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ATU572 – Braze Mobility with Dr. Pooja Viswanathan

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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. Pooja Viswanathan – Co-Founder and CEO – Braze Mobility
Website: www.brazemobility.com

Stories:
MIT story: https://bit.ly/3siI1ZG

Bridging Apps:

Website: https://bridgingapps.org/

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—– Transcript Starts Here —–

Dr. Pooja Viswanathan:
This is Pooja Viswanathan, and I’m the CEO of Braze Mobility. 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 572 of Assistive Technology Update. It’s scheduled to be released on Friday, the 13th of May 2022.

Josh Anderson:
I’m definitely not a superstitious person because on this Friday the 13th, we are lucky enough to have Dr. Pooja Viswanathan on. She’s the co-founder and CEO of Braze Mobility, and she’s here to tell us about their amazing new device that makes it easier to navigate the world in a wheelchair. We have Bridging Apps back on the show with an app worth mentioning that you’ll definitely want to check out, as well as a story about some new actuators coming out of MIT.

Josh Anderson:
Don’t forget if you ever do want to reach us, you can send us an email at tech@eastersealscrossroads.org, call our listener line at (317) 721-7124, or hit us up on Twitter @INDATAproject. We always love hearing from you, your suggestions, your ideas, compliments or concerns. We’ll take any of them, so don’t forget to reach out. Some of our best guests and ideas come from your suggestions, so please definitely get those in. But for now, let’s go ahead and get on with the show.

Josh Anderson:
If you’re looking for more information on assistive technology, including YouTube tech tips, a blog, or how to find our other podcasts, go over to eastersealstech.com. That’s eastersealstech.com, homepage of the INDATA project. Here, you can find weekly video tech tips, consumer stories, blog posts, and all things assistive technology. So be sure to visit eastersealstech.com. We can’t wait to see you there.

Josh Anderson:
Maybe you’re looking for some new podcasts to listen to. Well, make sure to check out our sister podcast, Accessibility Minute, and AT FAQ, or Assistive Technology Frequently Asked Questions. If you’re super busy and don’t have time to listen to a full podcast, be sure to check out Accessibility Minute, our one minute long podcast that gives you just a little taste of something assistive technology based so that you’re able to get your assistive technology fix without taking up the whole day. Hosted by Tracy Castillo, this show comes out weekly. Our other show is Assistive Technology Frequently Asked Questions, or AT FAQ. On Assistive Technology Frequently Asked Questions, Brian Norton leads our panel of experts, including myself, Belva Smith and our own Tracy Castillo, as we try to answer your assistive technology questions. This show does rely on you, so we’re always looking for new questions, comments, or even your answers on assistive technology questions. So remember, if you’re looking for more assistive technology podcasts to check out, you can check out our sister shows, Accessibility Minute and AT FAQ, wherever you get your podcasts, now including Spotify and Amazon Music.

Josh Anderson:
Our first story today comes to us from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Their MIT News, written by Rachel Gordon, has a story called Soft Assistive Robotic Wearables Get a Boost From Rapid Design Tool. The story talks about some pretty cool things that they’re making there, basically these soft pneumatic actuators, which kind of to describe it on the podcast, I suppose if you think of a tube that fills with air and then due to sensors or things kind of on it, it bends and/or moves a certain way. To really and truly simplify what I’m actually looking at here on the story, they basically describe it here as the devices use compressed air to power motion. And they have sensing capabilities. These can be used as assistive wearables, robotics, rehab technologies, and a bunch of other things.

Josh Anderson:
[Inaudible 00:04:25] one problem. There’s always been a bottleneck in creating the little devices because you really kind of have to test or come up with a plan, have something created, test that out. If it doesn’t work, go back to the drawing board. Have something else created. So it really and truly slowed everything down. Well, here at MIT, they started using a machine knitting process. And they actually compare it to your grandma’s plastic needle knitting, but the machine actually works on itself. So there’s design software. You put in your design, where you want your different actuators, where you want your different sensors, and then this machine can just make the shell for you. And then you put your actuators and everything in, and boom. There you go.

