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ATU499 – HeardThat with Bruce Sharpe and WayBand with Keith Kirkland

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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:
Bruce Sharpe, CEO – Singular Hearing, Inc
HeardThat website: https://heardthatapp.com
Keith Kirkland – CoFounder – WearWorks
Email: hello@wear.works
IG: @Wear.Works
Twitter: @WearWorksInc
Facebook: @haptictechnology
Wayband Video:
AT as a Right Story: https://bit.ly/35JZDma
ATIA Link: www.atia.org/ATupdate
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——————— transcript starts here ————————
Bruce Sharpe:
Hi, this is Bruce Sharpe, and I’m the founder and CEO of Singular Hearing, and this is your Assistive Technology Update.

Keith Kirkland:
Hi, this is Keith Kirkland, and I’m the co-founder of WearWorks, 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 In Data Project at Easter Seals Crossroads in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana. Welcome to episode 499 of Assistive Technology Update. It’s scheduled to be released on December 18th, 2020. On today’s show, we couldn’t be more excited to have not one, but two very special guests on. Our first guest is Bruce Sharpe, CEO of Singular Hearing, and he’s on to talk about the HeardThat app, that can help individuals be able to hear better in different environments. Our second guest is Keith Kirkland, the co-founder of WearWorks, and he’s on to talk about their new Wayband, and how it can help individuals with visual impairments navigate their environment.

Josh Anderson:
We also have a story that really got me thinking about assistive technology and where it really fits into the lifecycle of individuals. We want to thank everyone that listened to our holiday shows, and we’re very excited to be back to our normal format, and even to have two great guests to kick it off. You might’ve also noticed that this is episode 499 of Assistive Technology Update, which means next week on Christmas Day, we will release of 500th episode. And we’ll go all the way back to the very beginning and talk to Wade Wingler and Danny Wayne Beamer about how this show came about, some lessons learned, and maybe even a little input from your new host, who I guess has been here for just a little while. As always, we want to thank you all for listening because without you, we wouldn’t have a show. And don’t forget, you can always reach out to us. You can send us an email at tech@eastersealscrossroads.org. Call our listener line at 317-721-7124. Or drop us a line on Twitter at In Data Project. Now without any further ado, let’s go ahead and get on with the show.

Josh Anderson:
So I want to start off the show today with an article that I found over in Forbes. The article’s titled, For Disabled People, Access to Assistive Tech is a Human Right, Not an Employment Perk. It’s written by Gus Alexiou, and it’s out of the UK. It really brought up a point of something that I suppose we’ve probably talked about on this show, although maybe not blatantly mentioned. I must admit, the title really drew me to this story because if we really think about assistive technology and the big difference that it makes in people’s lives, a lot of times it is kind of limited to those that are maybe in education, or those that are entering the world of work. But for folks that maybe can’t work, or could use these accommodations at home, it can be very, very cost prohibitive. We’ve had a lot of great guests on this show that have made a lot of great things, and we have two more of them on today.

Josh Anderson:
And we’ve also noticed that as this innovation seems to get better in AT, that the price seems to come down, which really opens up access to a lot of folks. But a lot of people either don’t know what’s out there, or they really can’t afford those items. So again, the title just really kind of grabbed me that assistive tech is a human right and not an employment perk. And it really got me thinking that, yeah, I suppose that it really and truly is. So kind of back to the story, it talks about some different things going on over in the UK, and talking about how maybe the model of assistive technology should be considered within the scope of a lifelong provision model, and maybe something that could be implemented through either the UK’s welfare system or educational outreach services. It does say that there’s some precedent with some different other schemes that have been put in place over there, such as the Motability Scheme.

