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ATU535 – Prehensile Technologies with Dr. Jeff Ackerman

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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.

Special Guest:

Dr. Jeff Ackerman – President of Prehensile Technologies

www.prehensiletechnologies.com

Disability Strategy Story: https://bit.ly/3A4rmKO

Lumin-I Story: https://bwnews.pr/3CjqYtG

FaceTime Story: https://bit.ly/3lx0SxI

 

Captions and Transcripts brought to you by:

INTRAC – www.relayindiana.com

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—— Transcript Starts Here —–

Dr. Jeff Ackerman:
Hi. This is Jeff Ackerman and I’m the president of Prehensile Technologies. 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 535 of Assistive Technology Update. It’s scheduled to be released on August 27th, 2021. Today, we have Dr. Jeff Ackerman from Prehensile Technologies on. He’s going to talk about their RoboTable and the new grant they received from the VA to help design the device.

Josh Anderson:
We’ve got a story about a new disability strategy over in the UK, that’s supposed to help accessibility at home, at work, at school and really in just all aspects of life. We have a story about a new partnership between Smartbox and Smart Eye to make a new eye gaze technology that will be even more accessible. As well as the story about FaceTime users can now talk to their friends who have Android or Windows devices, if they really want to. Please don’t forget, if you ever have a question for us, someone who might make a good guest, a comment, or really anything you want to tell us, you can reach us many different ways. You can call our listener line at 317-721-7124. Shoot us a line on Twitter @INDATAproject, or send us an email at tech@eastersealscrossroads.org. We always love hearing from you and some of our best guests come from listener feedback. Also, feel free to leave us a review on whatever podcasting network you might be listening to us on. We always appreciate those reviews as well. Now, without any further ado, let’s go ahead and get on with the show.

Josh Anderson:
On a purely personal note, this weekend marks 10 years that I’ve worked here at Easterseals Crossroads. And when I started off as a job coach, I never thought I’d move into assistive technology. Don’t even know if I knew what that was when I first started here, but I get to sit here and talk about it with all of you and I just could not be happier. So again, huge shout out to Easterseals Crossroads for taking a chance on me. It’s been a wonderful decade. I can’t wait for the next one.

Josh Anderson:
Do you find yourself with a little bit more time on your hands? Maybe you’re really busy and only have a little bit of time to listen to podcast or maybe, listening to this has you thinking, “Well, what about this? What about that?” Well, if you’re short on time, or if you have questions about assistive technology, we have other podcasts that might just fit your needs. The first one is Accessibility Minute. This one minute long podcast gives you a little taste of assistive technology and really kind of wets your whistle to get you to go out and find out more about a piece of technology and how it might help those you work with, yourself, or maybe a friend or family member. If you happen to have questions about assistive technology, we have Assistive Technology Frequently Asked Questions or ATFAQ. The show is hosted by Brian Norton and features yours truly along with Bella Smith and Tracy Castillo as we all talk about assistive technology with questions that come in from email, phone calls and other means.

Josh Anderson:
We also don’t always know the answer. So it’s very important that we have listeners that can help us out with some of those questions, because while we like to think every once in a while that we may know everything, we’re proven wrong almost daily on that one. So if you’re looking for more podcasts to listen to, if you’re short on time and need a really quick podcast, or if you have questions about assistive technology, make sure to check out Accessibility Minute and Assistive Technology Frequently Asked Questions wherever you get your podcasts.

Josh Anderson:
Our first story today comes to us from AT Today. It’s titled “National Disability Strategy pledges to make homes more accessible and upgrade job support.” The story’s written by Sarah Sarsby. And it’s about a new program in the UK trying to make housing more accessible, commuting more accessible, and have better job prospects for individuals with disabilities. The story talks about the United Kingdom’s new National Disability Strategy. This is supported by 1.6 billion pounds of funding, and it’s focused on improving inclusion in the workplace, tackling the disability employment gap and making sure children with special needs and disabilities are at the heart of the strategy. Some of the things that it seeks to do is first of all, introduce workforce reporting for businesses with more than 250 staff on the number of individuals with disabilities to encourage a more inclusive kind of workplace.

Josh Anderson:
We’re also launching a new online advice hub available to both the individuals with disability, as well as the employer. And this is there to provide information and advice on disability discrimination in the workplace, and also teach them about flexible work environments, individual’s rights and the employer’s obligations around reasonable adjustments or what we probably call here in the States, reasonable accommodations. One thing that I really did like about this story is that it all started off with the United Kingdom Disability Survey and this survey got over 14,000 respondents.