Josh Anderson:
And with this, it’s able to do a lot of different things. The Meta glove is one of the things. So it actually has the five fingers in it, and these actuators that can mimic motion. So if you think of the grasp or the grip that your hand does, if I’m missing digits, don’t have the finger strength to really do that and be able to grip things, I could use these. And as those actuators fill with air, it pushes my fingers down into a gripping motion and actually does all of the work for me. They’re working on different sleeves that can be put on elbows, on knees, on different parts of the body, again, to kind of supplement that muscle movement, minimize the amount of activity needed to complete different tasks and motions.

Josh Anderson:
I could see how this could really help with rehabilitation from injuries or to just supplement motion that individuals maybe cannot do or have a great deal of difficulty doing on their own, since the sensors on here can actually detect touch and then react in the way that they’re programed to. So essentially on let’s say the hand that they made, as something’s put in it, the fingers, we’ll just call them here, can actually feel it and then will close on it and grip it. And then it will actually sit there and decide, did I grip enough? It’ll pick it up, and it may drop it. If it does, then the next time it grabs, it’ll put a little bit more pressure, and other things. So it’s actually doing some of that learning on its own, along with the programming that it receives.

Josh Anderson:
It’s very cool and a little bit different than some of the other things that I’ve seen. So pretty neat that it’s using these pneumatic actuators and different kind of technology in order to make something that again, could be used to maybe supplement our own normal kind of muscular skeletal movements in the hands, the joints, the arms, and really help folks who have had an injury, an illness, or just don’t really have the capacity, grip strength, or full range of movement. It can really help them along in order to accomplish even more. We’ll put a link to the story over in the show notes so that you can go check out a little bit more about these pneumatic actuators and the soft assistive robot wearables coming out of MIT.

Josh Anderson:
Next up, we have Jonna from Bridging Apps with an app worth mentioning. Take it away, Jonna.

Jonna:
This is Jonna with Bridging Apps, and this is an app worth mentioning. This week’s featured app is called Calm. The Calm app can be used for meditation, sleep, focus, and reducing anxiety. The app features hundreds of calming exercises, helpful breathing techniques, and sleep stories narrated by some celebrities like Matthew McConaughey and Bob Ross. Some of the great features of this app are that it has the ability to track basic statistics, like the number of consecutive days used, minutes meditated, and number of sessions. It can also set reminders to help users stay on track with personal goals.

Jonna:
Features such as soundscapes can support users who are looking to increase focus, decrease stress, or just enjoy a moment of calm. Soundscapes are options of sound recordings, such as rain, crackling fires, or oceans. The user can choose a soundscape they find soothing to play from their device or over headphones. The app also offers an onscreen breathing exercise to guide a user through their breaths. The graphics will mimic the length of the time the user should breathe in, hold their breath, then release the breath.

Jonna:
Another popular feature in the calm app is the sleep stories library. These are great for users who are looking for support in falling asleep. Sleep stories are recorded voices with soothing backgrounds, telling a story to help the user wind down and relax. Some of the voices are recorded by celebrities, which can make this feature extra special. Guided meditations are another great benefit to the Calm app. Some are also recorded by celebrities and may vary on their purpose. Meditation categories may range from mindfulness, mental fitness, focus, relaxation, poetry, and more. We think that this app is great for anyone. The soothing soundscapes make this a useful tool for a newborn at nap time or an older adult seeking focus.

Jonna:
Calm is currently available for both Android and iOS devices. It is free to download with optional in app purchases. For more information on this app and others like it, visit bridgingapps.org.

Josh Anderson:
[inaudible 00:10:02] getting around in a wheelchair can be a challenge, especially with all the obstacles and other things that one must dodge to get around. This can be exacerbated if the individual does not have full range of motion in their upper body. Our guest today is Dr. Pooja Viswanathan from Braze Mobility, and she’s here to tell us about the solution that they have come up with to make navigating the world in a wheelchair a little bit easier and safer. Pooja, welcome to the show.

Dr. Pooja Viswanathan:
Thank you so much.

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

Dr. Pooja Viswanathan:
Yeah, sure. I’m the CEO of Braze Mobility. And for a very long time, I was doing research in this area of smart wheelchairs, which is really an area of research where we were hoping to bring sensor technologies that we’ve often seen in the automotive industry to the wheelchair space. And all of this was really because I got inspired walking into a longterm care facility and noticing that a lot of the residents there were slumped over in manual wheelchairs and didn’t have the strength to propel themselves and weren’t being allowed to use power wheelchairs because of safety concerns. And so I decided to pursue this area of research, ended up doing my doctorate and my post doctoral research in the area. And then after many, many years over a decade of research got really frustrated with there really being no commercial solutions in the market, and so founded Braze Mobility in 2016.

