ATU465 – Present Pal with Chris Hughes

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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:
Present Pal on the web: www.presentpalapp.com
On Twitter: @presentpal_
Also look for Chris and Present Pal on LinkedIn
Closed Caption Story: http://bit.ly/3b4jFYq

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Chris Hughes:
Hi, this is Chris Hughes and I’m the founder and CEO of Present Pal and this is your assistive technology update.

Josh Anderson:
Hello and welcome to our 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 465 of Assistive Technology Update. It is scheduled to be released on April 24th, 2020. On today’s show, we’re excited to have Chris Hughes on to talk about some technology that can help me with, well, one of my biggest fears, presenting. So he’s on today to talk about Present Pal. We also have a story about the history of closed captioning, probably one of the most recognizable pieces of assistive technology. Now let’s go ahead and get on with the show.

Josh Anderson:
So when someone asks me what I do for a living and I tell them I work in assistive technology, a lot of times I have to go in and kind of explain exactly what that means. Depending on how much time I have to really explain it as it’s not something that can be explaining just a few minutes, I sometimes ask them to think about closed captioning. Closed captioning is something that most people are aware of, that most people know about and it’s been around for quite some time, but maybe not quite as long as you might think. So I found a story over at Time and it is called How Deaf Advocates Won the Battle for Closed Captioning and Changed the Way Americans Watch TV. It’s written by Olivia Waxman and this actually came out back in March and that is because March 16th was the 40 year anniversary of closed captioning being on television.

Josh Anderson:
I thought closed captioning has been around a whole lot longer than that. It’s been around most of my life, coming out of 1980, so I wouldn’t have really known a time when it wasn’t there. But also, I guess I didn’t really use it that much as a child. Definitely probably use it a little bit more now and we’ll get into that as we kind of talk about the story a little bit. But it really goes into depth and talks about some of the pioneers and the folks who actually got captioning to be available to everyone. We won’t get into their names much. We’ll just kind of go over the history a little bit as I do think it’s important as it is assistive technology in a way that all kinds of folks can use it.

Josh Anderson:
It does talk a little bit about kind of the past and a long time ago, if you think silent movies. Well, silent movies, someone would talk, but there’d only be kind of music in the background and whatever they said would pop up as words on the screen. So silent movies were definitely accessible to individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. But as newer movies with people speaking, or I guess, talkies as they called them back then came out, these were not accessible to individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing and actually goes on to say that captioned versions of these Hollywood films started to become required under law in 1958. But as TV grew bigger and bigger, these same laws did not apply to them, so really, there was nothing accessible on television for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Josh Anderson:
Then in the 1970s, they kind of started doing a little bit of experimentation. Julia Childs, the French chef on PBS was the first one to really start this experimenting in 1972. Then there were also captioned versions of ABC’s 6:30 Evening News that aired five hours later and that was the only national newscast available to individuals who were deaf. Then on March 16th, 1980 closed captions started on television. ABC, NBC and PBS were the first ones to kind of roll this out. I suppose if you’re of a certain age, you don’t realize that back then that was most of television was these three channels. The first shows that were available was ABC Sunday Night Movie, Disney’s Wonderful World and Masterpiece Theater, the first ones to actually be captioned. These were captioned a lot like they are today for most shows.

Josh Anderson:
These shows are taped well before they go on and they’re sent in for captioning. But back then, you actually had to have a decode device in order to get these captions. Now, back in 1980, these costs $520 from the Sears Catalog. So if we kind of convert that to today’s dollars, that’s about $1,600 and this was the only way to get any captioning on TV shows and only a certain number of shows were captioned. So a lot of these really weren’t sold. In fact, by 1988, only 200,000 of these decoders had ever been sold, which sounds like a really big number, but I am sure that the deaf and hard of hearing population is much greater than that, this is because they weren’t very cost-effective.

Josh Anderson:
At that time, it could take up to 40 hours to caption just one show. The rate for one service that did the captioning was $2,000 an hour. So if you think about that, that’s a huge production cost to kind of put it on there. So those real- time broadcasts such as the news and award shows, didn’t start captioning until 1982 and these would use court reporters and other folks with similar training to do this, or what we’d call today, captionists, to kind of do that. Well, then in 1990, so 10 years later, the Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990 came out and this required closed captioning decoders to be built into any television over the size of 13 inches. The story actually talks about manufacturers in Japan were actually really looking forward to putting these devices in the televisions because many of them wanted to learn English as a second language.