Josh Anderson:
Now it doesn’t really say anything about who the respondents were, but from what I get from this story is it’s individuals with disabilities living in the UK. So basically, they ask, “What are the barriers that you have? What are the things we can do to help you?” Because as many folks know, assistive technology is a wonderful thing, but if it’s not used in the right place for the right reason at the right time, it’s not that great. So they really actually reached out to the people and tried to make sure that they could actually get what the folks needed in their hands at the right time. As far as for homes, to help make homes more accessible, they’re raising the accessibility requirements for new homes and also giving money to adapt existing homes. Now, this can include widening doors, installing ramps, fitting stair lifts, or installing a downstairs bathroom.

Josh Anderson:
It was like also the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is commissioning new research to develop the statutory guidance on meeting building regulations. So this would cover access to and use of buildings. This research will also help the government to improve guidance and inform future policy and will consider modern building design approaches, assistive technology, and building use and operation. So they’re really looking, not just at something they can do now, but something to ensure that the future is even brighter for individuals with disabilities. It talks about a little bit of the things they’re kind of doing with transportation. It says that on their rail service, they’re making it to where individuals with disabilities can contact staff from their seat on the train for support without having to get up or go find someone or anything like that. So all these are new programs that are coming to be over there in the UK. It’s one heck of an investment and a great investment that is going to end up hopefully opening up a lot of doors and making things more accessible for individuals with disabilities in home, in transportation, at work, and at school.

Josh Anderson:
I felt it very fitting to find this story as we talked about 30 years of the ADA here in America. There are different kinds of rules and different kinds of programs over in the UK. And I think it’s good to highlight them, but I especially think it’s great to highlight different countries as they try to make things more accessible for individuals with disabilities. Because really, if we look at assistive technology and the things we talk about on this show, accessibility is at the heart of everything single thing we talk about. So anyway, I will put a link to this story over in the show notes so that you can go and check it out for yourself.

Josh Anderson:
So next story is more of a press release, comes to us from Business Wire. It’s titled “Leading AAC Provider Smartbox Launches Lumin-i,” which is Lumin-i, a new eye tracking solution developed in collaboration with Smart Eye. The story talks about Smartbox, which is an assistive technology company that makes AAC solutions that rely on a grid and a company called Smart Eye, which is a leader in AI based eye tracking solutions. Normally, Smart Eye works with automotive, aerospace, neuroscience, and research sectors, but is working with Smartbox on the development of this Lumin-i solution. And it looks like this came out just a little bit earlier last month, but it offers some pretty cool things and some stuff that might be beneficial even to really anyone who needs to use their eyes to access things beyond just AAC devices here sometime in the future. Where this is a little bit different than maybe some other eye gaze and eye controlled systems is, this says that it’s able to kind of interpret what the user is trying to do.

Josh Anderson:
So if you kind of think some folks, well, eyes might be the easiest way to access their devices. They may have some jerky head movements, some other things, spasms and stuff which cause things to become uncalibrated very easily. So here’s the way the software is designed and the way the camera’s made, it is able to kind of counteract those. So it’s able, if you do have some head movements, you don’t have to stop and recalibrate everything every single time that you want to. It says that it takes the device just 25 milliseconds to respond to your gaze. So that’s pretty darn quick, as far as I’m concerned, and there’s a very large track box. So if you kind of think, especially if you use these oh, five, 10 years ago, you had a very small camera to focus it right on the eye. And if that eye moved or somebody knocked at the device or something like that, the whole calibration was off.

Josh Anderson:
You had to start from scratch and kind of help the individual get it back up and working. So there’s no independence. There’s no really being able to do things on your own because every time that you bump the device into something from the wheelchair, or if it’s attached to a bed, anytime somebody bumps into it, or you move a little bit, that calibration really just went off. So this should hopefully let individuals be a little bit more independent as they use it. It says it’s also able to kind of not be as light sensitive. So it’s able to be used indoors and outdoors. A lot of times, when it’s too sunny, too dark, other things like that, the eye gaze system wouldn’t really work.

Josh Anderson:
It also has an anti-reflection mode. What that means is if you’re using corrective glasses with coatings or filters, so if you think of folks that maybe have some sort of eye impairment as well and need some tinted glasses or some ones that kind of reduce glare, this can still see through those and pick up those eye movements. So we will put a link to the story over in the show notes. You can go check it out yourself, but a very cool solution that Lumin-i coming out as a collaboration between Smartbox and Smart Eye.