Josh Anderson:
That is awesome. And that’s the way we see so much great assistive technology and devices come out is just finding out that, hey, all these people can benefit from it, and darn it, there’s just nothing out there. So you talked a little bit about when and why Braze Mobility was founded. Now tell us about some of the solutions that you’ve come up with.

Dr. Pooja Viswanathan:
We’ve developed the world’s first blind spot sensor system for wheelchairs. And the system essentially attaches to any wheelchair and transforms it into a smart wheelchair. The sensors automatically detect obstacles in the environment and provide information to the user regarding the location and proximity of these obstacles through intuitive lights, sounds and vibrations.

Josh Anderson:
Oh, awesome. And how do they work? What is the viewing radius? Is it using cameras? Describe the sensors to me.

Dr. Pooja Viswanathan:
They’re actually ultrasonic sensors, very similar to the sensors that you have in your cars. We essentially developed these sensors in order to improve robustness and accuracy specifically for wheelchair navigation, because one of the big differences between wheelchair navigation and driving your car is that people often have to navigate wheelchairs in much tighter spaces. And so it’s really important to be able to see things pretty close by.

Dr. Pooja Viswanathan:
The other thing that’s really neat and very important about our system is the ability to actually customize the range of what the sensors can see. The sensors can be customized to see anywhere from a couple of inches all the way to six feet, so that’s how long the sensors can see. And then in terms of where the sensors are attached and how wide they can see, it really depends on the type of configuration that’s used. We have a bigger sensor called the Sentina, which sees 180 degrees of horizontal coverage and about 45 to 50 degrees of vertical coverage. And that’s typically mounted in the rear of the wheelchair because it gives you that sort of 180 span in the back of the chair. And then we also have these smaller sensors called Echo Heads that see about 45 to 50 degrees like a cone, so both horizontal and vertical. And those can be attached pretty much anywhere around the wheelchair.

Josh Anderson:
Nice. And yeah, you brought up a very good point. I’m not driving a car down hallways or through doorways or anything small like that, so I can see how it would be a whole lot different. And you mentioned this a little bit, but how do I receive feedback from the device? I’m in my wheelchair and something is getting close. What are the different ways that I can receive that information?

Dr. Pooja Viswanathan:
You’ll have what we call the controller, which is what displays the visual feedback. And the visual feedback is not like a camera. It’s not like a screen. It’s actually just lights. So it’s a bunch of bright lights, and the brightness of the lights can be adjusted as well. But essentially, these lights pop up on your controller, yellow for warning indicator and red for danger. You’ll also see different lights depending on where it is. So you’ll see a light on the left if it’s an obstacle on the left and a light on the right if it’s an obstacle on the right, for example.

Dr. Pooja Viswanathan:
And then you also get a couple of other modalities. You get an audio feedback. So if you are too close, if you’re in what we call the danger zone, then you’ll hear a beep. And lastly, with the vibration modality, we have three vibration modules that can be placed in the wheelchair, typically in the armrest or the backrest or the seat cushions. And that way, if you’re going through a doorway, for example, and you’re too close to the right side, the right side of the chair will actually vibrate. And if you’re too close to left, the left side of the chair will vibrate. So those are the different sorts of [inaudible 00:14:57] the warning and danger.

Dr. Pooja Viswanathan:
And then we also have two operating modes. We have a short range mode and a long range mode. And again, the reason we have this is because oftentimes, users do have to navigate in different environments. So they might be navigating in their home, which is maybe a really, really tight space. And then they’re going outdoors and to grocery stores and the mall, where maybe they need to see obstacles coming from a little bit farther away. And so we have a quick toggle where you can switch between the short range and the long range. And of course, each of those ranges or modes are customizable as well. So you can kind of think of them as profiles, where you can very quickly have two of your own custom profiles that you can very quickly switch between.

Josh Anderson:
Nice. And Pooja, who all could benefit from this technology?