Josh Anderson:
Now I’m not really completely familiar with the Motability Scheme just kind of being over here in the US. But it does say that the Motability Scheme allows those in receipt of higher rate disability benefits as a result of significant mobility impairment to use their allowances to lease a car, including specialist vehicle adaptations, a scooter, or a power wheelchair. So essentially what this is kind of looking at is that perhaps these funds that are used and made available for individuals with disabilities could be opened up and used for assistive technology. And I think that’s a really great start. It’s definitely not kind of an end game because, I mean especially if we look at this pandemic and the things that have happened with it, many governments at all levels, local, state, federal, have really kind of been pushed to the brink and had to use a lot of their funds in order to help kind of everyone. So relying on government funds isn’t always the best way, just because there’s not always a possibility that those will be readily available.

Josh Anderson:
Other things kind of come up. We change administrations. You change leaders. You change priorities. And these funds can kind of be moved around. But it is a great step in the right direction and a really great conversation to kind of get started about how these tools can make such a difference in people’s lives. How do we make them more readily available? How do we get the word out to people that these things are even there? And I mean, one great way is hopefully podcasts like this, and other tools for folks to know what’s out there. It does mention in here another great way is for huge manufacturers like Microsoft, who we’ll have on the show here in a few weeks, and Apple and those, to build in a lot of this stuff, so that when you open the box, it’s already there.

Josh Anderson:
And these companies are moving towards those, but a lot of times what’s built in may not be as good as what can be purchased by a third party vendor, which of course also brings up kind of the thought of: If these are more readily available, if this technology is purchased more for individuals with disabilities to use, could the cost be brought down? That’s one of the big things about assistive technology and the price, is that you’re doing all this research, all this development, you’re creating all these things for such a small market, so your prices and your overhead is very high, so it’s very hard to kind of bring that price down.

Josh Anderson:
Perhaps if they were more readily available or more readily purchased, those prices could come down and just open up that access to so many more people. I’ll put a link to this over in the show notes. And it’s not a very long story, a pretty quick read. And I just barely kind of glazed over the points that are kind of in there just to get that kind of thought out there in your head about: Is assistive technology a human right, or just a perk for those that kind of use it for employment? And of course, this is going to be different country to country, probably even state to state, depending on where you’re living, on how this is kind of dealt with. But I think it’s a great conversation to get started, so that’s why I wanted to mention it here in the show today. And I will put a link to that story over in the show notes.

Josh Anderson:
Listeners, do you remember crowded environments, concerts, festivals, packed restaurants, coffee shops and bars, sporting events? The memories. Well, for folks with hearing loss, crowded environments or areas with lots of background noise can make it very difficult to focus and really hear the person that you’re trying to talk to. I’d really have to assume that wearing masks and staying six feet apart really can’t help this hearing situation either. Well, our guest today is Bruce Sharpe, founder and CEO of Singular Hearing Inc, and he’s here to tell us about a new app they’re releasing called HeardThat, that will be able to help folks with hearing loss hear better in conversations. Bruce, welcome to the show.

Bruce Sharpe:
Hi Josh. Great to be here.

Josh Anderson:
Yeah. I’m really excited to get into talking about the technology. But before we talk about that, could you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?

Bruce Sharpe:
Yeah, sure. My background is actually in math and physics. And I’ve been in the software business for a long time in various capacities, but a lot of it has to do with audio and including producing podcasts and doing various kinds of audio processing, video production tools, that kind of thing. Got interested in this problem of hearing, speech, and noise because of a family member. This is often the case. People either have that problem themselves or they know someone who does. In my case, it was my father-in-law. And I could see that he was gradually withdrawing from just interactions with the family and so on. And that was not good. So we pursued better hearing aids and so on, and nothing seemed to work. And then as I was tracking the technology, some of the new technology that are coming out, it seemed like there was some new approaches to this that we could bring to the market.

Josh Anderson:
Very nice. And that leads me right into my next question. Tell us about the HeardThat app.

Bruce Sharpe:
Yeah. So HeardThat is an app. It’s available for both iPhone and Android. And what it does is it listens to the sounds around you in a typically noisy environment. It uses machine learning, which is a very modern approach to sound processing, to separate the speech from the noise, and throws away the noise and delivers the speech to your ears from your phone in all the usual ways that you would get audio from the phone to your ears, so earbuds, headphones, hearing aids, implants, all those things.

