Vote Host Workshop to Ensure Voter Accessibility. And while this story actually focuses on a group called Secure the Vote, which had an educational kind of meeting, to talk about the different accessibility features, it gets a little bit more in depth about some of the things that are kind of there.

Josh Anderson:
First of all, it starts about all the different reasons to kind of have it and it brings up something that we talk about on this show a lot, that everyone wants to vote independently. You don’t want to have to tell someone what you want to vote as sometimes you might vote differently than your spouse, your caregiver, or something like that. Maybe you don’t want them to know that you’re the other way. It does say there’s a new voting system that they’re putting in place with the first of its kind. It features accessibility devices like handheld controllers, sip, puff devices, paddle devices, and other ways to let voters navigate through their ballot.

Josh Anderson:
All these systems have headphones, can have large print and high, low contrast as place settings. So they’re really kind of putting a lot of different accessibility in here to make it accessible for a lot of different individuals. This is only two states and this is only two stories, so who knows kind of what the whole country is doing. And as I said, voting really is different from state to state.

Josh Anderson:
It is really good to think that these different municipalities are thinking about this, that these states and their secretaries of state are thinking about making voting a little bit more accessible, just to ensure that every individual in the United States votes gets counted and they get their voice and their say, in how policies in this country are run. We’ll put links to both those stories over in our show notes, and we’ll try to keep an eye out for some other accessible voting stories, as we get closer and closer to November.

Josh Anderson:
Technology is great and it can be an amazing accommodation. It can open up a world of entertainment and productivity to individuals of all abilities, but if you’re unable to access or control the technology, it’s really not much more than a pretty high tech paperweight. Our guest today is Derek Yerger, president of Alternate Devices. And he’s here to tell us all about the Vectis, a new accessible control device. Derek, welcome to the show.

Derek Yerger:
Thank you for having me.

Josh Anderson:
Derek, before we start talking about the technology, could you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?

Derek Yerger:
Sure. I am a bilateral upper extremity amputee, actually myself. My process began…I’ve always been into engineering and technical things. I was even at the age of 16, doing contract programming in the dot-com boom, but my interest in adaptive technology, which is really kind of a big part of my story is, in 2006, I had a very life altering injury. Ended up in the hospital for a month and a half and became more acquired bilateral upper extremity amputations. I’m a user adaptive technology myself. I wear a body powered prosthesis and have a toe to thumb transplant. Really that whole entire thing wouldn’t fit into a podcast, but a very, very kind of intro into some of the story about how I got here.

Josh Anderson:
And I’m sure that a lot of that will probably come out kind of as we talk about the technology and everything, but let’s start off with talking about what is Vectis.

Derek Yerger:
Vectis is a device that it turns movement into action. It’s something that the closest similar thing would be accessibility switches, but Vectis is actually the means to detect input pressing on it. It’s something that can be operated with feet or other extremities. It also is the interface that can talk via Bluetooth or USB to any computer, smartphone or tablet and more integrations are in the works.

Derek Yerger:
We’re working with Comcast to integrate it into their smart home and extended the items. And also there’s a little bit of work being done to integrate it into things like the Xbox Adaptive Controller. There’s also a music version of the device currently being engineered. But essentially, at the core of it, it’s something that somebody detects pressure, so it can detect gestures, something that is pressed on and causes actions to happen. And it allows somebody to engage in many different activities, including browsing the web, playing games and really doing a lot of things that involve modern software and apps.

Josh Anderson:
And where did the idea come from?

Derek Yerger:
Well, actually, it’s funny. Shortly after I got out of the hospital, but I have, again, always have been a programmer and an engineer. And the original problem that this was trying to solve was the fact that before I was wearing a body powered prosthesis, or even after, I don’t really use the hook type, there’s no tactile feedback, so it’s not very accurate. I type the same speed, whether I’m piping with my one hand that I have two digits and a toe thumb or a hook. So when working in certain software, I would find myself going between the mouse and the keyboard. The mouse to point and click, select text, keyboard to do certain shortcuts. And so I stuck some switches in a literally three ring binder. The closest thing I could find that was wedged shape and hooked it up to an Arduino, which is a microcontroller, it’s a hobbyist part.