Josh Anderson:
I’m sure that many of us made a whole lot of video calls over the course of the last year and a half. Trying to stay close to friends and family, doctor’s appointments, work meetings, all these things were mostly conducted with a camera, a screen, and a little tiny picture of yourself sitting in the corner. Well, one video app has only been available on iOS devices. Well, I suppose Apple devices as a whole, because you can use FaceTime on a MacBook, on a Mac, on an iPad or on an iPhone. But up until now, that was it.

Josh Anderson:
If you had friends who used Android or Windows, well, they were kind of shut out and not able to play in those reindeer games, as they say, but with iOS 15, Apple is willing to be opening up FaceTime to other platforms, kind of, not completely and totally. So I found a story about it over here at Macworld. It’s written by Jason Krause and it’s called “iOS 15: How to use FaceTime links to call Android or Windows users.” The story talks about features coming out with iOS 15, which will be coming out here pretty darn soon. It starts off by talking about the fact that it was 2010 when FaceTime actually came out. That was iOS 4, which is also the first one not named iPhone OS. Steve Job’s original idea was to make FaceTime an open industry standard but of course, that really didn’t happen. You can only do it with your friends and family who own Apple devices.

Josh Anderson:
But with this new iOS 15, what you’re going to do is you open up a meeting like you normally would on FaceTime and it gives you a create link. You take that link. You copy it. You email it. Send it off to somebody else. They click on it. They’re able to open it and join. They’re not able to do everything that you can do on a regular Apple device on a FaceTime call, but they are still able to do quite a few different things. They’re able to change their cameras. They’re able to send and share links with folks. They’re able to use external microphones and earbuds, change the view if more than one person is on a call. So they’re able to use a lot of the features that have been limited to Apple users up until now. So I’ll put a link to this over in the show notes, but it is pretty cool that now, if you are someone who loves using FaceTime on your Apple devices, you can finally talk to your friends with Android phones or Windows computers.

Josh Anderson:
So listeners, recently, I’ve become aware of the US Department of Veterans Affairs Specially Adapted Housing Assistive Technology Grant Program. And we’re lucky enough to have Dr. Jeff Ackerman on the show today from Prehensile Technologies. They’re one of the grant recipients, and he’s here to tell us all about the grant program, their innovation, and really all about Prehensile Technologies. Jeff, welcome to the show.

Dr. Jeff Ackerman:
Yeah. Thanks for having me.

Josh Anderson:
I’m really excited to get into talking about the technology and about Prehensile Technologies, but could you start off by telling us a little bit about yourself and your background?

Dr. Jeff Ackerman:
Sure. So I am Jeff Ackerman. I have a PhD in mechanical engineering from Purdue University. I really enjoyed my time there in Indiana and currently, I’m in Colorado. I am a teaching assistant professor at the Colorado School of Mines, but I still really love working with assistive technology, in particular, work with Dr. Brad Duerstock at Purdue. He’s a C6 quadriplegic and just an awesome guy to work with. He is a professor at Purdue. He develops assistive technology, and that’s really a big reason why I got involved in this field back in 2017. So I just love working with him and trying to design assistive technology that helps people. And I also just love prototyping things. So it’s a fantastic opportunity to practice mechanical engineering. I love mechatronics and robotics and design and building things that can immediately help people is kind of my passion.

Josh Anderson:
Well, that is a perfect partnership. Thanks. I know we’ve had Dr. Duerstock on the show before, and he’s just very interesting and yeah, very passionate about the things that he does, which kind of leads me into my next question. Can you tell our listeners about Prehensile Technologies?

Dr. Jeff Ackerman:
Yeah. So Prehensile Technologies is sort of Brad’s brain child. He really wanted to take the research that he had in the lab at Purdue. And he wanted to translate that to things that could more immediately help people. So we started with the RoboDesk that was a iPad mount that attaches to the side of a power wheelchair. And the goal of that project was to deploy an iPad and then have the user store it completely independently with a robotic device that would never leave the wheelchair, that would essentially be permanently attached, that would enable you to deploy and store any mobile device but particularly devices like iPads. So Brad thought of that idea. He wanted it for himself. He thought other people could benefit from that. And that’s really where I got involved to help him prototype and improve that design. We’ve had a number of iterations.

Dr. Jeff Ackerman:
It’s still very much in the development phase, I would say, but we do have functional prototypes of that RoboDesk, which is a robotic mount for power wheelchairs. So we started there and we’ve been expanding into some other applications, trying to think about what else we could design that could help people. And one of the most immediate projects that came up was the RoboTable, which is the same idea. We’re just trying to create a over bed table that’s robotic that could be used in a medical setting, in a hospital, an outpatient setting, or even at home, if someone’s in a medical or adjustable bed, or just needs assistance to be more productive and more independent from a bed, from a seated position or laying down position.