Josh Anderson:
Nice. So it can work with really anything that you’re kind of using or might have. Are there certain special kinds of hearing aids or headphones that it works with? Or is it kind of across the board?

Bruce Sharpe:
We tried to be as supportive as possible of as many devices as there are out there. We didn’t want people to have to buy a new device. They could use the ones that they already have. If you don’t want to use hearing aids or implants, they would need to have streaming Bluetooth. So if you can listen to music or a video on your phone through your hearing aids, then you can use HeardThat that way as well.

Josh Anderson:
Very nice. And Bruce, not just for conversation, but could you use this to listen to the TV, or the radio, or some other audio?

Bruce Sharpe:
Yeah, definitely. We didn’t start out with that in mind, but it turns out that the technology that we developed does a really great job of doing things like taking out background music or other kinds of confounding sounds from YouTube videos, TV shows, and that kind of thing. And you can just put your phone near the speaker of the TV and have it broadcast effectively through Bluetooth to your hearing device, and you’ve got a nice, clean sound getting to your ears.

Josh Anderson:
That’s excellent. I know on a lot of shows, it’s so hard to actually hear what people are saying because there’s so many other things going on, on the movie or show, so I can see how that can be a giant help. Bruce, I know you said the HeardThat app is available on iPhone and Android. Is it available now or is it coming out soon?

Bruce Sharpe:
It’s available now. Anyone can go to the app store for iPhone, or Google Play for Android, and download the app for free right now.

Josh Anderson:
Excellent. And Bruce, I have a couple of questions, and these are just things that I know that have come up with, with some other folks. I’ve had folks in the past use personal listening devices. And one problem they kind of had was that it always seemed to amplify their voice as well if they were too close to the individual. Is there a way to be able to use this app where that’s not an issue?

Bruce Sharpe:
There is. We have two modes of operation. One is called directional and the other is called all voices. So in directional mode, what it means is it’ll just pick up voices in a certain direction. So typically, say you’re at a table talking to somebody, or sitting down, you would lay the phone down in front of you with the top of it pointing toward the person you want to hear, it’s going to pick up that person. But your own voice, it will not pick that up at all effectively. And this isn’t the case on absolutely all phones, but most of them will support this mode, and we encourage people to do that.

Josh Anderson:
I know you said that you kind of developed this because of a family member. But could you tell me a story about someone who’s been able to use this app and how it’s made a difference in their life?

Bruce Sharpe:
We’ve been testing it with people outside the company for a little while now, and we’ve heard a number of interesting stories. Of course, there’s the classic when people used to go to coffee shops and restaurants and sit down, it certainly works well for people there. But in the current days, we’ve heard other stories. For example, a doctor was telling us that she uses it during her hospital rounds. It just helps cut through the clutter of all those hospital sounds. We heard the other day from someone whose son is autistic, and has some auditory issues as well, and it’s really helped him hear better in face to face conversations. So there’s a whole range of things like that.

Bruce Sharpe:
These days, maybe people aren’t sitting in coffee shops so much, but maybe they’re outside on a patio. Well, that’s pretty noisy. It helps them there. Or you’re just out shopping and trying to hear people, cashiers and your companions if you’re in a noisy environment there.

Josh Anderson:
Definitely. Bruce, how does that machine learning that you’re using more effectively reduce the background noise? Without getting too technical on it.

Bruce Sharpe:
Yeah. And we do have a page on our website about this if anyone wants to dig into a little bit more of the technology. What’s different about machine learning is you don’t have to tell the algorithm what is noise or not. Instead, you just give it a lot of examples of recordings of speech, clean speech, and just noise, and then a mixture of speech and noise. And the algorithms and machine learning, the way it works is it just learns from looking at those examples to using techniques we don’t fully understand because it’s just the computer learning. But it learns how to distinguish what’s speech and noise, and separate them out.