Derek Yerger:
And this was in 2007. And Arduino was at the very beginning of their path, but the gist of the device was I could press a button at my feet and do things like copy, cut, paste, change which track’s playing on the music. And it just was intending to be a device that is an extension and replaces a keyboard or mouse it’s a little bit. But that’s really where it all started. The current version of the device is, that part started in January of 2017. That was where I said, what if I made this for… But it wasn’t just for me. Because the original one was something that depended on a Windows piece of software. And to me, after 2012, I picked up Linux and suddenly became anti-Windows. And I was just like, I saw the whole software installation set up as a hassle.

Derek Yerger:
So I said, what if there were a standalone device I could talk to, many different things, but not need some PI integration. Not need… Like, here’s your device. It works with Windows and if you want to use it on something else, well, you might not be able to. And further to that, a large portion of the project was brought along when I convinced the team to participate in senior design at Drexel University. This was in September of 2017.

Derek Yerger:
We took this project through nine months, Drexel, those quarter systems. So three quarters later, there was so much engineering that went into it and at the end of it, the result looks a lot more like the Vectis that exists today. Our team was actually selected over 42 teams to represent the electrical computer engineering department at Drexel, in their annual celebration of engineering design competition. And it’s something that seven of the colleges or seven of the departments of the engineering colleges come together and they kind of do a pitch-off. So it was a great experience altogether. Our senior design ended. I graduated. We kind of part of their own ways, but I continued to work on this project.

Josh Anderson:
Nice. You mentioned different controls and gestures. What do those look like? Like what kind of different gestures and things can I do to access the Vectis?

Derek Yerger:
So through the development process of this, it was kind of pick something and go with it. And in this case, such as pressure sensors, and I think there’s a lot of opportunity there. I just chose a few. And originally it was 12 different gestures and I realized that’s too many for somebody to keep track of it in their mind. So it was reduced to nine.

Derek Yerger:
What those gestures are, is all of the different hardware manifestations, or the many steps along the process, to what Alternative Devices has now, all did left, right and center as a thing. Like which position on the device that you press. And then the gestures are soft tap versus hard tap versus long press. Those are three other gestures. So that kind of gives nine different inputs and gives somebody who is able to provide that, nine different things they can do, which what those are really changes depending on the activity they’re in or how the device is set up.

Josh Anderson:
And I know when I was kind of looking at it, tell me a little bit about the setup because I know sometimes for folks, it might be an accessible device where they can access things, but they’re going to need someone to help them set it up. And then if any changes are needed, you know, I need a professional out there, it seems like to get it to kind of do anything. What does the setup look like?

Derek Yerger:
Right. So that’s actually changed over time and the way that it looks like now it’s continually moving in a direction that is meant to be as easy as possible. Like I said, I’m going to preface this with, I was an IT professional out of high school. I didn’t go to college. I instead went and did small home and office computer services. I was also that kid in the family that fixed computers. And what I saw over and over again, are computers are frustrating, you get an error, they don’t understand that. So I saw the same thing happening in certain adaptive technologies, that a burden and something that is preventing people from having independence is they’re difficult set up. And I’ve found this over and over interviewing occupational therapists and other professionals in the field who work with this.

Derek Yerger:
So the set up of the Vectis looks like there’s no software or drivers to install. It is something that can be accessed by connecting to a WiFi network and everything done in terms of setting it up is done through a webpage. So something that can be accessed from any device and doesn’t really care whether you’re on Mac, Windows, Linux, Android, iPhone, et cetera. And the set up itself is meant to be no keystrokes to know or anything like that. At the core of its functionality is template based.

Derek Yerger:
So there could be… The eventual of where this is going is Plug and Play. You plug the thing in, and you say, “I would like it to be set up to browse the web and I would all get to do Switch Control on the iPad.” And it sets that all up and then spits out, “Here’s how it’s set up. When you press this, this thing happens. When you press that, that thing happens.”

