A new Apple TV?

Following on from yesterday’s post about Apple introducing an Echo competitor.
Venture Beat reports that this may take the form of a new Apple TV. This sounds like a strange and difficult user experience. Requiring the TV to be on to interact with the device seems cumbersome.
There is the possibility that a new Apple TV may have an external speaker. However, this would no doubt be a speaker of poor quality. What I would like to see is something like an Apple speaker, akin to the Sonos. This would seem like a more natural interface to converse with an audio based digital assistance, as well as giving Apple a fantastic platform for Apple Music.
WWDC is definitely hotting up to be interesting!

Apple to introduce a Siri SDK and Echo competitor

Apple has always been at the forefront of inclusivity, so I am excited to see they are working on a Siri SDK. While I am interested in seeing what Google brings to the Table and the Amazon Alexa, it’s comforting to know a company with a long history of accessibility is also working on similar integrations and devices.
Report: Apple planning Siri SDK for WWDC as it builds Amazon Echo/Google Home hardware competitor

http://9to5mac.com/2016/05/24/apple-siri-hardware-device-echo-competitor/

The first day

Unsurprisingly after my late night toilet mishaps I didn’t get much sleep. So my morning was a little sluggish, I popped down for breakfast, forced down some porridge, then headed to the tent to get ready for the first day of competition.
Being particularly English I spent my time brushing my teeth, rather than actually getting my kit ready. So when the briefing started I was still mounting my bottles, sorting my trekking poles, pinning numbers and trying to find the days snack food. But my teeth were definitely clean.
Samantha, started the briefing and did a little name check about my unguided attempt. This caused Yoji to come over and say hello. I thanked him for his assistance last night and he headed off to the start line. Despite the countdown beginning I wasn’t quite ready. So I missed the official start ever so slightly. But approaching the start line I did find out the course had changed a little.
This was going to cause a slight problem, as we had made the decision to hard code the course into the map. So any deviations were going to be difficult to deal with and by difficult I mean the app wouldn’t work. So we headed from the start line, I fiddled with the app and got it working, it immediately started beeping saying I was off course, the solution here was relatively simple though. Follow the other people and follow the feeling underfoot.
This part of the course was relatively simple to use both these methods, it was very closed in. There was a path banked at either side by foliage, it was just like at home, move to far either way and you were touching a bush. It was also very easy to follow the noise of the other runners. It wasn’t too long before we were out of this closed section and into more open plains. This was what I had imagined, the app worked exactly as expected along these sections. As soon as I deviated from the route the beeping would commence guiding me into the correct bearing. We pushed along for many miles, chatting to fellow runners and enjoying the fact the desert, at least in this section was not as warm as we had anticipated.
The day went along relatively breezily, I munched on my snacks, applauded my decision to bring trekking poles and was already getting sick at the taste of Nuun,.
It was closer to the end of the day when I had the realization of exactly what I was doing. For the first time ever I was competing solo, I was following the beeps along a straight section, sweeping left then a little cut to the right. It was during this section that I could hear the applause of the next aid station, with a tear in my eye I arrived and was amazed at what I had achieved. It was truly a fantastic moment of independence, I had managed to do something I had been dreaming of for years, it felt incredible.
But these was an immediate problem, I had begun to develop blisters so was in need of some taping. A short stop at the aid station and with sufficient tape on my feet I headed out in high spirits. The terrain on the final section for the day was far looser than previous sections. The sand was beginning to get deeper and your feet could now easily sink. But not to worry it couldn’t be too far to the finish.
I kept pushing forward until I heard what I had been waiting for. We had developed the app to trigger as I reached the end of the route each day. So the audio triggered but it seemed strange not to hear any clapping or cheering at the finish line. I turned round and told Neil I was at the finish, “No, you aren’t” he replied. It turned out they had moved the finish line!
So Neil looked around spotted some tents and we headed over, it turned out we had slightly missed the new finish line. So we back tracked a little and heard the reassuring cheering of the finish.
We had done it, our first day complete! With a wonderful sense of achievement, I dropped my bag off at the tent and headed for some much needed food.

