What's Next with StellarTrek
DESCRIPTIONWhere Seleste and ARx are newcomers to assistive devices, Humanware is a highly respected, established player whose new StellarTrek also takes powerful advantage of technology advances but also parts way with the newscomers when it comes to technology architecture and form factors.
BRIAN: What’s next with StellarTrek? Moderator Samuel Proulx, speakers Louis-Phillipe Masse, and Peter Tucic.
SAMUEL PROULX: Thanks, Brian. Great to be here at Sight Tech for another year. Always an incredible conference with so many incredible panels each year. And this is going to be another one of them with some folks from a company that has been in the assistive technology business and in the accessibility business for a long, long time. Really incredibly glad to be here with two great folks. First of all, Peter Tucic, director of strategic partnerships at HumanWare. Peter, why don’t I let you introduce yourself a little bit?
PETER TUCIC: Thank you so much, Sam. And I will second the appreciation to be here. My name is Peter Tucic, as you said. And I am the director of strategic partnerships at HumanWare. I am based in Chicago. I am totally blind. And I work with, primarily it’s a trifaceted role, I work with a team of product specialists who are wonderful and do a lot of in-house support, as well as boots on the ground support for our sales team. I work with product management on being the ears on the ground, if you will, and taking pieces back to our product management team. And then the third piece of what I do is work with our key partners. So whether that be blindness organizations, institutional partners, such as the National Library Service, or governments and other entities in various parts of the world. So we think of the CNIB in Canada, or the RNIB in Vision Australia, and other folks around this big old world. So a multifaceted role. But I am absolutely thrilled to be here. And I’m a user of all these pieces of technology we’re going to be talking about as well. So thank you so much for having me. And I’m thrilled to be here.
SAMUEL PROULX: Absolutely. A lot of different hats you got going on at the same time there because accessibility doesn’t happen alone. We work with a lot of folks to get these things done. And secondly, we’re here with Louis-Phillipe Masse. I probably got that wrong even though I have a French name myself.
LOUIS-PHILLIPE MASSE: Excellent, excellent. You’re good.
SAMUEL PROULX: Director of product innovation, VP of product–
LOUIS-PHILLIPE MASSE: Yeah, VP–
SAMUEL PROULX: VP of product information at HumanWare, I apologize. But hey, why don’t you introduce yourself, hopefully doing a better job than I did?
LOUIS-PHILLIPE MASSE: I hope so. I have more practice than you, so that’s why I can do it. Yes, Louis-Phillipe Masse. I’m the VP of product innovation here at HumanWare. As you guys mentioned, HumanWare is going to celebrate the next year its 35th anniversary, so it’s been there for a while. My team is the product innovation team, it is the R&D team, but also the product management team. So that’s why Peter and I often work together, of course. But also I’m lucky to have the R&D team under my supervision to make all these great products that we have been releasing in the last few months. But there’s way more to come, so of course, today we’ll focus on one of them. But it’s exciting to be at HumanWare, and it’s exciting to be at this conference again this year.
SAMUEL PROULX: Absolutely. Speaking of those products and all the great products that HumanWare has released over the years from the victors, which I have owned and used to the tracks, the product that you’ve most recently released is the StellarTrek. And so for those folks who are maybe coming into this who are a little bit unfamiliar with the StellarTrek, and what it is, and what it does, why don’t one of you give us a quick overview of that? Because I know not everyone keeps it at the forefront of the new great tech releases going on.
