Author : Joel Ward

XR Access Symposium 2020

Please join me on Monday, July 20th and Tuesday, July 21st for the second annual XR Access Symposium. This year we are holding the entire symposium online in light of the COVID-19 pandemic instead of in New York City where we congregated for last year’s inaugural event.

I will be speaking on Monday, July 20th during one of the keynote conversations with Devin Boyle at 12:30pm Eastern time. I will also be co-facilitating the Hardware Devices breakout sessions on Tuesday, July 21st.

Please visit the XR Access Symposium registration page to sign up!

Using XR to Get Away: Elevator Jones in the Era of Social Distancing

My son loves elevators. I call him Elevator Jones. Before COVID we’d go to the malls, office buildings, hotels, Metro, and anywhere else that elevators existed and take dozens of rides. We would record the outing with my phone, a video camera, or my trusty Samsung Gear 360.

We cannot go anywhere during this pandemic. He does not quite understand what this means, though he accepts it…to a point. He keeps asking when we can go back to visit the mall, ride the elevators at the office building, and stay at hotels again. I do not have an answer for him.

In my earlier post Escaping with Virtual Reality I wrote about using XR—Virtual Reality (VR) specifically—for social and entertainment. An extension of that is getting away. For my son that has a therapeutic effect.

If you have videos, use ‘em

We had taken quite a few videos before the pandemic happened, both regular style and 360-degree videos. He already loved reviewing those videos at home on his iPad and in our Oculus Quest VR headset. Now they are critical.

Boy wearing a VR headset watching videos of elevators
Elevator Jones in an Oculus Quest

You may already have some photos and videos you’ve taken in the past. If you’re lucky you have some 360 videos too. Either way, you can pop them into your VR headset and immerse yourself in another world. A pre-COVID world.

He loves watching videos we took together of elevators, my office, and the amusement park. While he would prefer to go there in person, this is an effective stand in for the real thing. At least for now.

The Internet of Content

If you do not happen to have photos and videos you can use there is plenty to find on the internet, including videos of the 360-degree variety.

In fact, if you are an elevator buff like my son there are literally thousands if not millions of elevator videos on YouTube to enjoy. YouTubers such as Diesel Ducy, JimLiElevators, and Floridian Elevators have been posting videos for years. There are hundreds if not thousands more. They have massive followings online. It’s a beautiful community. I started the Elevator Jones channel on YouTube to add to the pile. Maybe one day I’ll be able to add more.

360-degree photo of the CNN Center in Atlanta
A 360-degree photo from our trip to Atlanta

My son also loves malls. There are videos from folks such as Dan Bell and Sal that document the rise and decline of malls. This is a topic that fascinates me too. I grew up in the mall era. I love watching videos of dying malls, abandoned malls, closed malls. Another great escape are videos of abandoned places by the likes of Mobile Instinct and Bright Sun Films.

Getting into the 360-degree and VR side of things, check out the YouTube VR site. NextVR also looks promising, but we may have to wait and see what Apple does with them. Check out AFS-USA Explore. Companies like Ascape are making VR videos for the travel industry and many of these are on YouTube VR.

Give it a try

Just because you are stuck at home and not able to go to your favorite destinations does not mean you cannot visit those places. Pull out the photos and videos you took. Put them on your VR headset. Find some new content online. Try out a new VR travel app.

The world is still out there. You just need to look.

Old School Tech: Intellivision

The Mattel Electronics “Intelligent Television” console, or Intellivision, debuted in 1979 amid a market of heavy hitters like Atari but well before Nintendo hit the scene. My family bought one around 1981 or 1982. None of us can remember the exact date. I do remember playing hours and hours of Intellivision down in my parents’ basement in the 1980s.

Our refreshed Intellivision

We also got a Tomy Tutor around this time, which was a much lesser known competitor to the Commodore 64 with its keyboard and cassette tape recorder. At one point we attempted a purchase of a ColecoVision but my dad ended up returning it for some reason. A little bit of trivia: Coleco was the “Connecticut Leather Company” but ended up making handheld games, Pong units (Coleco Telstar, which I still have), and ColecoVision.