Before the race even begins

Running across the Namibian desert has been a long time in the making. Becoming comfortable with the idea of attempting the run unassisted, finding a race organiser that would agree and creating the technology all took time. Despite this the race seemed to rapidly approach.
So a little over two weeks ago I boarded my first flight and the adventure would begin. Before the flight had even taken off someone had pegged me as the blind runner attempting the race alone. It was the wonderful Natasha who just so happened to be the sister of Samantha, who was gracious enough to let me attempt the run.
Fast forward many hours and we boarded our second flight. This was the one that would drop us off in the desert. As the plane approached the airport, Neil turned to me and said “Simon, there is nothing, it is all just desert”. Departing the plane we walked through the desert to the small arrivals area grabbed our luggage and headed for the transfer. Again Neil turned to me and said “Simon, there is nothing, just desert”, I was beginning to get the picture that there was truly nothing but sand.
Thankfully, there did turn out to be a hotel in this desert. In fact it was a rather wonderful hotel. Although Neil and I were slightly deterred when we found out the suite we had booked would see us sharing a bed! A quick negotiation later and we had our own beds, so we decided to quickly top up on tea, it would be at a premium after all once the race began.
We toured the local town over the next couple of days and began to bump into fellow competitors. During these interactions we had found out many people had lost their luggage, thus their kit for the race that would start in a day. In fact during the race briefing there was a request made for anyone that could donate kit, Neil and I donated what we had and headed to our room to put out last few things together before a 4 hour bus ride to the start line.
The bus ride was our first opportunity to read the course notes, sections were rated as easy, moderate or difficult. Reassuringly there were few difficults!
We arrived at our first camp site as the sun was dipping on the horizon. We quickly headed to our tent and unpacked. With military precision, my mat was inflated, sleeping bag rolled out and the ever essential pillow put into position. It was now time to meet fellow competitors around camp fires and have our last real meal before we began the joys of rehydrated food.
We sat down and chatted with a few competitors who had lost all their kit. They had to replace everything in the local town, Neil and I felt very thankful our kit had made it, but did have a small giggle at the competitor who when faced with a lack of signalling mirror, replaced it with a rather large vanity mirror. It would have been better placed as a shaving mirror than something pocketable to signal in emergencies. But on the bright side, at least they could have a good shave if needed.
We finished our meals and headed to bed for the night. I simply couldn’t sleep, I lay awake for hours. I then began to need the toilet, I decided to see if I could just drop off and wait till morning. This predictably didn’t work, so I thought to myself I can just head outside and go for a quick pee.
I planned how I would do this in my head, how I would get out of the tent, use some hotel slippers to save me lacing on my shoes, follow the guide ropes of the tent, walk out a few steps, turn round and head back. It seemed like a flawless plan.
Like a ninja I removed my slippers from the bottom of my bag, silently slipped out of the tent and found the first guide rope. I knew if I followed this down, turned ninety degrees to my right, it would be four steps until I felt another rope at my feet. I found this next rope, stepped over and counted out 10 steps. Ahead of me lay the open desert, behind me the tents, to the left and right even more open desert.
The wind had picked up just as I was about to start, so I rotated as not to be covered by my own pee. I finished then thought, how far did I rotate from the wind? I couldn’t remember, which way did I even rotate? I took my best guess turned back round and walked back, except I didn’t arrive at the guide rope. Shit!
This wasn’t in the plan, if I had thought this through I may have entered the cold night desert with more than a t shirt, or even a torch to signal, or even the emergency whistle for situations like this. However, I had nothing and a sudden rush of dread washed over me, how would I find the tents?
I thought perhaps I could shout? Would I even wake people up? And did I want to be the idiotic blind person who went out alone into the desert in the middle of the night? No. So I decided to get down on my hands and knees and crawl around and see if I could feel a guide rope. After what felt like a few minutes of circling around I found a rope! Yes, I can now find the tents.
I followed the rope, locating the spike acting as a tent peg I knew walking straight would bring me to the guide rope at the tent entrance. I leant into the tent reached over to my spot and was blown away to feel my sleeping mat. Yes! I was back in my tent, I snook in to find some cheeky sod on my mat. Except it wasn’t my mat, they just had the same one as me. Shit! 
I contemplated what to do and decided I just had to wake someone up. I gently poked at the first person in the tent and said “Hi, this may sound strange, but I am blind and got a little lost outside, could you take me back to my tent?”. Thankfully, they were ever so gracious, jumping up they began escorting me back, they introduced themselves as Yoji, and I was terribly grateful.
Back in my own tent, I zipped myself back up in my sleeping bag just as everyone else in the tent awoke. We are popping to the toilet Simon do you need it?
If only I had waited ten minutes….