PETER TUCIC: Sounds good, Sam. So at its core, what the StellarTrek is, and that’s the product we’ve just recently released in August, the very tail end of August of 2022, the StellarTrek is a navigation device that is specifically designed for somebody who is blind or visually impaired. So that blind and visually impaired traveler. At its core, it is a turn by turn directions type of device that will give you information that’s pertinent to the blind traveler, so your direction of travel, the address range or near. Those things are great. But also more in-depth information such as, what intersection am I coming up to? Not just the name of the street, but what type of intersection? Very, very relevant to a blind traveler. It’s nice to know if it’s a four-way versus a three-way intersection. We listen to traffic patterns differently. So a lot of that info. Additionally, it has some unique devices, some unique features that is on the device that will really bring it to the next level. So we talk about landmarks, being able to drop audio pins, if you will, or breadcrumbs you travel, and then also the ability to remember routes and gather that type of info. What we’ve done to amp it up or bring it to the next level is we’ve introduced artificial intelligence into the product where we have cameras on the device that will capture information in the travelers environment. This information at launch is used to identify addresses, as well as doors which we can get into. So again, when you get to that destination knowing where the address or what address you may be near, or if there is a door present trying to find that, you can use the cameras for that, as well as pulling text out of your environment. This can be done in quick reading mode, so being able to read information maybe signage or hours on a window of a business. Or you can use it to read full pages of text, the menu when you sit down at the restaurant, or a piece of mail that shows up in your mailbox. So it is still a standalone GPS product, which we have been in this space for the better part, for more than two decades, two and a half decades at this point. And it takes that to the next level with some onboard artificial intelligence.
SAMUEL PROULX: So I know we’ve got one here with us. And I know the tail end of August with all of the things that have been going back on over the last couple of years and the world just opening up, it’s been a tough time to release a new device and a new product, isn’t it? And I suspect there’s a lot of folks who haven’t gotten their hands on these. So why not just give us a brief description of what the form factor of that is?
LOUIS-PHILLIPE MASSE: Yeah. Maybe I can show the device here. So it’s about the size of a smartphone, it’s just a little thicker because, of course, we have the extended battery and the multiple cameras, and the tactile buttons there that are on the surface such that they are easy to recognize by touch. But it’s a device. Yeah, if you see the size of my hand, yeah, it’s about the size of a smartphone there. But–
SAMUEL PROULX: What do you do for pager? Remember the old pagers we used to wear on our belt?
LOUIS-PHILLIPE MASSE: Yeah. And you’re right.
PETER TUCIC: Yeah, it’s like a Nokia pre-smartphone, that size. And as LP mentioned, the device does have a tactile five-way selector switch with arrows, as well as four additional buttons on the top face. Those are used to gather that information and go into various modes, as well as a single button for the where am I or direction of travel, a single button to dictate or speak into the device, and then a single button for going to landmarks or addresses and things. So there are a number of buttons, but it is not cluttered. We tried to build, we always build devices that we know that buttons are very important. It’s what will set this device apart from other things out there today, but we don’t want it to be overwhelming. Same way on the faces. Your left face, your left edge of the device simply has volume buttons. Your right edge of the device has a single power button, as well as a record button for your landmarks. And then, additionally, there on the top face, the face furthest away from you, there is nothing on the device. It’s very clean. Toward yourself, if it’s laying on a table, you have a USB-C port for charging and then an 1/8 inch or 3.5 millimeter audio Jack for plugging in headphones. And then on the back, you have two cameras, both a wide angle and narrow camera used for that address detection, as well as used for optical character recognition. So it’s very slick and clean. It’s not cluttered with buttons and all sorts of different things. But it is certainly something that will allow you to have full push button control. There’s no touch screen on the device.
SAMUEL PROULX: So now that we’re all on the same page and all the listeners who may be not familiar with this device and with HumanWare know what we’re talking about, as we described the device, we compared it to a smartphone a bunch of times, which is super interesting because that immediately brings up what I think is going to be the first question in many people’s minds when we talk about these features, and when we talk about what it does, and even when we describe the device, which is, why not just use a smartphone? And what are the advantages of having another separate device to carry around, and to charge, and to look after, and to take care of, and to buy, and all of this stuff? So Peter, why don’t I throw that to you? Why this? Why another smartphone?