Dr. Jeff Ackerman:
So the first VA SAHAT Grant that we got was for the RoboTable. We developed that. I built it in my garage because through that grant, we were able to get some prototyping equipment, which is fantastic and enables us to do a lot of good prototyping stuff and build cool things. So that grant enabled us to build that first prototype. And then we got the second grant too. We also have a couple of other projects but those are the main ones.

Josh Anderson:
Excellent. Tell me a little bit about the VA Grant program, kind of what was the goal of it, what was the purpose and what really got you all excited to become involved?

Dr. Jeff Ackerman:
Yeah, so the VA Grant, the VA SAHAT, we just saw it as a great opportunity as a small business, as really a startup company with just a couple of people, we saw it as a great opportunity to start to pursue some other designs because building prototypes could be pretty expensive. So having that kind of grant to fund that early R&D and to these designs is extremely helpful. We literally couldn’t have done it without the support of the VA SAHAT Grant. So the VA Grant generally is primarily for veterans that are there in the VA healthcare system and what they do is they provide home modifications. So they provide funding to make homes more accessible for veterans and other technology too. So it’s a really awesome program for veterans that need any assistive technology. And what’s also neat about it is they fund the new types of technologies as well through that program. And that’s the funding that’s helping us build these different RoboTable designs is the R&D funding that helps the prototyping to come up with new technologies that could help veterans primarily in a home setting.

Josh Anderson:
Excellent. You got into this a little bit, but let’s dig a little bit deeper into kind of the RoboTable. Why is this important for individuals?

Dr. Jeff Ackerman:
So the RoboTable is important for individuals. We were inspired by Brad’s needs in particular. When he gets a pressure sore, when he’s in his power wheelchair, he has to spend probably a couple of weeks, depending on the severity, in his medical bed that is adjustable, that can help relieve pressure. And that’s really challenging for him. That actually happened when we got the first SAHAT Grant without the RoboTable, the first version. And that’s just difficult when you’re so used to living and working in a power wheelchair for most of the day. He’s very independent. He has a lot of ability to move at Purdue. He works at home. He drives himself as well. And then to be confined to a bed for weeks at a time is pretty difficult to get a lot done, especially when you’re relying on other people to deploy a device, put an iPad in front of him to eat and drink.

Dr. Jeff Ackerman:
So what we decided to do was to address that problem for Brad, but also more generally, we realized that there’s a lot of instances where people might be confined to beds for long periods of time, such as in outpatient care or long-term care and definitely in hospitals for multi-day stays. Most over bed tables that we saw, that’s the primary way of putting a table and putting a useful surface where people eat, drink, work, read. We saw that that was very limited. They were all manual. They all rolled around. They have limited adjustability. It required a good grip strength as well as dexterity of your hands. And really, none of that would be particularly accessible or independent for an individual that either has an upper limb mobility issue or a longer-term disability of the upper limb or even just has trouble grasping or reaching.

Dr. Jeff Ackerman:
So that could even be people that are just in long-term care that just feel a little bit weaker or more tired than they might be otherwise. And so we just saw this opportunity to help people when they’re in bed for long periods of time to just make it more productive. So rather than just sit there and rely on a nurse or a caregiver to come and move the table into a useful position, we wanted to directly enable the user to do that independently and automatically.

Josh Anderson:
Oh, definitely. I can see how that can help in a lot of different situations and you even mentioned in the home, as well as the hospital, I can see how that can really help. And I know you said you’re kind of still in the development phase and everything, have you actually made a full on prototype to test out?

Dr. Jeff Ackerman:
Yeah, so for the first VA Grant, we were able to make a fully… Basically, create our design to create the first RoboTable. What we found from that design, we were able to do some user testing at VA, as well as we talked with some existing over bed table manufacturers. And we also did some testing at Purdue and Brad tried it out as well. So we got some user feedback. We put it through spaces. The main thing that we learned from that first grant is there are some things that the RoboTable would need to do to be more successful in the home or hospital environment.

Dr. Jeff Ackerman:
So our original design was a rolled RoboTable where it was on a wheel base and that works quite well, but it still didn’t totally meet our totally independent criteria because a individual or a caregiver would have to move the table relatively close. And then from there, the user could adjust the table. We also tried another version of the same basic design that was mounted to the floor. And we found that that was awesome because you can move it along the entire length of the bed. But the challenge there that we did not realize when we first designed it was that linear system that’s on the floor would be a bump and would definitely impede other over bed tables from getting in the same spot and also could be potentially a tripping hazard and it just had a couple other minor issues, practically speaking, that we’ll want to address.