The ColecoVision and Tomy Tutor are long gone, but my dad dug up the Intellivision in my parents’ basement recently so I had to get it working again.

Video games used to be much simpler

Back in my day you were lucky to have a video game with more than a few colors and realistic sound. Video game arcades were picking up, and mechanical games like pinball were still around. The competition in the home market was Atari and Commodore. The home personal computers like the IBM PC and Apple II were out there too, but a lot more expensive.

The Intellivision came at the height of the first home video game market and before the big crash of 1983. It has a 16 color palette, a 16-bit processor, a good library of games, boasted a speech synthesizer module—Intellivoice—that added realistic sounds, and had George Plimpton as a spokesperson.

Competition changed it all

While we had the Intellivision console throughout the 1980s, the advent of the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1986 really changed the landscape of home gaming. We jumped on the bandwagon too, and I have the numerous Nintendo consoles to show for it.

I still played Intellivision, but years of abuse to the console had taken its toll on the electronics. I remember taking apart the controllers at the time trying to figure out why some buttons stopped working. Was it my heavy abuse that did them in?

The Intellivision controllers

At the time I thought the circuit matrix inserts that were the issue, so I wrote to INTV to ask for new ones. INTV was the spinoff of Mattel that produced a new Intellivision III in the later 1980s before going defunct in 1990. Unfortunately, the inserts they sent were for the Intellivision III and were similar but did not quite match. The Intellivision went into a box in my parents’ basement to be forgotten for a few decades.

The Intellivision is alive!

When my dad found the old Intellivision recently, I had to attempt a repair. I forgot about the incompatibility of circuit matrix inserts so I tinkered with them to no avail. I kept digging by taking the entire console apart, something that had probably not been done since it was manufactured in the early 1980s.

Inside of a Gen 1 Intellivision
Inside of a Gen 1 Intellivision taken apart

The inside of this thing was pristine, apart from some dust and crumbs. What I determine after some trial and error was this: the issue was never the circuit matrix inserts, it was the cable for controller 1.

SNAFU was one of my favorites

I quick switch of the cables—only requiring a few screws and a little elbow grease to pull them off the pins—and the Intellivision was working again. First game was aptly SNAFU.

What’s next?

Did you know there are still parts for the Intellivision out there? There is even a company in California that used to supply parts after INTV closed in the 1990s and they still have parts today. So, of course, I’m looking to make some repairs.

Why, do you ask, am I fixing a 40-year-old gaming console? My wife asks that question all the time. My friends ask that question all the time. Even I ask myself that sometimes.

20+ games in stock for our Intellivision

It is not because I need to play 40-year-old games. It’s not even that I need to show my kids what the 1980s look like. It is because it exists and I am a sucker for fixing things. I am also a sucker for history and remembering where we came from. So oddly for Intellivision, a footnote in the annals of video game history, you will be remembered.

I played some Frogger tonight

Escaping with Virtual Reality

With the arrival of COVID-19 in the United States, we have hunkered down at home, the kids are out of school, and we are not going anywhere for a while. We hope this pandemic ends sooner than later. But at this point nothing is guaranteed. Do what you need to do to be safe, keep your family safe, and help quell this global threat to our health.

This unexpected turn of recent events has given me a little extra time to tinker with the tech toys around the house. Much to the chagrin of my wife, I collect a lot of stuff. I am also lucky to have access to various devices for my job. Typically, I do not always have (or make) enough time to test everything out as much as I’d like. The lack of commute and cabin fever this past week have changed things a bit.

While I work with XR (eXtended Reality) at work, in particular Augmented Reality (AR) and the Microsoft HoloLens 2, I have let my use of the consumer side of Virtual Reality (VR) lapse a bit. Now that I have extra time—and motivation—to tinker and get distracted, I am getting back to using some of the apps I’ve setup for work and the kids. This reminded me how much this technology can enable engagement and escape to aid psychological and physical well-being.

