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Even before his recuperation provided him with a crash course in the differently-abled lifestyle, Fleet was no stranger to disability. He has an adult blind daughter, and fondly remembers some of the innovations he made while she was growing up. The Braille cuckoo clock, complete with a bird sporting a cane and dark glasses, that he created while running a clock shop in Richmond, Virginia, was so admired by his customers that he ultimately manufactured a series of the clocks. "Art imitates life," muses Fleet. "At first the cane kept getting stuck in the little door, so we had to work on the little bird's technique. And I did have to install a silencer which was so popular we placed it on all the clock models. Because sometimes you just need that little bird to shut up."
This week, Fleet is moving beyond timekeeping into the 21st-century by unveiling a smartphone for the blind. Dubbed the Milieu (from the French for "environment"), , Fleet hopes the phone will help people without the gift of sight feel secure in their everyday lives. Although tight-lipped about which carriers will feature the phone and what its price point will be, Fleet has released a list of preliminary specifications and is actively soliciting feedback from professionals, family members, friends and even the blind themselves. "I know it's a risk to ask the sight-challenged community, or however they want to be called this week," says Fleet. "One thing that those people do not need an app for is giving input. i can tell you that as an inventor and as a father."###
Intelligent rerouting: Traditional GPS systems, even those with the blind in mind, do not account for the difficulty of some intersections. Milieu will check pedestrian routes via the power of crowdsourcing, provided by a vetted pool of mobility professionals. "When appropriate, these professionals can flag intersections as "no go zones" which will then be ignored in Milieu's future route calculations. It may take a day or two to get a route approved", admits Fleet, "but which would you rather - wait a day or get run over by a truck?" Fleet explains that, while he considered including blind users in the crowdsourcing effort, "It's not something my liability insurance would cover. There's just something about good eye contact and the idea of continuing education units and licensure boards that makes my attorney more comfortable."
TastyCam: During her formative years, Fleet often fooled his daughter by rotating the mild, medium and painfully hot sauces at Mexican restaurants. Utilizing an 8-megapixel camera, integrated flash, and object recognition, Milieu will put an end to this type of japery by identifying everything on a blind individual's plate. Specialized algorithms and alerts are being developed for particularly pernicious mistakes including "clump of wasabi", "bay leaf" and "toothpick protruding from sandwich".
Conversant: "not everyone recognizes a cane or a dog or the eyes that are crossed," points out Fleet. "It's important to be able to communicate someone's needs to a range of different people particularly in the cities where not a whole lot of people are speaking English". Drawing on APIs for web-based translation, Milieu will first capture a sample of a person's speech and determine the language he or she is speaking. "This challenge turned out to be trivial," comments Fleet, "once we realized that the sighted public, regardless of nationality, is only going to be saying a limited number of things when they encounter someone who's blind. "Which way are you trying to go?" for example, or "Be careful". Or a lot of the time they'll remark to someone else with whatever the word is for "blind" in their language. Actually a lot of the work of compiling those types of utterances was done for us a while back in an IOS app called "Simulated Sighted Stranger" which unfortunately got pulled from the App store. That app was ahead of its time and we aim to pick up right where it left off. , With that kind of predictive database, we're able to match what a sighted person is saying as they first approach a blind person with a predictable phrase about 97% of the time." Once this is done, Milieu's Conversant app presents its blind handler and sighted conversation partner with an interface for chatting. "It's groundbreaking in a way," says Fleet. "There's no population I can think of that, just by showing up, can so completely box in what a total stranger is likely to say. We can capitalize on that and really get a dialog going."
People Passer: There's been a lot of talk in the general population and in the blind community about apps for finding friends. From Apple's mainstream offering to a People Finder debuted at this year's CSUN conference for Technology and Persons with Disabilities, Fleet sees just one flaw in these apps. "They all start from the premise of, these are people that you want to find or to be found by". Milieu's fresh take on location-based social apps is more of an antisocial app. "Take, for example, the guy on your block who asks you for five dollars every time he sees you, or the street preacher who incorporates your sightlessness into his sermon. These are folks you want to be aware of in terms of their proximity to you , but you want to then use that pinpointed location as the fulcrum of an area you are going to avoid". The early version of People Passer is unfortunately limited to Facebook and Foursquare friends who disclose their location to the Milieu's handler. "It's going to be hard," admits Fleet, "to extend the concept to cover people you've unfriended or who you never want to friend in the first place". For now, Fleet says, the technology works best for avoiding people situationally - extinguishing a cigarette before your mother-in-law catches you with that cancer stick, for example. But Fleet is determined to find a solution, and is currently exploring options based on Bluetooth technology and face recognition. "Avoiding people is a part of living in the modern world", he opines. "Blind people have as much right - and sometimes even a responsibility - to duck around the corner as anyone else."
Fleet is emphatic that these groundbreaking apps are just the beginning. "There are more unmet needs out there than there are blind people. It's just a matter of defining what's important. And need creation is as much a part of this enterprise as software development. Need creation equals longevity for the business. There are innovators out there creating and then meeting a need for 80's style text adventure games, for Tic-Tac-Toe, for totally proprietary alternatives to QR codes. And those innovators inspire me to go out and discover a need every day or sometimes just invent a need. We already have paper money identification, but what about identifying coins? We're working on haptic feedback to let the handler know when the phone is right side up. There's been some early feedback that those are low priorities, but I say the early feedback usually comes from your Super-blinds and frankly I'm more concerned about the base".
So what's next? Fleet is facing a serious challenge, no pun intended. "We have had a lot of success in the lab with facial recognition. I'm not sure that the blind community has discovered their need for this yet, but it's trending among sighted blindness professionals. The trouble is that, as good as our lab results are, the predominant facial expression our testers are getting in the field when they point the camera phone at somebody is cycling between anger, surprise and puzzlement. We're trying to isolate the factors that could be causing that to occur. Also, a couple of testers have had their phones confiscated after testing them with real faces in the field. But I believe in the technology. It's like Simulated Sighted Stranger, I guess. Just ahead of its time."
Mr. Fleet may not be ready to crowdsource mobility data, but he welcomes your feedback in the comments.
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