In the spring of 2012, Ayanna Howard, a distinguished professor of robotics at the Georgia Institute of Technology, received an email that ultimately would change her approach to research and teaching.
“I started getting emails from the National Science Foundation that there was a new program coming up called I-Corps™. It was intriguing,” she said. “I thought ‘this might be okay.’ One of my graduate students said ‘This will be perfect. Let’s see if this technology we’re working on has any value.’”
Howard, the Motorola Foundation Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Associate Director of Research at the Institute of Robotics and Intelligent Machines, had been developing new technologies to help children with disabilities access mobile computers.
She first got the idea whilst working with children with vision and motor impairments at a children’s robotics summer camp.
“Today, there’s a tablet computer for every child. If you have issues with fine motor control, that tablet world gets shut off,” she said. “Our technology now allows you to plug your accessible switch device into our plug and play Bluetooth interface, and now you can simulate touching and swiping on the tablet.”
Input from the I-Corps™ workshop gave Howard an entirely different perspective on how to redesign the original interface.
“Value proposition at the beginning was totally different from what it is today,” she said. Before I-Corps™, the original version of TabAccess was only a self-contained device that could be manipulated to interact with the tablet touch screen. “It was like a glove and could interact with tablet applications. It worked for our camp, my students and other people we directly interacted with,” Howard said.
But the business model quickly changed when feedback showed customers wanted to connect to tablets with other assistive devices, not just that self-contained version of TabAccess.
The I-Corps™ workshop and feedback was useful, but a humbling experience, Howard said.
“It required me to get out of my comfort zone. It got me to ask people, ‘What do you want from the technology?’ This was very different from working in academia where I am the authority,” she said.
“Listening to what people are saying and not having it be an ego buster, getting out of my comfort zone, has made me a better researcher, a better instructor. It shed a light on how I talk about research and the value of research, the value of new technology. We create great technology in the lab, but now I see that it’s not so great if it has no use outside of the lab. That’s a change of thinking for me,” she added.
After I-Corps™, Howard and her team applied for state research funds to translate the technology into something more commercially viable, resulting in the new version of TabAccess and Zumo, a self-contained smart toy for younger children. A free Zyrobotics software application, called Forest Fighter, was also developed to help children with disabilities interact with tablets, and has already been downloaded over 5,000 times from iTunes and Google Play.
Other products, including a socially interactive robot that communicates with the user through a tablet interface, are currently in negotiations for licensing terms.
Looking back, Howard said the constant feedback and critiques from I-Corps™ instructors and other participants was instrumental in making the experience helpful and meaningful. “I truly enjoyed the experience, much more than I anticipated,” she said. “The program was definitely of value to me.”