Josh Anderson:
So here, we’re kind of finding that this assistive technology, this accommodation for individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing can then find a whole new use to help a whole other population of folks. In 1996, The Telecommunications Act Amendments required all TV shows to have closed captioning. So if you look at that, closed captioning started in 1980, actually really being on TV in 1980, only some shows. You had to have this expensive decoder to get anything to work. They started on live TV and in ’82, then not til 1990 was a decoder actually being built into every TV. Then in 1996 is when it required the TV shows to have closed captions, something we really take for granted today. Then one more act that was passed is the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010.

Josh Anderson:
This just, it kind of expanded the Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990 to include tablets and phones, things smaller than the 13 inches, so that that loophole kind of went away. But if you really think of all the people that use captioning, it is not just the deaf and hard of hearing population. Think of all the times you tried to watch a video or maybe check out a news story while you’re supposed to be in a meeting or you’re in a loud, noisy place or something like that, you’d turn on captions. Now, of course there is still no law to make captions available to every video on the internet. Many businesses and companies and other things are cognizant of this and do all that they can to put those captions on there, although they’re just not always available. Sometimes they also rely on artificial intelligence which doesn’t quite get the job across, but I’m pretty sure that’s something you will see sometime in the future.

Josh Anderson:
Now, of course the internet is kind of hard to regulate just cause it doesn’t really live in a country. It’s kind of everywhere. It is a world wide web. So sometimes those regulations may be hard, but if you can just hold internet, video producers to the same standard that you do television, then hopefully closed captions can be on there. But a really great story just, and it really talks about how all these acts were made and everything. So I’ll put a link to that story over in our show notes so you can go check it out and learn about all the folks that really made this stuff happen. But I thought it was a great little piece of history to learn a little bit about some assistive technology that many of us use every day.

Josh Anderson:
So a long time ago in college, I asked, “Why in the world do I have to do all these presentations? I’m never going to have to do this stuff when I graduate.” Well, fate’s a fickle creature as I now have to present it seems like two or three times a month, sometimes with very little notice and sometimes even more. I’ve always been a little afraid of presenting in front of people and apparently I’m not alone, But what if there was an app or program that could help with presenting? Better yet what if it was developed with individuals with disabilities in mind? Well, our guest today is Chris Hughes and he’s here to tell us all about Present Pal, which may be just such a program. Chris, welcome to the show.

Chris Hughes:
Thanks very much, Josh.

Josh Anderson:
I can’t wait to get into talking about Present Pal because like I said, I’ve always had a little bit of a fear of presenting. So anything that can help is always great. But before we talk about it, tell our listeners a little bit about yourself.

Chris Hughes:
Absolutely. So like many of the listeners, I also have a disability. So I had just started my business degree over in Scotland, if you can recognize the accent. I was studying a business degree and I had to give a presentation as part of my degree, three or four times per week, often being graded. And I just found myself really struggling before I knew it. I always anticipated university being a challenge from a point of view in terms of studying and writing essays, but I never really anticipated how difficult presentations are going to be or even how a big an aspect it was going to be of my degree. So I met with my university to talk about what reasonable adjustments we could get. We had a great system in the UK called The Disabled Students’ Allowance.

Chris Hughes:
That’s basically it allows reasonable adjustment or reasonable accommodation, as you would say in the States, for 64,000 students to receive up to 20,000 pounds worth of support. So this can give you things like extra time on exams, pieces of assistive tech, an allocated laptop and printing alone. So it’s a really fantastic scheme. It supports so many students, which is just amazing. I went and I met with my university disability officer to talk about what reasonable adjustment I could get for myself. I was offered all sorts of great support. So some of these assistive technologies that we all use today. But my biggest challenge is presentation anxiety as quite a few of you will also have that same challenge to which the disability advisor came back and said, “Oh yeah, we hear this all the time. But unfortunately, there’s not a lot we can do.”