Virtual Reality can be a Great Escape

I fired up my Oculus Quest and attached it to a gaming laptop to test out the Oculus Link feature. Browsing around the apps in the library, I found Google Earth VR. What a great way to get out of the house without leaving the house. I’m hooked. Again.

These sorts of apps are great for escape: you can visit anywhere in the world, watch videos on YouTube of events and places back in time, and even participate in live events in virtual spaces like AltSpaceVR, Wave, and NextVR. You can even catch up with your friends to watch a movie in the Oculus Quest or have a social hour in one of the many meetup apps like Bigscreen.

You can also watch VR and 360 videos in YouTube or upload your own photos and videos to the VR headset. I have a Samsung Gear 360 camera to take videos and photos and upload them to the Oculus Quest. My son loves revisiting our adventures.

I got my wife to try out VR again and it impressed her

I have planned to write about virtual collaboration apps like Spatial, Doghead Rumii, HTC’s Engage, and Glue. That’s not what I am talking about here. I mean entertainment and socializing. Think travel, concerts, and meetups with friends. You do not need to go anywhere but can get some semblance of escape.

Then there is the whole game genre. That is what most people think of when they think of VR. We downplay that at work to talk about training, design, and collaboration because those uses are more appropriate in the professional setting. But we also talk about therapy and medical uses. You know what is therapeutic? Playing games. Connecting with people. Getting out of your head and out of your house and going somewhere else. VR can do all of this.

Virtual Reality is more available than ever…if you can get a headset

VR once was relegated to those in the know and those with the means. Nowadays, the Oculus Quest and Go make it amazingly simple to get yourself into VR. Even the newer HTC, Oculus, and Windows Mixed Reality headsets are easier to setup and use than the original HTC Vive and Oculus.

The only problem of late is supply and demand. The demand was high for headsets like the Oculus Quest for holidays 2019. When the coronavirus started, production that was already delayed was affected and devices went out of stock. They have come back periodically. For example, on Friday 3/13 Oculus.com had some in stock but they ran out quickly. You can currently find devices for a 50% premium on Amazon and eBay. Most people are out of luck though.

If you are lucky enough to have your own device, or have access to one to borrow, pull it out again to investigate what it can do for you.

Right now my go to recommendation is the Oculus Quest, if you can get one. They are $399 list for a 64GB model and $499 list for a 128GB model. Anything higher means stock is restricted so people are taking advantage. It may still be worth the cost if you want something sooner than later.

If you already have a gaming PC or laptop with a good graphics card, or want get one and have a higher budget, you should look at the Oculus Rift S and Windows Mixed Reality headsets like the Samsung Odyssey+ and HP Reverb. If you really want high quality graphics, the HTC Vive Pro Eye or Valve Index are for you, if you have the right graphics card.

Put me in VR, I’m ready to play

Besides the fact that there are plenty of other ways to play games, interact with people, and engage with content, why do we need VR?

Well, we don’t. But it is a worthwhile addition to the list. I am willing and ready to re-engage with VR as a consumer, not just as a professional. For the next four weeks or more my whole family will be home. This may keep us from driving each other crazy. Maybe we’ll learn something too.

Epilogue

I am not ignoring Augmented Reality. There are plenty of AR apps for your phone and tablet, including games and learning apps. Soon enough we’ll have AR headsets that will be even more engaging. Right now, though, VR is where the real engagement is at. Especially if you want to get away from the real world for a while.

Get some VR now

Key:

  • Most  = aka most popular headsets, the Oculus Quest, Oculus Rift, PC-VR
  • Most + more = Popular headsets plus others like the Oculus Go and/or Playstation VR
  • PC-VR generally includes the HTC Vive, Valve Index, and Windows Mixed Reality support

Travel apps

Social/event apps

Games

The Microsoft HoloLens 2

Almost exactly four years ago, the first HoloLens rolled off the assembly line and was delivered to its first customer. It was a revolution in wearable technology: not only was it a full computer that you wore on your head, it also had “mixed reality” holographic display, depth-sensing sensors that descended from the Xbox Kinect, and special gesture tracking so you could use your hands to control it.