PETER TUCIC: It’s a great question. And I think it comes up often when we are in this space. And not just the navigation space, but we get a very similar question with our audio book consumption products, we get the similar question with our BrailleNote taking products. Why not use a mainstream device? And specifically to this product, so specifically to navigation, there are some pieces that do set the product apart. And I am an avid, I’m an iPhone user. I use navigation apps frequently. There are several out there, things like GoodMaps, for instance, GoodMaps Explore, or others, they’re very useful, we use them a lot. However, there are a couple of pieces. Number one, when you’re using a device like this, you’re not using data. The maps, everything is stored offline. So you are not needing to draw down your battery on your smartphone firstly, as we know, apps, especially navigation apps and OCR apps. So we all open many of those apps ranging from seeing AI to apps such as Waze if you’re just driving in your car, those will draw down your battery very quickly. As blind people, we don’t travel oftentimes. We’re not driving in a car, maybe we’re on a bus or we’re somewhere. We can’t just plug it in to a USB port conveniently sitting in our cupholder center console. So battery life is very important. This does allow you over, it’s about 20 hours of battery life. So number one, is your battery life, your data consumption, more importantly though are those differentiating features. Yes, we can certainly use apps on our phone to get from point A to point B. But what those apps don’t always give us are the direction, the exact address range, the direction of travel, meaning what intersection is coming and what type of intersection. The ability to record routes and walk them again later is something that’s very unique to a device like this. And I’m not saying to get walking directions, but more so to remember the streets you’re walking on is something that is very useful, especially if you have someone who is newer to vision loss, or is not a very confident traveler. It can be really nice to know that the route you’re walking is going to be consistent, and you can backtrack and return along that exact same route to your starting point. To go a step further, the push button side. I live in the middle of a major city, I live in the middle of Chicago. I am not very comfortable walking around with my iPhone out held up near my ear or using that in one-handed operation, using the touch screen and getting feedback with one hand. Certainly with a device like this that you can put– there is a lanyard, as well as a belt clip, and holster, you are able to secure the device to yourself. It’s not going to be something that most people will recognize. And again, you’re not just holding your phone up. So there are some advantages there. I think the other piece is when we build a device, we build that product for 100% of our users being visually impaired or blind. When we think about the UX and the UI, we think about user design, we think about– everything that goes into it is built for that user. When we use a smartphone, and I use these apps all the time, they’re wonderful, but things change very quickly. Primarily speaking, the apps that you’re using are designed for general use and maybe accessibility is bolted on or added to an application later. When we build something, we know that our users our beta testers. Everyone who is using this is giving us feedback that we’re able to incorporate not just into the feature set, but also into the hardware, the placement of cameras, the type of textures we use, the buttons, all of that stuff goes and comes into play. So even though they’re very comparable– and certainly somebody will say, I use my iPhone, and I say, that’s great. Or I use my Android apps, and I use my smartphone, that’s wonderful. We’re not saying that somebody shouldn’t, but there are lots of advantages to having a single standalone device like this.
SAMUEL PROULX: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I’ve been using one for the last little while, and as someone who’s maybe a little bit skeptical. And it is very restful to travel without bone conduction headphones, or without the AirPods with transparency, and something yapping at you all the time because obviously not getting your Facebook notifications. The–
PETER TUCIC: Yeah, the distraction factors also comes into play for sure. I mean, this is going to give you only that information that’s pertinent to you. And you can adjust that verbosity as well. But certainly, that is an entirely other side, is you don’t have that distraction. You know that this device is primarily focused on that navigation sector.
SAMUEL PROULX: So I mean, one of the things that this brings to my mind that we– a kind of narrative that I think sometimes can exist in our community is this idea that, oh, well, we had no takers, and we had readers, and we had GPS devices until the phone got good enough and it could eat all of those devices and be your one thing. And this story of like oh, well, blindness devices are temporary until the mainstream technology gets around limitation x, y or z. At HumanWare, it sounds like you don’t believe that to be the case and you feel like there will always be a place for this blindness specific innovation that for various reasons maybe can’t be replicated in so, quote unquote, “mainstream” device.