Chris Hughes:
So I was actually offered the chance to skip my presentation altogether or to present directly to my lecturer and I just find myself really quite frustrated by that. I had done a business degree or I had signed up to their business degree to get me prepared for the workplace and to allow me to really excel in university and learn those core skills to go into a workplace where I could really grow as an individual, but really kind of build my career path and to given this option and whether or not I wanted to skip that presentation, wasn’t really an option for me. So I did a lot about research in terms of why people with dyslexia struggled with presentation anxiety and basically I looked at alternative methods in terms of how I could help my presentation anxiety and then I came up with a few different ideas.

Chris Hughes:
Literally, I just it thought would have served me. Took this back to multiple different dyslexia, anxiety, disability, advisor, experts, really and the feedback I got was fantastic and I was really encouraged to go and build that. So I did and about 18 months later, the software is now supporting students in over a hundred universities across the UK and with a range of different disabilities. so just really building that product with universal design at the forefront has just been that the software has helped a lot more people than just myself and even just a lot more than students with dyslexia, but students with autism, ADHD and mental health challenges as well. It’s just been fantastic.

Josh Anderson:
Well, you did a good segue way there. What is Present Pal?

Chris Hughes:
Great question. Present Pal is a presentation support software, which works like interactive flashcards to give you the information that you need when you need it. So what we’re trying to do is take away the challenges of all the information that you would get on a traditional flashcard or a script. For me, my reading is really quite poor. If I was asked to stand in front of a room full of my classmates and read a page from a book, I think it would be my worst nightmare and it wouldn’t be fun for anyone in the whole and the whole room. So what Present Pal does is it takes the key pieces of information that you need, so in the form of a key bullet point and displays that to you on your smartphone or tablet in a personalized way that you can read it to your best ability, really.

Chris Hughes:
So what we’re doing is we’re taking color overlays and then we’re providing you three to five key bullet points on your flashcard at once basically, with one bullet point being much bigger than the points around it. So what we’re trying to do there is give you a key line focus, which means that you’re not going to get lost if you look up and see your audience and then back down to your notes. But if you do need extra help, you can tap on your key bullet points, so your centralized bullet point and up comes an additional safety net where you can store images are any extra information you might forget.

Chris Hughes:
The other great thing that the software does again, to try and aid the working memory, is it can control your slides at the same time. So what that means is that you have flashcards, which also acts as a clicker. We’ve also got a stopwatch feature up at the top. So what we’re trying to do is really just simplify that whole presentation environment and just give you one key piece of information at once so you don’t have to worry about all the text that would be on a piece of paper, but it is all there.

Josh Anderson:
I can really see how that can help. I’m taken back to, I had to do speech night at one time and after the very first opening I dropped my flashcards. I don’t know if you’ve ever done that. It’s that moment of, it feels like, [crosstalk 00:13:55] it feels like two-and-a-half hours go by when really it’s just a few seconds of trying to pick them up, realizing they’re out of order and being like, “Oh, I’m on my own.” So I can really see how that could be a huge help. I was just I was just thinking back to that moment and thinking, “Wow, if I would’ve had this, that would have been great.” You kind of talked a little bit about the popups there in the end, what all kinds of information can you put in those popups to kind of help you remember stuff?

Chris Hughes:
So it would really just be adding something that you might forget. So I think the big thing is from when presenting you do have that horrible moment where sometimes you just take a total brain freeze and you just want the ground to open up. So what you can put in these popups is you can put any actual information that you probably know, but there’s a chance that you might forget, and then if you do have that horrible moment where you do end up forgetting this content, it can just press on your popup bubble up comes this safety net with any information you might need.

Chris Hughes:
What this does, basically, is it stops you getting tripped up with too much text if you had that all in front of you at once. It’d just be really easy to kind of get lost in that jungle of text and ink, I guess. Then the other thing that we can put in there is images and this is really useful for our students, with our presenters, with dyslexia, but also for autism. What that can allow you to do is instead of having to just talk about which words are in front of you, you can actually use an image and you can actually just describe what’s inside that image and this describes the picture.

Josh Anderson:
Very nice. You said I can control my PowerPoint presentation kind of from the app. How do I do that? Is there another special kind of software I have to have or how do the tablet or phone communicate with my computer?

Chris Hughes:
Yeah, great question, Josh. So basically it’s just a PowerPoint add in. So all you need to do is go to our insert and then search for Present Pal in the add-in store and within PowerPoint and it should download in about five seconds, which is fantastic. Then to control your slides, you just need to log in with the same username and the access code. So it’s really, really simple. There’s no messing about in terms of having two devices on the same network or to do anything overly technical, so it should be nice and easy.

