Perkins School for the Blind Pushes Into Apps, Driverless Cars

Xconomy Boston — 

Perkins School for the Blind has a long history of breaking new ground, from becoming America’s first school for blind people in 1829, to creating a more effective and durable braille-writing machine in the mid-20th century.

Now, under the leadership of Dave Power, the Boston-area school is exploring new ways of improving the lives of people with vision loss by supporting new assistive technologies—mobile apps, sonar-based navigation devices, driverless cars, and more—and creating experimental education programs and other resources.

Power’s tenure offers an interesting case study of how a historic educational institution attempts to stay relevant and influential, as technology rapidly changes education and the lives of Perkins students.

“To me, the theme isn’t technology, per se, it’s innovation,” says Power (pictured above), a former venture capitalist and executive with Sun Microsystems, RSA Security, and Novera Software. “Who are we serving, and how are their needs changing? That drove everything I did as a tech executive and as an investor.”

Perkins’s core constituents are the approximately 200 students ages 3 to 22 at its school in Watertown, MA. But its reach extends worldwide through, for example, selling braille machines, providing resources and training to educators and organizations in 67 countries, and offering online courses and workshops to teachers of blind students.

Delving into online education was something Power—whose 28-year-old son, David, is a Perkins graduate born blind and hearing impaired—advocated as a Perkins board trustee in 2008. The institution has a reputation as a leader in blindness education, and it has long held workshops and other training programs at its campus for educators from around the region. Power argued that “we should be using the Internet to share our knowledge with other teachers” beyond New England, he says. “You can only scale a school so far.”

Power took the reins at Perkins in 2014 and has continued looking for new ways for the school to impact the lives of blind people. The strategy has spurred new initiatives, such as a small program on Saturdays for young blind people to help them prepare for their first job, and another initiative that gathers local business leaders for regular meetings to examine ways to overcome barriers to employment for blind people, Power says.

“What can we do with our students before they turn 22 to better prepare them for going out and transitioning into adult life?” Power says. “And what can we do to prepare the outside world for our students in those first few years when they land outside the school system?”

Increasingly, that also means seeding and shaping new technology.

To keep abreast of the latest tech developments that might help blind people, Perkins assembled an innovation advisory board made up of app designers, venture capitalists, financial services professionals, innovation consultants, and others. The group meets quarterly to explore things like beacon technology, which is currently used in retail outlets to beam promotions to the smartphones of potential shoppers nearby. That technology could also help direct people with vision loss to specific spots indoors or outdoors, Power says.

Other areas the board has looked at include sensors that might help with indoor navigation, robots that might serve as personal aides for blind people, and autonomous vehicles. Perkins is in talks with a driverless car technology company that wants to use its campus for testing, Power says. (He declined to name the firm.)

“We want autonomous vehicle manufacturers to have the blind person in mind as they build autonomous vehicles,” Power says. “I want us to have a voice in how these things get built and designed. Even if there’s not a commercial interest in it for us, we want to be a test bed.”

Of the technologies on the horizon, Power thinks driverless cars could be the most important one for blind people. If they had their own autonomous vehicles, they could avoid the hassles and unreliability of public transit and the long-term costs of using taxis or ride-hailing apps like Uber. “That, I think, will be transformative,” Power says.

Autonomous vehicles would give the visually impaired more flexibility and freedom, which would also help them compete for a wider range of jobs, Power says. That’s crucial because the unemployment rate among blind people is much higher than among those without the disability, he says.

Perkins hasn’t made any equity investments in technology companies, Power says, but it has awarded grants to assistive technology startups through the MassChallenge accelerator program. For example, it doled out $25,000 in 2014 to Sunu, which makes a smartwatch that uses sonar and haptic feedback to help people navigate their surroundings and track personal items.

Perkins also works directly on new technologies. It won a $750,000 grant from Google’s philanthropic arm earlier this year to develop a mobile app that will use crowdsourced information to help guide blind people to specific spots, focusing first on bus stops.

The app is trying to solve “the last 50 feet problem”: GPS on Google Maps and other apps can get people close to a destination, but the directions often lack the level of detail needed to get the user to a precise location. The app will enable people with sight to log directions for blind people in a standardized way.

Google, which owns crowdsourced traffic and navigation app Waze, was “very intrigued by the potential here,” Power says. “I don’t know all of Google’s motives, but if you can help a person who is visually impaired find a bus stop, you can help a visually impaired person find Starbucks, Eddie Bauer, and all the small businesses that are really the basis for Google’s business model.”

And for Perkins, “we’re solving a really mission-critical problem,” Power says.

The school is working with Boston-based mobile development shop Raizlabs on the app, which is expected to launch later this year, Power says. A small group of Perkins staff members are conducting research with potential users, helping with product design, and planning the strategy for commercializing the app. (Perkins is a nonprofit, but Power stresses making its programs and services financially sustainable.)

Perkins hasn’t settled on a business model for the app, Power says. The options include charging users a fee, serving up advertisements when users are near a business, seeking donations, or even gamification. The last one would be similar to how Foursquare crowns a user the “mayor” of a venue if he or she has checked into that place more often than anyone else. (Perhaps the person who contributes the most directions to Perkins’s bus stop app could earn a free breakfast at Tatte Bakery & Café, for example.)

“We’re already thinking about ways to make sure we’re always investing in making the app fresh, relevant, and doing great things,” Power says.