Derek Yerger:
So that’s where the eventual goal of it is. But right now, yes, there is that ability to go in and say, “Well, I just left soft tap. Now let me change what that does,” because there’s a visual about what exactly is happening on the device. And changing what it does is as simple as clicking the gesture that was detected, and then choosing from a list of activity based things. No keystrokes to know. The translation, if you’re on a Mac or a Windows, you say, “I want to switch to the next window.” It just does that.

Derek Yerger:
You don’t need to know that there’s key strokes or mouse movements involved in it because that work is kind of taken out or hidden from the user. Because again, it’s meant to be as usable as possible and kind of catering towards people who might not be as technical and might not know, or be as familiar with, “Here’s how you can operate a computer in alternative means when you don’t have a keyboard or mouse.”

Josh Anderson:
That’s a really great thought because like I said, a lot of times you always have to have someone help. And sometimes that helper’s a caregiver, a family member who may be even less tech savvy than the actual user.

Derek Yerger:
Correct.

Josh Anderson:
So that’s very helpful.

Derek Yerger:
Yeah. One of the additional things that we are kind of prototyping with… The one organization in the Philly area, Inglis, they support their resident facility. They have 252 residents and they have kind of environment. They provide support and help people become re-engaged and independent in the home environment. And one of the things that we’re working together with is, they expressed interest in remote management, so that now exists. It’s a very early stage. It’s not ready for any kind of launch, but in terms of what it looks like from a caregiver or occupational therapist’s perspective is, they may set this up for somebody and send it home with them. But they still have the ability to go to a webpage from anywhere they are, like their offices and go kind of monitor the way that it’s working. And even if they were on the phone with somebody and they had said, “Works great in this way, but I would like to also do this other thing,” that they can do that from remote. They can change the way that it works.

Derek Yerger:
So, and that again, borrows from my experience in IT, is of course it’s much more preferable rather than going to a client’s site to do some remote management section and fix things without actually having to go to the place so that they are doing business. So that’s one of the kind of offerings that’s coming down the pipeline, that offers an advantage to how can this provide more independence for somebody, so somebody doesn’t have to step in or go to the physical premises to try to change some things, to accommodate the way that they want it to work.

Josh Anderson:
Excellent. And kind of on that same line in doing a little bit of research, I suppose, how the Vectis cloud platform. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Derek Yerger:
Yeah, that’s exactly the one that I was mentioning.

Josh Anderson:
Oh, perfect.

Derek Yerger:
So the Vectis, and this, it’s right now, the Vectis has always been a device where everything that’s needed to change the way that it works is baked into the device. So it will always be a stand-alone capable device. Like that’s how it started. But if somebody were to connect it to their home network, there is the option of linking it up with the cloud platform. And what that means is that we can use some learnings about how people are setting it up, even if somebody has the new context or activity, like a specific app. And there are some customization that goes along with that, that can be added to the system. So, kind of later down the line, the goal of the platform would be, somebody who has many users using this, can go in and manage it all from one place and be able to very easily customize it for somebody and do that from anywhere in the world.

Derek Yerger:
I see there being a lot of potential for aggregating the way that people set these up. I would like to see, even a day that comes where able-bodied people who don’t meet AT are able to feed this system with the learnings of how they use certain apps and how they use certain… What they’re doing given certain contexts and that learnings and benefits come back to people who are using Adaptive Technology, because then they have a little bit more of us saying somebody doesn’t have to go and manually configure and take guesses that what works best because there’s all those learnings and system.

Josh Anderson:
What phase of development are you currently in with Vectis?

Derek Yerger:
So right now it is still 3D printed parts and open source hardware. An end goal is to have custom built hardware, electronics and all that. But right now, for pilot stage it’s the device exists, using 3D printed parts, open source hardware.

Derek Yerger:
The next phase of scaling, because again, the hardware and what the product looks like has changed over time, to be more manufacturable and all of that. So the next phase of rolling this out will be things that look a little bit more well polished, not 3D printed. Part of it will be machined metal. And all of these are going from learnings, from user testing and how people use it and whether it’s working well for them. All of those findings go back into the development process.