Josh Anderson:
That’s amazing. It’s amazing how AI, machine learning, and all these things are just making so many things so much easier, and really have such an impact on the technologies that we all use to overcome these barriers.

Bruce Sharpe:
This is a longstanding problem, speech and noise, literally decades. And to be really honest about it, there hasn’t been that much progress in the last several years until machine learning came along. And it’s been a real breakthrough in progress.

Josh Anderson:
Yeah, because before that it was mostly just amplification, which if you’re amplifying everything, that’s not really that helpful. It doesn’t distinguish what you’re actually trying to listen to.

Bruce Sharpe:
Yeah. We’ve heard that a lot from people that they’ll get to a restaurant or something, or any kind of noisy environment, they’ll just take the hearing aids out because it just brings out the noise too much, along with everything else. So by distinguishing between speech and noise, you can just amplify the parts you want.

Josh Anderson:
Yeah. That’s excellent. I can see how that can be super helpful. Well, Bruce, if our listeners would want to find out more, what’s the best way for them to do that?

Bruce Sharpe:
They can go to our website at heardthatapp.com, and check out our information there. Or just try it for themselves by going to the app stores and looking for HeardThat. It’s all one word.

Josh Anderson:
Excellent. Well, Bruce thank you so much for coming on today and telling us all about the HeardThat app, and all the different ways that it can help folks just be able to hear better, especially in different environments.

Bruce Sharpe:
Thank you. It’s great to talk to you.

Josh Anderson:
Navigation and traveling out in public can be a chore for really anyone, but that can be exacerbated by a visual impairment. GPS and other aids can help, but our guest today has a new solution. Keith Kirkland is the co-founder of WearWorks, and he’s here to tell us about the WearWorks Wayband. Keith, welcome to the show.

Keith Kirkland:
Thank you so much for having me, Josh.

Josh Anderson:
Yeah. I’m looking really forward to talking about this new technology. But before we start talking about that, could you tell our listeners just a little bit about yourself and your background?

Keith Kirkland:
Like I said, my name is Keith Kirkland. I was born and raised in a little city called Camden, New Jersey right in South Jersey, right outside of Philadelphia. And I initially studied mechanical engineering and Rutgers University. I graduated, decided that I wanted to do something a bit more creative, so I went into fashion design, mainly accessories design, so I was doing handbag and shoe design. And I worked with some companies, Calvin Klein, [inaudible 00:16:08] at Coach, and then kind of went back and got a master’s degree in industrial design from Pratt Institute because I wanted to figure out a better way to use design to kind of help forward humanity.

Keith Kirkland:
And so while I was there, I ended up in this program called Global Innovation Design that took me to Japan for a six month stay at Kao University in their media design program, and four months to London at the Royal College of Engineering at Imperial College’s joint innovation design engineering program. And so I came back to do my thesis here, and basically I put all that together. I was really excited by all the technology, but I wanted to do something back in fashion. I really missed it. And I wanted to put that all together, and I was also really excited about movement and movement learning. So my thesis I spent trying to see if I could build this suit that would eventually allow a person to download to kung fu, and the suit would teach them using vibrations.

Josh Anderson:
Keith, I think I could make a whole show because I think I want to know about this kung fu suit. That sounds absolutely incredible. And I get to talk to a lot of people on this show. And I think my favorite, well, it’s hard to make a favorite part, but I love hearing how everyone gets here. You are the first person I’ve talked to that went from mechanical engineering to fashion design, and then kind of back into this, so that’s very cool. Like I said, one of my favorite things, just learning how folks get into this, in the assistive technology world. But I guess we are here to talk about the technology, so start off by telling us about WearWorks.