At the time, the world of augmented reality consisted of phone and tablet-based camera pass-through apps and simple two-dimensional AR heads up displays like the Google Glass. Android’s ARcore and Apple’s ARkit had not been released yet for mobile devices, so the world of 3D holographic and spatial AR computing was almost exclusively in Microsoft’s hands.

The first-generation HoloLens was considered a “Developers Edition” at the time until Microsoft released an Enterprise edition by early 2017.

Mixed Reality is the future

I was lucky to use the original HoloLens during its first year in 2016. We got one for my company’s Innovation Center and we built a medical imaging app that we demonstrated to visitors. Over the next few years, more applications popped up in the Microsoft Store and through partners.

At first, it seemed there might be more of a consumer focus with the headset. Games like Roboraid were made to show off the gaming ability of the platform. Quickly though, the market turned towards enterprise.

I like using the HoloLens for collaboration apps like Spatial, Object Theory’s Prism, and Holo-One, which allow people to work together in 3D rooms both co-located in-person and remote. I also like working with companies such as Taqtile for maintenance and job aid applications like their Manifest platform.

Spatial in the HoloLens 2

I also like using the Windows Mail, Calendar, and Web browser applications to place an almost infinite desktop around my workspace and house.

As we look to the future, we are building applications for the HoloLens 2 that bring map and sensor data into spatial computing, bridge training from virtual reality to augmented reality, and move from phone based interfaces to head mounted displays.

HoloLens 1 was definitely version 1.0

The HoloLens 1 was a revolutionary device that came out in 2016. We had never seen anything like it before and it has affected product development across the entire XR industry.  

It was a great device.

Once devices got out, we gathered our ideas for how to improve the platform. These are not gripes with the first generation HoloLens, rather a set of ideas that were collected over the next three years as Microsoft designed HoloLens 2.

The limited field of view was the most noticeable. Technical limitations of these sort of holographic waveguide displays limited the horizontal field of view (FOV) to 30 degrees—whereas VR is typically over 100 degrees and ideal FOV for any headset is upwards of 200 degrees or more. No AR headset can reach 100 degrees right now, but we may see that change over the next few years.

Besides FOV, the form factor of the HoloLens 1 was also a concern. Fitting all the electronics and battery in the headset was quite a feat, but all that weight was placed over the face—and on the nose. A HoloLens 1 could be worn for maybe 30-60 minutes before it became quite uncomfortable. There were adjustments to the headwear that could improve this, but it did not eliminate the fact that there was a mass of weight on your forehead.

Lastly, while the hand gestures—what was call the “air tap” and “bloom”—were easy to learn, they were not as intuitive as we would like.

HoloLens 2 is a big incremental improvement

All of the comments about the HoloLens 1 were addressed in the HoloLens 2 and more.

  • Wider field of view: 52 degrees diagonal/43 degrees horizontal
  • Better fit and comfort: the electronics were split between the forehead and back of the head, balancing the weight and also enabling a more hat-like fit to the headset
  • Full hand gestures and hand tracking were added, so you can now grab and stretch holographic objects more naturally

In addition, new features were added:

  • Iris login for security
  • Eye tracking for control and analysis
  • USB-C power and accessory port
  • New Qualcomm Snapdragon 850 processing power, Holographic Processing Unit, and an AI coprocessor
Yep, it works in the car. Parked, of course.

Slow and steady wins the race

HoloLens 2 is more of an evolution than a revolution this time around. However, Microsoft is likely aiming for HoloLens 3 or 4 to be plain old glasses. Maybe that will not be until HoloLens 5. We are 5-10 years out for a truly revolutionary headset. Everything between now and then will be incremental improvements until we get smaller size, greater power, and more seamless and full-view optics.

In the meantime, the likes of Magic Leap, Facebook, or Apple would like to get there first. We will probably see consumer devices from some of these players with less features but more compact form factors. Microsoft is focusing on enterprise first, focusing on higher end features and support that is required for companies and the government. That should lead to consumer editions at some point.  

Yours truly enjoying some HoloLens 2

Is 2020 the Year of Augmented Reality?