PETER TUCIC: I think, LP, you’re in a unique position to see the exploratory side of this. And of course, I’m going to piggyback on where you go. But it is it, really there is a need for these specific companies really to look at and be tied directly into the user base. Can you talk a little bit about that innovation side, LP?
LOUIS-PHILLIPE MASSE: Sure, yeah. And actually it’s interesting because there’s an evolution as well in the assistive technology domain that before everybody was making these unique closed environment devices that were standalone, and the StellarTrek is one of them, and it’s designed like this on purpose. But we also have more and more of these products where, for example, our Connect 12, which is a tablet, an Android-based tablet that is running our own software, but it also gives you the ability to open any applications you want. So we’re not actually– we don’t see it as the mainstream versus us, it’s more there’s a synergy I think between the mainstream and the assistive technology there. But still, we think there will always be a need for dedicated devices that are really purpose designed and built for the community we serve. And of course, the StellarTrek is really the perfect example of that.
PETER TUCIC: And I think the other pieces and what we strive to do is when we use a third party application on a mainstream device, or Windows program, or anything with a screen reader, somebody has taken that product and has made or has done some work to make that accessible to us. And accessibility is somewhat of a buzzword. We have a lot of friends now in this industry who will hark on this and you’ll hear this message more than just for myself and HumanWare, but there is a big difference between accessibility and usability. When we use an app like let’s just say something like a Gmail, for instance, it is accessible on a smartphone. What HumanWare tries to do, and when we build our own mail client, for instance, on a Braille product, or in this case on the StellarTrek side, we’re taking what is already accessible and we’re making it more usable. How do we improve the user interface to be more conducive to somebody who is blind? Who takes in the world linearly? We don’t look at a screen and soak up all that information. We move through very linear menus, we work through structures that are not– we take in one line at a time, we hear one audio phrase at a time. We can’t just glance at a screen and have our eyes drawn to a certain point on that screen. So when we build products, and that is why the companies like HumanWare, there still is a need for this type of manufacturer. We’re looking at improving things and not just looking at, oh, we made this accessible, it’s great. Now go use it. It’s just as much about usability.
LOUIS-PHILLIPE MASSE: It’s a very good point, Peter. And just to add to what you’re saying, and again, this is nothing against the mainstream companies. They make of course great product that are used by everybody, but often sadly sometimes the accessibility is an afterthought. They make a device first for the mainstream user, and then oh, now, let’s make sure it is accessible. And of course, not only HumanWare, but every companies in our field. And that’s what they do, they do completely differently. They say, well, what’s the solution we need to find for this specific problem or this specific need? And we make the solution, we design the solution from ground up thinking about accessibility, thinking about usability and how to make it useful, and not just an afterthought to make sure that it is accessible.
PETER TUCIC: And that’s where–
SAMUEL PROULX: So–
PETER TUCIC: I’m sorry, one quick thing they’re saying.
SAMUEL PROULX: Yeah, go.
PETER TUCIC: For anyone out there who is looking at getting started in this space or wants to learn more, making something accessible is the beginning of the journey. To really complete that journey it really does require a lot of insight from the community at large, be it whether you’re making a product for somebody, whether it’s augmentative communication, in this case vision loss, it’s one thing to just say, well, I want to solve a problem. I’m going to make this accessible. It’s a whole other story to dive and you really want to do the due diligence, and actually seeking input from the community at large, and then understanding how that can change the way you’re thinking about designing the product. So what LP is saying is absolutely spot on as well. And I think oftentimes we get caught up just in, well, it’s accessible. And the other side is on the smartphone and on some of these pieces that are very fluid, they’re very dynamic. We wake up and tomorrow the app I’ve used so successfully for the last eight months, or two years is completely inaccessible, or the usability has changed so much that it’s going to take me quite a bit of time to relearn how to use it. And sometimes that isn’t even a possibility. So we do have to contend with these updates on the mainstream side that at times can very much impact the way we’re using these types of applications.