Keith Kirkland:
Yeah. So WearWorks is a haptic design company. I’m one of the co-founders, me and by co-founder, Kevin, and my co-founder Yang, we created the company together five years ago. And the premise that we came together under was really utilizing the sense of touch as a communications channel to find ways to deliver information more intuitively than we currently get by necessarily listening to audio or staring at a screen. So we were trying to get people out of their phones and back into the real world. And we knew that it had the potential for all these use cases, but the more we saw just a sensory organ that is so prominent and so accessible, but so underutilized from the point of view of communicating information. And we saw a wonderful opportunity to basically create a world around touch, and designing for touch the same way graphic designers design for vision, we do haptic design.

Josh Anderson:
That’s excellent. And you’re working on something called the Wayband. What’s that?

Keith Kirkland:
Yes, the Wayband. So the Wayband is our first product. It’s a wearable wristband that gives you haptic navigation directly into your skin. So what that means is you open up an application, you tell it where you want to go. You put our Wayband on, you connect it to a course, and after that what you do is, our Wayband will give you directions based off of the route that you can see visually on a phone. It will represent that route haptically directly through the band. So you can just navigate all the way to your end destination and you don’t need any visual or audio cues at all. So we can do turn by turn through a city, and that was all through this patented way we’ve created called the haptic corridor, which is basically a way of pointing a person along a straight line. And we know where you are, we know the next point that you’re going to, that’s a straight line. We can keep you on a straight line.

Keith Kirkland:
It’s just like playing Pac-Man. You get there, you collect that dot. All of a sudden, we let you know, buzz, buzz, you’ve gotten that last dot. We dynamically change it to point you at your next dot. Let’s say that’s left. And when you turn left, you turn into a space that basically when you’re going the right way, you feel no vibration at all. And if you start to deviate left and right some degrees, you have some space, but then you start to get a tiny vibration. And that vibration gets stronger the wronger you are, to 180 degrees behind you. So we built this haptic way of giving you information consistently while you’re on the path. And then it’s just up for the user to use their orientation mobility training skills to make sure that they stay safe while they’re walking along the path.

Josh Anderson:
Oh, definitely. I know this was developed with folks with visual impairments, but I could see even folks with different cognitive impairments, just that maybe kind of wander off and things like that, being able to help them on the path, or I guess in the corridor, kind of in this case.

Keith Kirkland:
Yeah, exactly. We see lots of potential opportunities, and we’ve had lots more presented to us that we never even thought of, just from listening to what people had to say when they heard about what we’re doing and what our kind of roadway is. And so that’s actually been super exciting, is that this world, the deeper we dig into it, it keeps opening up more and more, to more possibilities. And as we start to focus on the visually impaired market in particular, we’ll be building a really great device that actually has the power to give people back their sense of freedom, autonomy, and independence.

Keith Kirkland:
We’ll find ways to actually … Usually, universal design, when you design for, you know what I’m saying, the edge cases, it’s usually a better design for everything. And so we’re looking at that as really validating all the technology and all the products within the blind community by building something amazing, and then seeing how we can take that to the sighted community as well because the more of these are out there, the less they cost for people who are blind or visually impaired to be able to purchase one. And that’s one of our key drivers kind of moving forward.

Josh Anderson:
Oh, definitely. And with the GPS and giving you the corridor of where you’re going, does that work with kind of any navigation app? Or is there a certain one that you need on your phone to access it?

Keith Kirkland:
Yeah. So we actually built our own navigation app called the Wayband App, and so you download the Wayband App. It connects to the Wayband device. And you’ll put your mapping information in through there. And we used third party platforms, open street maps and map boxes foundation to run our existing maps on. And so we’re giving you haptic information along that pathway and along that route. Yeah.

Josh Anderson:
As far as with the Wayband, what stage of design and development are you currently in?

Keith Kirkland:
We’re pre-manufacturing right now, so we’re actually finalizing our manufacturers right now, and giving them the specifications that they need, so that we can start to begin. And we’re looking to have our first 1000 or 5000 units available by June 1st. So we expect to be in market probably within the next six months, but of course, COVID is kind of turning things crazy, so we’re still moving optimistically that we can have everything ready by June.