Dr. Jeff Ackerman:
And there’s a couple of other things that we learned from that experience, but primarily, we wanted to come up with a new design that could be installed in the room. It could be easily moved out of the way, because if a patient has an emergency, the table would have to move very rapidly out of the way. That’s another thing that we had to design and learned, especially in a hospital environment. And so we wanted to address these things we learned from that first design, first couple of designs, actually. And so we came up with the RoboTable 2.0, which is a slightly different design, but we think meets the objectives of making people more accessible, more independent from bed.

Josh Anderson:
So just kind of what differences are there on the RoboTable 2.0?

Dr. Jeff Ackerman:
Yeah. With RoboTable 2.0 with this latest SAHAT Grant, we decided to make a overhead system rather than a floor mounted system. So it’s essentially like an overhead gantry, sort of like a patient lift that would be an overhead gantry patient lift. And this design can be very much out of the way because it’s stored very high above the table or above the bed at the foot of the table. And it can deploy the table anywhere over the bed. What’s also cool about the RoboTable 2.0 that we’re hoping to build in as a feature would be that it could double as an overhead patient lift. So really excited to be working on this new design and excited to get this prototype going to see if the RoboTable 2.0 can really meet people’s needs at home or in the hospital setting.

Josh Anderson:
Well, that’d be great if it could be used as a lift as well because then you’re just using just to have one thing to install, one thing to put together. So that’d be great.

Dr. Jeff Ackerman:
Yeah. Yeah. We’re really excited about it. We hope it’s as cool as we think it will be.

Josh Anderson:
Just what I know from Dr. Duerstock, what I’ve learned from you just talking today, I’m sure that there are other things that you all are working on. So is there anything you can tell us about maybe some stuff that you’ve got coming down the pipeline or are starting to work on?

Dr. Jeff Ackerman:
Yeah. So we’re constantly thinking about different ways we can enhance independence, especially for power wheelchair users, because Brad is very familiar with that lifestyle. So a lot of the ideas come from him and one was that we are currently in development is a backup camera for power wheelchairs. For instance, Brad, when he’s navigating tight spaces, he’s actually accidentally run over his cat’s tail once or twice with his power wheelchair. So we decided to come up with a solution that would be a backup camera, kind of like a car backup camera that would deploy automatically while your chair moves or someone moves behind your chair. And it just gives you a great vision and makes you much more maneuverable with your chair in tight spaces. So we’re currently developing that and hope to have a product soon.

Josh Anderson:
That’s great. I know I’ve talked to some power wheelchair users, and they’ve talked about that as kind of being a little bit bad, because like you said, with tight spaces, we kind of think of the 10 point turnaround, having to kind of back and really get into some of those tight spots. That’d be a great tool just to help them from bumping into things or I never even thought about running over the cat. That’s a new one for me, but that’s awesome.

Dr. Jeff Ackerman:
Yeah, the cat’s fine by the way.

Josh Anderson:
Well, good. Good. Thank goodness. It probably learned its lesson pretty quick too. Just for our listeners who want to find out more about Prehensile Technologies and the programs that you all are working on, what’s the best way for them to do that?

Dr. Jeff Ackerman:
Yeah, so we have a website and it’s just prehensiletechnologies.com. So it’s spelled P-R-E-H-E-N-S-I-L-E technologies.com. And we have our content information, some pictures and videos of some projects we’ve worked on such as the first version of the RoboTable. And that’s probably the best way. At the very bottom, there is a contact us form. And that’s probably the best way to get in touch with Brad or I at our company.

Josh Anderson:
Excellent. And we will definitely put a link to that over in the show notes. Well, Dr. Jeff Ackerman, thank you so much for coming on the show today and telling us all about the RoboTable and the SAHAT Grant and just everything that you guys do there at Prehensile Technologies.

Dr. Jeff Ackerman:
Yeah. Great. Thanks a lot for having me.

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 so, call our listener line at 317-721-7124. Send us an email at tech@eastersealscrossroads.org, or shoot us a note on Twitter @INDATAProject. Our captions and transcripts for the show or sponsored by the Indiana Telephone Relay Access Corporation or InTRAC. You can find out more about InTRAC at relayindiana.com. Special thanks to Nikol Prieto for scheduling our amazing guest and making a mess of my schedule. Today’s show was produced, edited, hosted, and fraught over by yours truly. The opinions expressed by our guests are their own and may or may not reflect those of the INDATA Project, Easterseals Crossroads, our supporting partners, or this host. This was your Assistive Technology Update. And I’m Josh Anderson with the INDATA Project at Easterseals Crossroads in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana. We look forward to seeing you next time. Bye bye.

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