Josh Anderson:
Oh, that is very nice and easy. This is a couple of other features that I don’t know if you mentioned yet. Can you tell us about the rehearsal mode?

Chris Hughes:
Yeah. You’ve obviously done your homework, which is fantastic. So rehearsal mode is a concept that came about really from students asking is there any way to help them learn the presentation? So what we’re trying to do here is overcome the challenges with the working memory and trying to allow you to naturally ingrain that presentation into your longterm memory. So what we’re doing there is you go into rehearsal mode and it’s almost just like being in your natural Present Pal slideshow mode. What you can do is the app will basically record your audio. So you’re practicing your presentation. You could be in your room practicing in front of your mirror of whatever you want. Beside every bullet point, there’s an option to flag. So if you’re presenting and you do feel like your content isn’t great or maybe even you’re not feeling all that confident in the flow of your presentation, you can press one of these flags.

Chris Hughes:
Then what you can then do is you can then listen back to your presentation, see anywhere that you have flags and next to your content, you can then go back and change your content, maybe add a popup bubble or picture or maybe even just change the structure of the presentation around as well. Then basically, the more that you practice, the better you’re going to know your content in the respect of maybe even challenging yourself to, instead of flagging six times through the presentation, you may be only have one by the end. Then at that point you can really get used to your content and really ingrain that into your long term memory, which will just make your presentation easier.

Josh Anderson:
Excellent. What about the audio cues feature?

Chris Hughes:
Yep. Another very new feature is also … that was asked for by quite a few students with visual impairments or some of our users with visual impairments, should I say? What that does is a very basic text-to-speech feature, which would basically allow you to put a set of headphones or maybe a Bluetooth headphone and while you’re presenting, you can have your content or you can have your notes read out to you. so this would just be directly into your ear and not to the audience. Just like the same with Present Pal, this is your notes and what this can do is just give you that text-to-speech experience and it’s something that’s useful for presenters with dyslexia, but also with visual impairments as well.

Chris Hughes:
Again, like Present Pal, so like all these extra features, you can turn these all on manually within the settings page. I think growing up with assistive tech, and for the record, I’m 24, so I’m still quite young, but I got used to assistive tech when I was 12 or 13. I think kind of growing up with AT, I’ve experienced the good and the bad, so I guess it was fantastic getting used to assistive tech, but I feel like when I was growing up, some of the softwares almost had too many features. I think what that did is sometimes over complicated things in the respect of when you’ve got too many options, you really forget what the fundamentals of the software is. So from Present Pal’s point of view, we just try to make this whole experience as simple as we can so you can opt in to turn these features on, but there’s certainly no pressure. For example, text-to-speech may actually print you off a presentation.

Josh Anderson:
No, and I’m glad you guys did think about that because I see that sometimes too, especially talking to folks with new technology and oh, it can do this, this, this, and this. It’s like, “Well, if I can’t turn some of those off, then you’re really kind of limiting just to that one person that needs all these different accommodations,” so-

Chris Hughes:
Absolutely. Yeah. [crosstalk 00:19:32]

Josh Anderson:
Exactly. Exactly. Well, you talked about a lot of these features and stuff are kind of coming from feedback you get from folks that are using it. Could you tell me a story about someone who has been helped by Present Pal?

Chris Hughes:
Oh, absolutely. We got an email in late last week which was just terrific. There was actually a student who had just got Present Pal and towards the end, I think it was roughly about a month ago, so as part of her degree, I think 30% of her final grade came down to a presentation. So she had done a course, I think it was nursing that she was studying and she passed all of our tests. But then there was this massive aspect to her degree, which was worth 30% of her grade. I think she had dyslexia and also a little bit of anxiety too. The student had to give this massive, I think it was a 35- minute presentation on the learnings of her course for the first semester. I think she just got so worked up and so anxious, she actually failed it.

Chris Hughes:
She had to then reset the full year having been on track for sort of a level grades in her first year. So she had to actually reset the full year just because of how nervous and how hard this presentation was for her. She was unable to get Present Pal after kind of resetting this year and she aced all of my classes again. But then she was given Present Pal and because of the key line focus and being able to just go step by step, instead of kind of having all this content in our heads and not being able to really get those words out, she was able to use Present Pal.