Is it possible?

Nearly 6 years ago I began a journey, I perhaps didn’t realize it at the time, but it was one that would push the boundaries of possibility.
Learning to run solo as a blind runner, was at times truly challenging and at others phenomenally uplifting. It was truly a difficult and long journey. Back then I had vowed never to compete as I wasn’t particularly interested in competition. However, as the idea of seeing how far I could run began to play on my mind, I decided the only way would be to compete at the ultra distance.
It was during this time, when I had entered a race and rather quickly lost my guiding team, that I came up with an idea. If I couldn’t run a 100 miles with a guide perhaps I could do it alone. I had planned on running my standard route repeatedly and then running the entire night segment on a 0.3 mile loop. Thankfully, I found a guide team last minute and didn’t subject myself to a nights torment on that tiny loop.
But it planted the seed of competing alone, it was something I hadn’t believed to be possible. But so was training alone as a blind runner. Surely all I needed was the right race.
Well I found it, 160 miles through the Namibian desert. What had once been a dream is now a reality, in 8 days I will stand for the first time alone at a start line, with 160 miles of possibility ahead of me.
Is it possible to cover this distance alone? The fact a question still lurks around this is what still attracts me. I don’t know if this is possible. I have been spending time with the IBM Bloomix Garage to develop the technology to give me the opportunity. But there remains the same question that always popped up during my original ultra training.
What will break first, the technology or me?
Neither have ever been tested in the desert, neither has ever had to survive for 7 days in a desert. I head out there alone once again in synergy with technology to advance the line of possibility.
I am thankful I have this opportunity and intend to push to my absolute limit to achieve something wonderful. 

Boston – I just can’t stay away

The city of Boston has come to mean so much to me over the past few years. It is the home of RunKeeper and therefore, served as the jumping off point for my Boston to NYC running adventure. Starting the adventure from the offices of RunKeeper and having the opportunity to run with the team that enabled my running achievements was a great moment.

The first day running served as my introduction to the Boston marathon course. Running from the offices we quickly headed to the official finish line for an obligatory photo, as starting in the city meant the course would be run in reverse! I can safely say the course is far easier in reverse, after all Heartbreak hill becomes a breeze!

But it wasn’t until I ran the NYC marathon that the idea of running the Boston marathon entered my mind. It was pointed out by Andrea of Team with a VIsion, that after running from Boston to NYC and then completing the NYC marathon, I was only 13 minutes shy of qualifying for the Boston marathon.

Coming that close to qualifying made me determined to run a little faster and get to Boston. Fortunately, there was one race left to qualify and it happened to be on the final day of qualifications. Lucky me! Except I hadn’t run in 2 months after injuring myself running from Boston to NYC. So in what I still consider the most difficult race of my life I set off to qualify for the Boston marathon. With a large amount of arguing with my guide runner and throwing our toys out of the pram, we managed to pull it together and shave 15 minutes off our time, putting me 2 minutes within the qualifying zone.

So in 2015 I headed out to run my first ever Boston marathon with Team with a Vision, it was a wonderful race, with incredible crowd support that pulls you along, and yes this is when I discovered Heartbreak Hill is easier in reverse!

I also managed to complete the race in a qualifying time for the following 2016 race. So this year once again I will be heading out to Boston to run the streets and hopefully, pick up a PB for the marathon.

For the first time I will also be running with a new guide runner, while Neil Bacon is heading out to Boston, he is guiding for a fellow blind competitor. I have the wonderful pleasure of running along side Heather Armstrong of dooce and Nicole of pumps and iron . I have a feeling they may run circles around me. I am built for cookie distance, I can grind it out but I am not fast, you can’t have cookie breaks when you run fast!

We are all running together to raise money for Team with a Vision, a fantastic cause that helps out the visually impaired within MA. So if you’d like to help me raise money for the Massachusetts Association for the blind and Visually impaired, head on over to my fund raising page at crowd rise and donate!