Way back in early 2019 it was looking like 2020 would see a surge in augmented reality headsets and adoption across both the consumer and enterprise space. There were rumors of Apple announcing an AR headset in early 2020. Microsoft was releasing its long-awaited HoloLens 2 by the end of 2019. North Focals, nReal, Magic Leap, and others had devices out or coming soon. The excitement was strong.

The Reality of AR

Once the end of 2019 came around, we realized that we would instead be seeing important yet incremental progress in AR devices. Consumers will be getting more options like an updated North Focals, nReal Light, and the promise of AR contacts in a few years. Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 rolled out, albeit to production constraints. The Apple AR glasses ended up being a 2022-2023 thing instead of a 2020 thing. We just have to wait a little bit longer.

What happened?

The limitations on technology are a major factor. We want smaller, lighter glasses with a wide field of view (FOV), 3D optics, ease of use, and low cost. Right now, we can have one or maybe two of those features in a single headset. You could have small and relatively inexpensive North Focals. You can have the Varjo XR-1 with a wide field of view for $10,000. You can have the HoloLens or Magic Leap that are self-contained and easier to use, but lacking an ideal FOV.

The other issue is cost. Anything with true spatial 3D computing is upwards of $1000 or more. Headsets like the North Focals come in under $1000, but only offer 2D optics for notifications and do not include enhanced input methods. nReal Light consumer glasses are supposed to start at $500 and include 3D optics but are not available quite yet.

This year promises to bring down the cost of the entry level AR glasses, but we are not quite there yet.

What AR will we get in 2020?

For the most part, we may already know what AR is coming in 2020. Most of the AR devices are already here or already announced:

There are likely more devices in the works, but I do not expect to see major new production devices before 2021. Facebook/Oculus, Google, Apple, and others are likely working on their own new products. Microsoft and Magic Leap are working on their next generation headsets. Smaller companies like nReal and North Focals are progressing their tech as well. Right now, we have what we have. We may get announcements of new products this year, but I would be surprised if we get anything tangible to try before 2021.

For a comprehensive list of AR predictions for 2020, check out Tony SkarredGhost’s summary of AR.

When will AR really take off?

For enterprise, 2020 and 2021 will have a lot of adoption of AR. With fieldable headsets from the Microsoft, Vuzix, and Magic Leap, some enterprise and government agencies will be able to afford piloting and deploying these devices in greater numbers.

For consumers, we will likely need to wait until 2021, 2022, or 2023 for substantial adoption. North Focals and similar devices may see some uptick before then, but we may need a Facebook/Oculus, Google, or Apple to make a pair of AR glasses that are attractive to the mass market. I would love to see a smaller company come in and be competitive, but experience points to a large company with big pockets as the winner.

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Let’s Make XR Accessible

XR – eXtended Reality – has been around for decades. Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), and Mixed Reality (MR) allow for much more three-dimensional and realistic interaction with computing systems. As with most technologies, they have not been designed for accessibility from the start. But can they be used to enable interaction with people of all abilities?

Why should XR be accessible?

The better question is: why shouldn’t XR be accessible? Accessibility is a human right. It is also the law in many countries, including the United States, with laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Telecommunications Act.

XR, including AR and VR, came out of varying needs for 2D and 3D spatial computing over the years. Simulation, training, operations, and maintenance are a few of the common uses of XR. Gaming is also a common use of VR in the consumer space, dating back to systems like Nintendo Virtual Boy in the 1990s and made more mainstream by the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift in the 2010s.

AR started with the Virtual Fixtures system for the US Air Force, and earlier “heads up displays” (HUDs) are also predecessors to the modern AR headset. AR has evolved into both 2D and 3D with HUDs such as Google Glass, Microsoft HoloLens, and Magic Leap One. Phones and tablets can also run AR using cameras to detect and overlay imagery over the world.

Evaluating this holistically, XR is a perfect fit for making the world more accessible to everyone. Uses such as communication, training, navigation, remote access, and content creation can provide enhanced and alternative ways for anyone to participate.