Josh Anderson:
Excellent. Yeah, I know that COVID and shutdowns and everything else has really messed up that supply chain for a lot of folks. Especially trying to make something new has really become a bit of a problem.

Keith Kirkland:
Yeah, it has been. But we persevere. We just keep moving forward, obstacles be darned.

Josh Anderson:
Exactly. Hey, it sparks innovation. And when things get back to some kind of normal, it’s like, “Well, heck. This is easy now. What are we doing?”

Keith Kirkland:
[inaudible 00:22:58].

Josh Anderson:
Keith, I’m sure you’ve done some kind of testing and some different stuff like that. Could you tell me a story about someone’s experience using the Wayband and what kind of feedback you got from them?

Keith Kirkland:
Yeah. So back in 2017, we were working with this marathon runner, Simon Wheatcroft. He’s from the UK and he’s legally blind. He has retina pigmentosa. And when he reached out to us, he basically said, “Hey, I saw this article that you were working on. It’s really cool what you’re doing. Do you think this technology could be ready by November? Because if it will be, I’ll run the New York State Marathon with it this year.” And we were like, looked at each other, and kind of like, “That’s probably not possible.” But then we just kind of turned to Simon and said, “Yeah, yeah. Sure, Simon. We can do it.” And that began basically trying to figure out: How do you run a marathon with this technology for 26 miles and it works the whole time? So it was a very nerveracking six months.

Keith Kirkland:
But at the end of the day, we were able to get him through about 15 miles of the marathon without any sight assistance, so it was super sad that we didn’t make it all the way through. I keep thinking about the tweaks now that we could’ve made that would’ve made the marathon complete, but it had also never been done before in history, so it was still a big win from our point of view of moving the whole conversation around what’s possible for the community forward.

Josh Anderson:
Oh, for sure. And what a test, that someone calls you and is excited about your technology, and I’m sure you’re just like, “Well, good. Great, yeah, we’re really working on it.” And they say, “And I want to run a marathon with it in six months,” that’s got to be a bit of a shock. But kind of like you said, it gives you that little fire under you to really get it there. And yeah, maybe it didn’t make it the whole way then, but just think, maybe if you hadn’t had that test, they may not have even made it that far by that time, so that’s awesome that they reached out. I’m glad that it definitely did help him and got him more than halfway through. That’s pretty darn impressive.

Keith Kirkland:
Thank you.

Josh Anderson:
Keith, if our listeners want to find out more about WearWorks or the Wayband, what’s the best way for them do that?

Keith Kirkland:
Yeah. So you can reach out to us directly at hello@wear.works. You can also find us on Instagram at Wear.Works. And you can find us on Twitter at WearWorks Inc.

Josh Anderson:
All right. Excellent. We’ll put links to all that over in our show notes. Well, Keith Kirkland, thank you so much for coming on today, telling us about the great things that you guys are doing at WearWorks and with the Wayband. We just can’t wait to get out hands on it and try it out once it comes out.

Keith Kirkland:
Yeah, yeah. I was about to say, we’re actually running a pilot program right now. So if any of the listeners, or any of you guys when they give it a shot, fill out the form. It’s right on the website under pilots. We’d love to have more people and to get as much feedback as possible. Ideally, we want to make the best thing we can make, and that only happens when you have the support of the entire community, so thanks so much for that.

Josh Anderson:
Oh, definitely. Yeah. So listeners, definitely go check out their website. And if you do want to be a pilot and try it out, give them that information because just remember, you can have the best of intentions and the best ideas, but until people really get it in their hands and use it, there’s definitely things you won’t think of, and you can always make it better. So awesome, Keith, thank you so much.

Keith Kirkland:
Thank you so much. Have a great one, man.

Josh Anderson:
You too. 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 In Data 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. 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 In Data Project. This has been your Assistive Technology Update. I’m Josh Anderson with the In Data Project at Easter Seals Crossroads in Indianapolis, Indiana. Thank you so much for listening, and we’ll see you next time.

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