Raspberry Pi 2 – Improving accessibility

Technology truly is redefining what is possible for the disabled community. However, there always remains a barrier – cost. Often products designed for assistive purposes carry a substantial price tag. There are a number of reasons for this and I firmly believe the majority of these issues can be overcome through universal design.
For example, design a product with a universal approach and it has the possibility of longevity, improved functionality for all and scale. The great benefit of this is a reduced price tag, making it affordable and overcoming that greatest barrier of all – cost.
This made me assess what I would consider the most functional piece of technology I own from a price perspective. Thinking of this for a while the answer surprised even me. it is my Raspberry Pi 2, including the Pi, a case, power supply and SD card for storage the cost was around £50. This is incredibly low cost but what exactly does it offer me?
After all it isn’t the most accessible of products, as I run it headless and control it through a command line interface. But it just sits there stuffed down the back of my television quietly working at integrating all my other technology together.
It serves FLAC audio to my Sonos 5, a wonderfully accessible music player, it serves up my audio described content to my iPhone, iPad and Apple TV and it also serves as file storage for my iPad Pro. It truly does allow all my other accessible technology to work seamlessly, it is this little device that allows everything else to function.
Therefore, for its price point I class it as the most functional device in my house. It certainly couldn’t replace my iPhone or iPad, but those devices would not serve me so well without that cheap little Raspberry Pi.

IBM & CMU assisting in mobility

Mobility for the visually impaired is always difficult. From simple tasks as heading to Starbucks for a coffee, to jumping on a bus or grabbing a taxi. Lets take the first example, heading to Starbucks is certainly challenging when you are unable to see, but what about when you enter the store? Without sighted assistance locating the counter or indeed finding somewhere to sit is challenging.

Therefore, any technology that aims to improve any of these mobility issues is always a step in the right direction. With the fear that this blog is turning into IBM fandom, it is yet another project IBM are working on.

Along with Carnegie Mellon University, IBM have developed and open sourced a smartphone application that can help you move from point A to point B.

The app called NavCog utilises either voice or haptic feedback to aid in navigation. NavCog currently uses beacons to assist in the navigation process.

It is great to see the combination of beacons and haptic feedback to aid in navigation. Over 4 years ago I was pitching to just about every GPS manufactured that this could be an interesting direction to head. My ideas seemed sound when Apple announced the Apple watch and it used the exact same haptic feedback system I had been proposing. Further the use of beacon technology to navigate is exactly what I pitched to British Airways a couple of years ago.

I proposed using beacons to navigate Terminal 5 could not only be used to direct potential customers to shops, restaurants and gates, but also aid visually impaired customers navigate the terminal.

It is truly great to see all these ideas put together and finally implemented. We now just need a larger rollout of beacon technology!

This system could also be adapted to solve the internal navigation problem. I was speaking with Google a year or so ago about how project Tango could be utilised to achieve this. I imagined a haptic feedback device that could assist in real time internal navigation. After all my guide dog may be able to avoid obstacles, but an empty chair is an obstacle to my guide dog!

Artificial Intelligence and accessibility

Over the past couple of weeks I have been fortunate enough to be exposed to some fantastic technology as well as ideas. Attending WiRED 2015 kickstarted my thought process on how artificial intelligence could be applied to accessible technology.

While attending the conference there were two ideas I wanted to pitch to people, emotion detection to facilitate social situations for the visually impaired and facial recognition. I felt both these technologies could improve an individuals ability to socialise greatly. After chatting to a few people and pitching my ideas on how these systems could work from a design, implementation and marketing front I managed to interest a few companies and institutions.

There is fantastic scope for these technologies and their assistive ability. I concentrated on the emotion detection system initially as I feel these could have the greatest and speediest impact. I have encapsulated the idea into a product for all, rather than a product specifically for the visual impaired, as I believe these to be key for mass market adoption which, in turn will reduce the price significantly and reduce that initial barrier on any accessible product, price.

I am yet to find a partner to work with for facial detection, but I recently read an article highlighting that IBM are working on this. It really does seem as time goes on that IBM and I could be a great match!

I did also have a grander idea on accessibility while at the conference and was delighted to see it referenced by yet again IBM – cognitive assistance. I have been batting around a few ideas on how accessibility could be personalised. After there are nuances in an individuals accessible needs so why not make the solutions as nuanced. This could definitely be achieved through a cognitive accessible assistant that has the capacity to learn.