We also need to make sure XR experiences are accessible for everyone. VR games should be accessible. AR navigation apps should be accessible. MR remote 3D design platforms should be accessible. It should not be an afterthought.

The XR Access Symposium

In July 2019, I attended the XR Access Symposium in New York City. This group of about 100 people across academia, industry, and government got together at the Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island for a day of presentations, demos, and breakout groups.

The room of about 100 people who attended the XR Access Symposium in July 2019

The plenary sessions got everyone thinking and the ten breakout groups allowed us to brainstorm the initial set of goals that the XR Access initiative would consider. There were demonstrations of current XR tech which was new to a lot of the audience. The mix of content, devices, and people enabled unique conversations that led to the next steps for XR Access.

How we make XR accessible

The goal for XR Access is to engage with the community, create guidelines, and influence policy for accessibility in XR. The focus is to support software, hardware, and content so that this technology is built from the ground up for all, not application by application.

To achieve this goal, we have organized the XR Access initiative into six working groups:

  • Guidelines & Policies
  • Awareness
  • Education
  • Hardware Devices
  • Content & Authoring

We have about 150 participants across the groups and an executive team of about a dozen leaders. I am the Lead for the Hardware Devices working group and excited to engage with our community partners on this effort. I am also looking forward to working across all the groups to meet the initiative’s goals.

There are some efforts in progress, including W3C’s XAUR and WebXR, along with Open XR and the XR Association that will feed into our work. We are not starting from scratch but acknowledge that a more coordinate and public effort needs to be made.

Our next symposium is slated for sometime this summer. Please visit www.xraccess.org and join a working group or attend a community gathering to get involved.

Accessible Gaming: The Xbox Adaptive Controller

In September 2018, Microsoft released its Xbox Adaptive Controller to the world. This new controller provides alternative ways for gamers to interact with both the Xbox and Windows games. The controller has its own built in controls for some of the main buttons and inputs for up to 19 switches that use the 3.5mm standard and three USB ports.

Xbox Adaptive Controller and Logitech kit

Microsoft started development of the Xbox Adaptive Controller way back in 2015, and it took three years of iterations and collaboration to get to production. The company worked with gamers to develop and tweak the design, and it ended up being compatible with a wide array of switches, joysticks, and mounts and is massively customizable.

My son playing on the Xbox Adaptive Controller

Both of my boys love gaming. We got an Xbox One S last year and while my older son was quick to adapt to the new system, my younger son had challenges. He has cerebral palsy and had trouble using the standard Xbox controller for more complex games like NHL ’18. He loves hockey and really wants to play with his brother. So we got the Xbox Adaptive controller for Christmas along with the brand new Logitech Adaptive Gaming Kit.

The whole point of devices like this is to give people the choice of modifying input methods to fit their needs. You can use the base controller and a few 3.5mm switches, or a whole array of switches along with USB joysticks. There are switches for wheelchairs, hand mounts, foot controls, mouth controls, and more. You can remap the inputs any way you like. This is what true accessibility is about.

The Xbox Adaptive Controller gives my son the ability to interact with the games in his own way. The larger buttons of the Adaptive Controller are easier for him to push. The customizable switches allow us to space out additional button controls in a more accessible layout. The last step is to add some USB joysticks—this will allow complete control in NHL ’18, for example.

Microsoft is the only major game system maker that has done this in a comprehensive way, though adaptive controllers have been around in various forms for decades. My hope is that the success of Microsoft’s effort will trickle over to the other companies. I am looking at you Sony, Nintendo, and Apple.

One great effect of these new adaptive devices is their eventually adaptation (*ahem*) for other uses, including PC control and an area I am currently working in, XR Access: accessibility for virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality systems, aka eXtended Reality (XR).

Notes from “Innovations in Accessible Technology” at the USBLN Conference

These are some of the topics and questions we covered in today’s  “Innovations in Accessible Technology” at the USBLN – US Business Leadership Network Conference. I may or may not have discussed all of these things, but I wanted to put it down here for posterity.

How do you engage users/customers with disabilities into the innovation and design process? How do the retail outlets (or other channels) act as a feedback loop?