Chris Hughes:
We got a massive email from the disability advisor who’d recommended Present Pal for other students saying that the student was following her up and she was in floods of tears crying about how happy she was and how she’d managed to pass her exam, which was just terrific. That’s what we do this job before. Getting emails like that really it just makes your job unbelievable. From my point of view, it was just such an amazing feeling seeing this email about a student who used our software and from failing her whole course the year before to actually getting to that next level was just unbelievable. I think the idea that I created a software just for myself to help me get to that next stage of life or employment or whatever to go on and help even that one student is just why we do what we do.

Josh Anderson:
It makes it a whole lot easier to show up for work in the morning when you know you’re helping people, doesn’t it?

Chris Hughes:
Absolutely.

Josh Anderson:
Chris, does a Present Pal work across all platforms.

Chris Hughes:
Yep, absolutely. So it’s iOS and Android on your smartphone and tablet, and then also it works on Windows on Mac as well.

Josh Anderson:
Perfect. Perfect. How much does it cost?

Chris Hughes:
So it’s roughly about $5 per month. We’re still just getting ready for our U.S. Price. We came over to the States for the first time in January, so the product is still very new. We’ve predominantly been UK-based, but we came over for the ATA Conference and we’ve actually got 165 skills, universities and colleges signed up for pilots now, which is terrific.

Josh Anderson:
Ah, nice.

Chris Hughes:
Obviously, we popped in to see the Easterseals steam in Boston as well, which was just amazing. So massive, massive shout out to you guys in Massachusetts. But yeah, I think we’re looking roughly around $5 per month, but for anyone who would like a license to try out, just hit us up. We can set up a free month trial. I think we’re just wanting as much feedback in the early stages as we can, because I think this could be something that is used by everyone regardless of disability or no disability, but it certainly works for everyone.

Josh Anderson:
Oh, definitely. I think I have to say fear of presenting has got to be one of the biggest fears out there.

Chris Hughes:
I believe it’s the second biggest fear in the world, which is crazy.

Josh Anderson:
That is absolutely crazy. Chris, what does the future hold for Present Pal? You kind of brought it up there, just kind of expanding and learning, but where would you like to see it go?

Chris Hughes:
So not only with Present Pal, but our company, we do have about two other accessibility products all we’re looking at in the kind of presentation space, how we can make this whole experience accessible for everyone. But coming back to Present Pal, it’s really focusing in on it’s just presentation anxiety. It’s creating a universal design product which works to remove that presentation anxiety for everyone. So for us, it’s looking at Present Pal being the go-to solution for anyone who has to give a presentation, regardless of whether they have an anxiety of that or not. But just replacing flashcards, I think is really where we want to take the product whilst really helping people who really struggle with that, presenters with disabilities, or even just presented to have anxiety. I think that’s the real space that we’re interested in.

Josh Anderson:
Chris, how could our listeners find out more about you and about Present Pal?

Chris Hughes:
You can find us on presentpalapp.com and then we are Present Pal underscore on Twitter. Feel free to add us all on LinkedIn or follow us on LinkedIn. Again, it’s Present Pal by Estendio and I’m just Chris Hughes ampersand Pal on LinkedIn as well. So feel free to give us a follow up and check out the website. We just want as much feedback as we can. I think it’d be fantastic to get any of the listeners to test out our software. I’m so interested in really kind of understanding more about every disability as well. I think from my own personal background, we are really kind of focused … I guess the product was focused initially within kind of the dyslexia space.

Chris Hughes:
Then we are learning more about the anxiety point of view, but if any listeners actually either have another disability or kind of really understand a great deal about a disability and think that the software could really help X or Y or something that we haven’t really thought about, we just want as much feedback as we can. I think everyone in this space is all trying to do the same thing. We’re all trying to help each other. It’s an assistive tech product and trying to get as much feedback as we can, which really just help us make a even better product, but universal design is just key.

Josh Anderson:
No, it definitely is and we’ll put all that information in our show notes so folks can reach out and get you that information. Chris, thank you so much for coming on the show today and letting us know all about Present Pal.

Chris Hughes:
Fantastic. Thank you so much, Josh.

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. Are you looking for a transcript or show notes? Head on over to our website at www.doteastersealstech.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 Easterseals Crossroads in Indianapolis, Indiana. Thank you so much for listening and we’ll see you next time.