Josh Anderson:
And you mentioned the pilot study there. If someone was interested in participating in the pilot study, how could they do that?

Derek Yerger:
Reaching out by email, all the contact information for the company is on the website. That’s the shortest URL would be V-E-C-T.I-S. That sends viewers right to our website. There’s not much on there right now. There’s an opportunity to subscribe to a mailing list, but emailing info@vect.is or info@alternatedevices, either one will get to us.

Derek Yerger:
So within a month or two, we’re looking to scale to a few more units. Being able to do something like 20 to 40 units and getting these into the possession of the people who use it. That’s a mix of both facilities and also end users that this would be a good candidate for. Just to continue the feedback process and gathering feedback from people about what aspects of the product do work well, what aspects are difficult to use or just aren’t working. And that all helps this be developed into being a stronger product to something that’s able all from work independence to somebody who uses it. That’s the technology.

Josh Anderson:
Excellent. Derek, can you tell us about Alternate Devices LLC? Kind of what’s the purpose of the company and why it was founded?

Derek Yerger:
I would probably pull something right from the website because I spent a lot of time on the copy. Of course, the website always needs an overhaul. It’s expired as soon as I write it. But the goal of our device is to research and engineer solutions and adaptive technologies, really. What you’re seeing with the Vectis is a first of many potential products. I see the system that’s being developed as something that can also work with mouth joysticks, sip-and-puff sensors, and really add a whole lot of more capability to it. But at the goal or at the foundation of all our devices, it’s to use some of the modern principles of engineering and design to really develop solutions that offer a higher degree of independence, are easier to use and really are universal. Try to help the most number of people as possible.

Josh Anderson:
Well, Derek, with your background in assistive technology and engineering, have you worked on anything before the Vectis?

Derek Yerger:
Yes, absolutely. There were a number of non-adaptive technology and adaptive technology related things. Through my education process I was always more on the software electrical and not so much the hardware aspects of things in my upbringing and early on in my hobbyist stage. But I took a CAD class at community college, which was probably one of the more useful classes that I ever had in the whole thing. They had a 3D printer and that’s where things began.

Derek Yerger:
So eventually when I got my taste leaded, I started developing some other things. There was at one point, I wanted the ability to ride a bike safely. So I engineered a kind of attachment for my prosthesis to lock into the handlebars and that I use to this day. There was another version I had made for the racetrack because I like sporty fast cars and I occasionally go to the racetrack.

Derek Yerger:
So I made something very similar that mounts to the steering wheel and allows 360 degree turning using a prosthesis. And there have been a few other one-off projects, accessibility wise. I had added something to a… I’m also hard of hearing. So I had added something to one of those alarm box that shakes the bed, to kind of expand and allow other devices like the smoke detector or detecting, you know, smoke detector beeping, to trigger the bed shaker.

Derek Yerger:
One of the other one-off projects was for somebody who, they were working with a kid who was just having a really hard time using two buttons and Switch Control to compose sentences and type using an Apple keyboard because it was very laborious. And she asked for the ability to take two accessibility switches and type work’s code on them and have that type on the iPad. So I put that together for her. And now the kid she’s working with is able to type 30 words in half an hour. But probably the most important thing is she doesn’t give up anymore, out of frustration because it’s much more easy to get those first few letters and then use predictive thing. So that was one of those one-off projects that it was very interesting to me and had a great outcome.

Josh Anderson:
Awesome. Derek, could you give us those websites again just to make sure our folks, if they do want to reach out, can get ahold of you.

Derek Yerger:
Sure. The main website is vect.is. That’s V-E-C-T.I-S. And a contact could be info@alternatedevices.com, which that email address is also at the bottom of our website.

Josh Anderson:
Excellent. We’ll put both those into our show notes so that folks can easily find you. Well Derek, thank you so much for coming on today and talking all about Alternate Devices and the Vectis.

Derek Yerger:
All right. Thank you.

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 at Indata Project, or check us out on Facebook.

Josh Anderson:
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.

Josh Anderson:
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.