We are not a product company like Microsoft or IBM, at least not in the same way. Traditionally our work has been performed directly for government and commercial clients. More recently we have ventured into product development on the investment and innovation sides of the house. This has been very exciting.

From our website: We are a global firm of 22,600 diverse, passionate, and exceptional people driven to excel, do right, and realize positive change in everything we do. We bring bold thinking and a desire to be the best in our work in consulting, analytics, digital solutions, engineering, and cyber, and with industries ranging from defense to health to energy to international development.

We work across many different government agencies that focus on health and accessibility, like the VA, Military Health, NIH, CDC, NSF, and Transportation.

No matter where we start with a particular project, we always engage the end users as part of the design process. We like to use the Agile method whenever possible as well. That means building something in iterations with a feedback loop from the stakeholders and end users.

In my role as the Solutions Evangelist and Lab Manager in the Booz Allen Innovation Center, I do get to run a tech “store” of sorts. We have hundreds of employees, clients, and other visitors in the Center every week. They come to work, to meetings, for events, and to experience our products and our partner’s products. I spend a lot of time giving demonstrations, but I make sure to allow the guest to get involved. I feel this is one of the best ways to get buy-in and input. Trying something for yourself is always a bigger impact than just reading about it or even seeing a video. For example, we show off virtual reality, which most people have not experience yet, and people go “wow” every time.

Research enables us to work on big ideas that sometimes turn into products. How do you know which project to invest in? What does the process from idea to product look like?

We do this in a few ways. One, we have an investment system across the firm within each major team (or market team) as well as our Strategic Innovation Group. Each team makes its own priorities, but we also work across teams in certain areas to pool money, people, and resources.

We also have programs like The Garage, a crowdsourcing platform that runs regular challenges for new ideas to solve big problems like the opioid epidemic, better access to healthcare for our veterans, or providing cybersecurity to protect our business.  We also have an annual Ideas Festival where our employees get together to share what they are passionate about. Apps like Microsoft’s Yammer and Teams people across the firm to communicate and to help build out ideas and teams to solve all kinds of problems.

One of my favorite things that we have introduced in recent years is the Summer Games internship program. Each intern team works with a Challenge lead to choose a problem to solve. Many of the topics are near and dear to their hearts. The teams are given autonomy and support over the ten-week internship span to build a business plan, prototype, and final presentation. Many of these projects end up as continued investments and become client deliverables, branded products, and internal or external open source projects.

I got to engage with many of the Summer Games teams this summer and help support them with advice, feedback, and devices they could borrow from our Solutions Lab in the Innovation Center. This is where I love to be: at the intersection of people, process, and technology.

A few of this year’s Summer Games projects had to do with accessible technology:

  • IRIS – An outdoor navigation system for the blind
  • SAMI – Solution for Accessible Mapping Indoors
  • Assistive Keyboard – Customizable input app

As I mentioned before, as part of my role as the Solutions Evangelist and Lab Manager at our Innovation Center I get to show off many of the cool products that we have built as well as partner products and other off-the-shelf technology that we are trying out. Getting exposure to these things is key: trying something on is much more impactful than just reading about it. This also stimulates new ideas. Many visitors have come through and seen our demos and had an ah-ha moment that applied to their own situation. I see this all the time while showing off tech like augmented and virtual reality, location tracking devices, and eye tracking.

I also do this at home with my family, partly because I like it but also to see what we can find to help my son with special needs engage with the world, like with the touchscreen iPad, Philips Hue lights, and music.

Putting accessibility at the heart of inclusive design produced products that are accessible to people with disabilities, but it also delivers great usability that customers love. How are you using inclusive design to meet the needs of people with and without disabilities? 

Universal or inclusive design is key in any design. From websites to desktop and mobile software, to hardware, furniture, and architecture, it makes the experience better for everyone.

We have a Section 508 group that supports software development across all teams at the firm. As we traditionally have been a tech firm focused on software and websites, this is probably our largest area where universal design comes into play. I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here, but it’s common sense that something made to follow accessibility design rules will also help a wider audience.