An accessible system that is capable of learning could aid in such tasks as reading. It would be able to identify how an individual likes to read information and execute it in that fashion. A nice example would be skim reading, being able to learn how to read a specific document for certain contextual references would be fantastic. This would certainly of assisted me greatly while at university, losing the ability to skim read is absolutely a skill I miss.

I continue to be excited by what technology is enabling and how I can become part of the revolution of accessibility.

TICKR X & The 7 Minute Workout Accessibility

I am always looking for simple and effective ways to make workouts more accessible. It can often be difficult to monitor and track workouts so I was very excited when Wahoo sent along the TICKR X. The TICKR X is a very capable device that can track a whole multitude of stats, from HR, to body movement and more, but the data point I was most interested in was rep counting.

Utilising the TICKR X along with the Wahoo 7 minute workout app on my iPhone, all my reps could be automatically counted. No more writing it all down in an app afterwards, assuming I could remember how many reps I performed on each exercise.

What is the 7 minute workout

The 7 minute workout is a collection of 12 body weight exercises that you can complete anywhere with no equipment needed. It has been shown to give results comparable to longer running or weights sessions. It comprises of 12 work sets of 30 seconds each followed by a 10 second rest. It is a quick and highly effective HIIT workout.

The Device

The device itself is one of the rare devices a blind user can take out of the box and configure and use without sighted assistance. You click the device onto one side of the strap, wrap it around your chest and clip into the other side of the strap. Ensuring the TICKR X is positioned in the middle of your chest, do not worry if the device doesn’t touch your skin. Unlike other HR trackers the HR sensor are located in the strap, not the actual TICKR X device.

To turn the device on tap the TICKR X a couple of times and then you are ready to pair it with your phone. This is achieved inside the app.

The App

The 7 minute workout app is highly accessible, Wahoo have done a fantastic job of labelling all labels appropriately. It is simple to navigate the app and start an activity, as the reps are counted automatically that is all you ensentially have to do to use the app. Start a workout and read your results, no manual inputting its all taken care of.

The app also uses a lot of audio for feedback. For example, the different exercises and start and rest sections are read aloud. It makes for a nice accessible experience.

How Does it Perform

When I began my workout I was surprised it worked, it was a real wow moment as I heard the reps count up as I went about completing the workout. I was quickly put in my place on correct form as the TICKR X wouldn’t count reps with bad form. So no longer can I cheat and just do quick reps with poor form, I am now forced to go lower rep with correct form. While this affects my rep count it does mean I am actually performing the exercise correctly! This was evident in push up rotations, as the TICKR X wouldn’t count a rep if I didn’t perform the appropriate amount of rotation, which is coming when going for speed. This correction of form isn’t limited to simply not counting a rep, as when in plank position if you begin to wain the app notified you to watch form!

The other slightly confusing counting system is in exercises that have an up and down movement, for example, push ups, triceps dips etc. This is because the TICKR X counts the up and down as 2 reps, whereas typically I would count each up and down as one rep. In itself this isn’t actually an issue as it correctly counts the movements and you are able to compare your results and see improvement as the counting is consistent. If anything it just makes it look like you can do twice the number of push ups you used to be able to!

For me the real wow moment of the app was upon completing a full workout. When the workout is finished you are given a table with the rep results of each exercise along with the HR for each exercise. This granularity was a fantastic reporting decision. Typically average HR is used for workouts whereas Wahoo have chose to give you the HR breakdown of each exercise. This is important as you are quickly able to identify the exercises you should be pushing harder on. I was able to see that I was sandbagging it a little on what I consider to be the easier exercises, perhaps unconsciously I was using them as a little rest period.

Like the other sections of the app the reports are very accessible, Wahoo really have done a great job in regards to accessibility for the blind.

Any Bad Points?

Yes, the in app purchases. I was a little disappointed that with a premium priced piece of hardware like the TICKR X required multiple small in app purchases to get full app functionality. It must be noted that this is for the 7 minute workout challenge, there are other apps from Wahoo that work with the TICKR X, but I was focussed on utilising the TICKR X for rep counting.

Overall

The TICKR X is wonderfully accessible with the accompanying 7 minute workout challenge app. I would highly recommend it for a blind user. Its rep counting keeps you honest and the reports allow you to highlight where you should be pushing harder. It is a definite buy for any blind user looking for an accessible and quick cardio workout!