SAMUEL PROULX: So I mean, as we think about the future, and as we think about where all this is going, that brings up so many interesting thoughts and questions for me that I would love to get your input on. I mean, first of all, I couldn’t agree more with the need for community feedback. I think over on the blindness community over on Reddit, we get a new post every week with somebody who has a great new idea for a smart cane and this is their first time ever interacting with someone who’s blind. But at the same time, it feels like it’s a little bit incumbent on us to encourage these mainstream companies to think usability first rather than accessibility first. And that really makes me wonder because we’ve talked a little bit about HumanWare as building some other devices on top of the Android platform, and we’re taking these so-called mainstream devices, and getting accessibility features, and making them accessible. Have there been wins and have there been thoughts and learnings that have come from an accessibility-focused device and that have filtered their way back into the mainstream? I’m curious if in the 35 years of HumanWare you’ve seen examples of that happening.
PETER TUCIC: Well, I think you can point, LP, to something pretty quickly. I mean, if you think about what we’ve worked on with the door detection side, it’s available on iPhone, correct? I mean–
LOUIS-PHILLIPE MASSE: Right. Yeah, true because on the StellarTrek there is the two cameras there, they’re used to detect doors. So when you’re going from point A to point B, when you arrive at that point B usually it’s not on the sidewalk, you want to go to some friend’s place. So of course, we have the possibility with the built-in AI to localize doors and guide the user to that door, which is a cool feature. And we’ve been happily surprised to see that it’s been, I think, not sure if it’s an official feature or some beta feature on the iPhone, on the, I think it’s on the latest iOS version, so it’s good. Actually, we see this as all positive. And also during the course of the lifetime of HumanWare, we hope that we have influenced positively other industries, including the mainstream industry to have more accessible and more usable ways of using their products. So yeah, well, that’s our mission. We want to serve people.
PETER TUCIC: I think we are seeing it. I think another place we’ve seen it for sure in this AT field is with think of barcode recognition or OCR. OCR was something that was very much used just for the blind at its inception. I mean, it was– when Ray Kurzweil did all the things he did, and when they built that ecosystem, and now when we think of all the apps in our lives that use OCR in some form, I think that’d be your first example you can point to. But there are lots of others. Think of barcode reading, think of lots of pieces that did start as solutions for our community, or any disabled community, and now are just part of inclusive design. I would even go as far as to say, think of something like a sliding door, an automatic door at a grocery store. Certainly, it helps somebody in a wheelchair, but ultimately, it helps every single person who has a kid on one hand and is pushing a cart, and needs to get in and out of that store quickly. That type of inclusive design maybe starts here, but we are seeing it splash back or filter back into just the general flow of product design, and that’s a great thing. [INTERPOSING VOICES]
SAMUEL PROULX: Go.
LOUIS-PHILLIPE MASSE: Sorry, I was just saying that actually the first talking GPS was in 2003 when HumanWare had this first version of the– what? I don’t even remember the name, but I think was a trigger when–
PETER TUCIC: Before the Maestro, there was– yeah.
LOUIS-PHILLIPE MASSE: Yeah, but it was a big device using some of a PalmPilot at that point, and it evolved so much. But now even Google with Google Maps they have audio feedback and cues when you’re walking around with their application, which is great.
SAMUEL PROULX: But of course, I mean, that’s what I wanted to highlight. Is that HumanWare, and accessibility devices, and special specialty devices are part of this ongoing conversation, and the ongoing innovation that happens across the accessibility field, as opposed to just being their own thing. I think because we can sometimes fall into thinking about them. And so that said, when we are developing a device, or when you’re developing a device like the StellarTrek, there are unique needs because it is an offline device. It is a device that doesn’t necessarily have access to data, and yet you are bringing AI whether it’s door detection or whether it’s OCR on onto this device. And so I think when people think about AI right now, they think about big data, they think about the cloud, they think about all of this stuff. And so what are their considerations as we think about bringing that into the offline device? And where do we think that offline private personal AI is going as we look forward in the next couple of years?