To this effect, we have design and user experience groups that work across all of the markets and investments to ensure that usability and accessibility are addressed from the beginning to the end of the project. It is key to engage with design and UX experts the entire way. This must not be forgotten. You can’t just bring someone in at the end to “fix” a product. You can’t just have a designer apply UX to the original design. You have to engage with them the entire time, including testing, revisions, and final production. Iterations are key, and those cannot be done in a vacuum.

How do you take advantage of the intellect and talent in your companies to drive research and innovation?

Our Innovation Center in Washington, DC is a great example of how we can bring people together to create a sum that’s greater than its parts. The Center enables us to connect people that may not have been connected before or work in completely different markets with different skills and networks, it encourages cross collaboration and idea-sharing. This includes the project teams that apply to work there, the people who come to attend meetings, and the visitors that come to experience our demos.

As I mentioned before, we have a few other ways of connecting ideas with investment and support. That includes The Garage crowdsourcing platform, the annual Ideas Festival, and our Summer Games internship program. Investments are created across the firm as ideas funnel through the processes. Communication platforms like Microsoft’s Yammer and Teams help make those connections. (See above sections for more information.)

As the Solutions Evangelist and Lab Manager for the Innovation Center, I get to connect with many people across the firm. This brings in new demos and content to the Center, as well as helps incubate new ideas and expand on current solutions. Getting people out of their silos is important. I enjoy being part of opening people’s minds and hopefully inspiring some new ideas.

Aging is the fastest growing demographic group. No other groups suffer from disability than the elders. With such global challenge, how can technology help people aging in place?  

This is an exciting area for developments with technology. We have so many new technologies on the consumer and enterprise side that can easily be applied to solutions for those with the disabilities and our seniors.

Tech like mobile phones, home automation, health and wellness wearables, sensors, telepresence robots (like the Suitable Technologies Beams we use in the IC), cameras, RFID, beacons, autonomous cars, and implants can help with these challenges.

Machine learning, AI are hot topics.  How can we not talk about this?

This is also a very exciting area. Machine learning and AI will fuel advances in such things as voice control and concierges, robotics, monitoring and tracking, and even tech like our own IRIS blind navigation platform. The more computers can learn about our environment and how we use it, the better than can aid us with traveling, experiences, and keeping us safe.

Speaking at the USBLN Conference in Orlando

How many of you have struggled with finding assistive technology for your employees, your family, or yourselves?

It is more than just about technology. We have done a lot with accessible technology but we can do more. There are new technologies out there that can help, but we need a cohesive way to bring them together to affect change for people with disabilities.

At Booz Allen, I advocate for Assistive Technology at the Innovation Center and with our Diversity & Inclusion team. At home of a father of a nine year old son with special needs. Every day I think what his life will be like when he graduates from high school. I look around the people in this room and I realize the impact that we could have together and am excited at the possibilities.

I’d really like to stress three key points on how we can make an impact together.

  1. People: People are critical. People are passionate. However people don’t know what they don’t know. I can advocate for my son, but I can’t be at every school for every child. We need to educate everyone on the technologies, tools, and policies that are out there.
  2. Process: Connecting online. Connecting with vendors. Connecting parents with each other. Connecting with teachers. The connections are key at bringing awareness and also incubating new ideas. This is tied together with process.
  3. Tech: Technology is already here, it just needs to be applied. As new technology comes out, we need to evaluate it and be prepared to move on from older systems into the new ones. There is no one answer for anything. This applies to assistive technology as well.

If we think about this as a collective, we can organize to be bigger than the sum of our parts. We need that for our families, friends, and colleagues but also the next generation of our children. I want to continue this discussion with you.

I will be part of the Technology Roundtable “Innovations in Accessible Technology” on Thursday, August 24th at 9am at the USBLN – US Business Leadership Network Conference. I will speak alongside MicrosoftBloombergDeque Systems, and IBM Research. I am the Solutions Evangelist and Lab Manager for the Booz Allen Hamilton Innovation Center in Washington, DC.

Look for us at 9am on Thursday, August 24th on the agenda.