Dr. Pooja Viswanathan:
Really any wheelchair user, and especially any powered wheelchair user, because what a lot of people don’t realize is the wheelchair in itself is a pretty big blind spot. So your backrest, oftentimes our users will also have headrests. And that entire area in the back is really, really difficult to see behind. And so, for people, what I often like to do is kind of using the analogy of anyone who’s seated in an office chair. If you try looking at the floor behind you while remaining seated, that’s really, really difficult to do. And so add to that any sort of upper body mobility issue, which is typically why a person’s using a power wheelchair in the first place, looking behind becomes impossible, if not extremely challenging. And so we do recommend these sensors for really anyone who’s using using a power chair.

Dr. Pooja Viswanathan:
We also see manual wheelchair users who have some sort of vision loss or spatial neglect that can benefit as well. And we’re really starting to see that now as well. I think when we first started, a lot of people did see very specific wheelchair users as beneficiaries of the system. And now we’re seeing more and more people realizing that pretty much anyone who’s got a power wheelchair is doing damage in their homes, doing property damage, damage to their mobility devices. And so this is really something that absolutely any power wheelchair can benefit from.

Josh Anderson:
Oh, I’m sure. And yeah, most folks that I’ve worked with, if they’ve had their wheelchair for any amount of time, you see the nicks, the scrapes, the bumps and everything kind of on every corner of it because it’s just hard, like you said, definitely hard to see behind you, even beside you, and depending on your mobility challenges can be even more of a challenge.

Dr. Pooja Viswanathan:
That’s right.

Josh Anderson:
And looking through everything that you do, I also found that you’re working to support veterans in the US and Canada. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Dr. Pooja Viswanathan:
Yes. We have a lot of clients who are veterans. In fact, the US Department of Veterans Affairs was one of our first customers and really an early adopter. And so when we first showed our product, I believe it was at the RESNA conference, we saw a lot of therapists there from the VA who were really interested in our product and essentially came to us and said, “Gosh, where have you been for the last 10 years,” because they had so many veteran clients who could have benefited from this. So they were the first to really come on board. And we in fact worked informally with a lot of the VA therapists and veterans to improve our system in the early days because of course, as a product that was early and we just started building the product, there was a lot that could have been improved. And so we used a lot of their input on mounting and where to put the systems and who could benefit, and really finding out who those clients were actually through our informal collaborations with the VA.

Dr. Pooja Viswanathan:
And then more recently, just end of last year, in fact, we won a collaboration challenge with the Veterans Health Administration Innovation Ecosystem, which now means that we are collaborating with multiple VA hospitals across the country. And this is an ongoing collaboration. We’re talking to them not only about our current products, but products that are currently under development as well. So that’s been really exciting. And as always, I have always had a wonderful [inaudible 00:19:00] with the VA and with the staff there as well as the veterans. And they really have not only helped bring our product to market, but now helping us scale within the US as well.

Josh Anderson:
That’s awesome. I know you’ve been working on this, as you said, for quite some time. But what’s next?

Dr. Pooja Viswanathan:
Well, we’re starting to look at other challenges now. What we found is our clients are benefiting usually and mostly using our system indoors. And so now we’re really interested in understanding what some of the challenges are outdoors, what some of the hazards and environmental barriers might be. For example, one of the things that we’re looking at is drop offs and curbs and how to help our clients better navigate those and just other sort of, as I mentioned, barriers in the environment. One of the things that I’m really interested in is moving beyond also just accessibility issues pertaining to wheelchair users and looking at accessibility issues more broadly. One of the things, for example, that we would like to get into is more data analysis and big data around what are some of the issues and challenges. Where are people in wheelchairs going? More importantly, where are they not going, which I think can really give us a lot of indicators around what the level of accessibility is of cities and what we can do to improve accessibility, not only for wheelchair users, but for everyone.

Josh Anderson:
Oh, definitely. And I’m sure you probably have a lot of these, but could you tell me a story about someone who you’ve been able to use these sensors from Braze Mobility and how it’s made a change in their life?

Dr. Pooja Viswanathan:
Yeah. I can tell you two actually, because I think they’re different. One is of a client who was in a longterm care facility, and she was actually a long term power wheelchair user. But the staff had started noticing some accidents, and so they had restricted her mobility indoors. And they had actually prohibited her from going outdoors to the mall all together, which was something that really brought her a lot of joy. And they were considering taking her power mobility device away. But luckily, before they did that, they wanted to trial her with the Braze Mobility sensors because they had seen success with other residents in the same facility. And so we did a trial, and after configuring it for her needs, I went back to the facility probably within about eight months or so. And to my amazement, the staff had pretty much eliminated all restrictions they placed on her. They were also allowing her to go to the mall now, which was something that not only gave her back her independence and mobility and dignity, but they saw it even in her moods. They saw much better moods. She seemed happier.