LOUIS-PHILLIPE MASSE: Yeah, well, that’s a very great question because we did put years of research actually in making embedded standalone AI that is not connected to the cloud. Of course, cloud computing has so much power, and possibilities, and this is great, of course. But again, for the reasons that Peter mentioned at the beginning, we want to make sure that the person even if a person is off the grid is able to get the his or her direction to safety, to get back to their home, or the bus station, and so on. And so that’s why we did spend so much time developing this on embedded AI engine that is in that device. And the cool thing about it is that it’s very– the way we designed it it’s really future proof for other features we will add later on. I think last year when we gave a glimpse of that product, we already started to sneak peek some of the features that we would eventually have available for the StellarTrek. And there’s a lot of them that are being developed at this moment. And all of them will be standalone without cloud computing, without connections. So that’s what we think will bring so much value to this device.
PETER TUCIC: And I think if you want to point out specifics, you can really look at some of what is already currently available both in beta, as well as in the mainstream on smartphones. So we do have apps that can try to identify traffic lights. We do have apps that can look at obstacle, or detecting various crosswalks other things. We do have apps that can do barcodes. We need to be looking at this piece and adapting that, and making it, A, certainly usable on an offline side of things. And then, B, looking at how to manage that usability of those sorts of apps because it is very difficult. With any of this AI it’s very difficult for a blind user to function when you’re supposed to point your camera at something and get into results. That’s not something that is easy. We need guidance. That needs to be a part of the AI we build as well. It’s not just point and shoot, it’s where do I point to then shoot and get my picture? So that can be a major challenge.
LOUIS-PHILLIPE MASSE: And something that we haven’t mentioned yet is also the robustness of the solution because if you want people to rely on the device, you cannot have too many second guess. So is this a sidewalk or is it the middle of the street? Makes a difference, of course.
SAMUEL PROULX: Yeah, absolutely, it’s a safety thing. We’ve only got a minute left. This has been a great, incredible panel, and I wish we could go on for another 30 minutes. But to close us off, what are you most excited about for this time next year? What’s the big improvement that you’re thinking you’re going to see and that you’re most excited about in like 30 seconds?
LOUIS-PHILLIPE MASSE: Well, we want to see, of course, more features, object detection of that object localization as well. For example, where are your keys on your table and things like that. So these are things that are in the roadmap that we’ll hopefully have ready for next year.
PETER TUCIC: And I think to second that from an outdoors perspective, certainly the variables, the environmental variables. Think about the pedestrian, traffic signals and other things that are very pertinent, and something we need to be looking at and assessing because there are so many variables in our environment when we travel. And also variables that the camera needs to account for because you need to think of when it’s raining, or snowing, or lights reflecting, or it’s dark, or it’s dusk, or it’s dawn, or it’s midday, or it’s beautiful, That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
SAMUEL PROULX: In a really fascinating way, we deal with the same problems at self-driving cars, we deal with it that way. But that said, I think that brings us to a close on our time here today. Great conversation. Thanks so much to the both of you for being here, and for really having that open talk about where specialty devices are now, and where they’re headed, and the part that they play in the ongoing conversation about the future of accessibility.
PETER TUCIC: Thanks tremendously, Sam. We appreciate it. Thank you to Sight Tech Global. And we definitely look forward to seeing everyone in person as soon as we can, and certainly being back in a virtual space sooner than later as well. So thank you,
LOUIS-PHILLIPE MASSE: I’m adding my words to Peter. Thanks, everybody, for your organization of this. Thank you, Sam. And thank you Sight Tech Global.