Dr. Pooja Viswanathan:
And so I think that really goes a long way to show how important mobility is for someone’s overall quality of life. So that was a wonderful success story, and really the issue there was quite simple. I think often, we don’t realize why people are having accidents. And sometimes there can be assumptions about the person’s ability, or maybe their cognitive abilities are declining and there’s a lot of speculation about what might be wrong.

Dr. Pooja Viswanathan:
And in this particular resident’s case, it was really as simple as she just couldn’t see the end of her feet because she had a pretty custom footrest that really hindered her visibility around there. And so she was doing some damage on the wall underneath her bathroom sink. And the other area where she was having trouble was getting out of the dining hall because there were so many people there. And so getting in and out and not being able to see people behind her was another issue. And so having the alert that basically just gave her that sound or that light or vibration feedback as she was backing up was really helpful, not only for her, but for the other residents as well, because it’s not just the responsibility of the wheelchair user. It’s everyone’s responsibility to also give the wheelchair user the space they need to navigate. And so now with that audio alert, people around her would also become a little more vigilant and give her the space that she needed to navigate.

Dr. Pooja Viswanathan:
So I think that was a really, really interesting story, and someone who now has independent mobility because of the blind spot sensors and continues to have that mobility because of the sensors. And then the other story that I like to tell is actually someone who is a veteran who is now legally blind. But when he first started losing his vision, he was going down a hallway and ended up crashing into a baby stroller. Luckily, the stroller was empty and there was no baby in it. But the veteran was really just traumatized, and it really hurt his confidence. And knowing that he was going to ultimately lose his vision, he really wanted to look for a solution that could help him maintain his independence and mobility. And he came across the sensors. And again, we did an evaluation with him and his therapist. And he ended up being one of our first clients that use the sensors in the front as well.

Dr. Pooja Viswanathan:
He uses the Sentina, the 180 degree system that I mentioned in the front and the back, and so he gets a lot more coverage. And he uses all three types of modalities for feedback, of course, the vibration feedback being his favorite one because he is legally blind. And that’s made a huge difference in his life because now he’s been able to maintain his mobility. He’s been able to get around. In fact, he even traveled on his own to another VA site that helped him with power wheelchair skills training for people who are blind. And so that was incredible that he was able to go on his own and use the sensors to help him navigate in what was a completely unfamiliar environment. So those are two huge success stories.

Josh Anderson:
Oh, definitely. And I love the way that in both of them, they’re just gaining that independence. You brought up a great point with the first story that, especially in the aging population, it seems like anytime something goes wrong, and you mentioned this, that everyone just assumes it’s cognitive. It’s a cognitive impairment. They’re aging. That’s just what it is. And that wasn’t the issue at all. And I’m so glad that you were able to help her be able to gain some of that independence back because that’s really the goal of, I think, any of the work we do is helping people be a whole lot more independent, kind of on their own. If our listeners want to find out more about Braze Mobility, what’s the best way for them to do that?

Dr. Pooja Viswanathan:
Our website is www.brazemobility.com, and all the information’s there. If you’d like to reach out, there’s a bunch of ways you can reach out. There’s a live chat. There’s also a button you can press to request a quote or a demo, and you can just fill in all your information and we can try to arrange a demo or get you a quote so that we can help you get the best [inaudible 00:25:43] coverage and feedback that would be most appropriate for you or your client.

Josh Anderson:
Awesome. Well, we’ll put that down in the show notes so that folks can easily find it. Pooja, thank you so much for coming on the show today, for telling us all about Braze Mobility. And thanks for the amazing work you guys are doing to help folks be a little bit more independent and also, not mess up those expensive wheelchairs too. So thank you again.

Dr. Pooja Viswanathan:
Thank you so much for having me.

Josh Anderson:
Do you have a question about assistive technology? Do you have a suggestion for someone we should interview on an 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 are sponsored by the Indiana Telephone Relay Access Corporation or InTRAC. You can find out more about InTRAC at relayindiana.com. A special thanks to Nicole Prieto for scheduling our amazing guests 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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