Interview with Dr. Ayanna Howard, Founder and Chief Technology Officer at Zyrobotics, LLC.

Dr Ayanna Howard ZyroboticsBy Brad Searle @BelugaCP
Father of a child with Cerebral Palsy and Executive Board Member at Reaching for the Stars. A Foundation of Hope for Children with Cerebral Palsy.

 

Brad:  Please welcome our special guest Dr. Ayanna Howard, Founder and Chief

Technology Officer at Zyrobotics, LLC!!! Dr. Howard is an American Roboticist

and the Motorola Foundation Professor at the School of Electrical and Computer

Engineering, at the Georgia Institute of Technology. In 2003, she was named

to the MIT Technology Review TR100 as one of the top 100 innovators in the

world under the age of 35. She was featured in TIME magazine’s “Rise of the

Machines” article in 2004 and in 2008, Dr. Howard received worldwide attention

for her SnoMote robots, designed to study the impact of global warming on the

Antarctic ice shelves. With her very impressive and distinguished background

we are excited to hear about what she, and the Zyrobotics team, is working on

to provide “access” to people with motor limitations. Dr. Howard, thank you for

joining us today!

 

Dr. Howard:  Thank you! Thank you for the invite!

 

Brad:  So, tell us a little bit about Zyrobotics and how it was started?

 

Dr. Howard:  Zyrobotics is actually a Georgia Tech start-up. It is affiliated with

VentureLab which is the Georgia Tech incubator. Interestingly enough, the way

that Zyrobotics came about was based on research that was in my lab at Georgia

Tech. In the Lab, we as academics aren’t trained how to think about getting our

research out into society. A lot of the research we do here at the University has

been kept in the lab, and many of the projects never make that transition. The

VentureLab incubator program gives us the ability to license the technology and

research that comes out of our lab and commercialize it, so we can get it out to

the public and make a global impact that can actually help people.

 

Brad:  That’s awesome! Do you have a personal connection to anyone with a

disability that would benefit from the technology coming out of Zyrobotics?

 

Dr. Howard:  My connection is working to provide equal access to everyone

despite their gender, race or disability. It’s about making sure the playing field

is even and that is something that I’ve always been focused on since I was very

young.

 

Brad:  That’s really great! I’m a very big advocate for inclusion and I believe AAC

technology plays a huge roll in socialization and providing access. One of things

I’ve heard about recently is TabAccess. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

 

Dr. Howard:  TabAccess is a device focused on providing children with motor

limitations access and the ability to interact with tablets. We had a robot

programming camp for children with disabilities and I expanded it to incorporate

children with motor disabilities. I remember our very first workshop, we had

laptops, keyboards and mice, but it was very difficult for some of the kids to

interact with some the robots. So like any good engineer, we said okay this is

an issue. These kids, who were so bright, knew what they wanted to do and we

needed to provide them an easier way to interact with these robots. So

TabAccess was originally designed to allow children with motor limitation to

interact and program these robots. What we discovered was there were other

apps, besides robot programming apps, that the kids wanted to enjoy and

interact with. For example, TabAccess can give a child the ability to play some

of the popular tablet games, like Angry Birds, on an Android device by using

switches.

 

Brad:  How would someone go about acquiring TabAccess so they could see if it

is a good fit for their child?

 

Dr. Howard:  We are actually starting two things right now. The first is a brand

new Kickstarter campaign where you can preorder TabAccess and the second

is a Lending Library program. We want to get these devices out to other

lending libraries so families can try it out to see if it actually works for their

child. Then they can preorder a TabAccess of their own through the Kickstarter

campaign. The Kickstarter campaign has launched, and if successful, we plan to

start sending units to Lending Libraries this summer.

 

Brad:  Can you tell us a little bit about what kind of controller someone with motor

limitations can use with TabAccess to interact with a Tablet?

 

Dr. Howard:  You can think of TabAccess like the brain that allows you to plug

in switches that can send signals to mimic a button press, swipe or a mouse

theme. One of our newest control interfaces with TabAccess is called Zumo. It’s

a stuffed animal that has 5 sensors that input into the brain(TabAccess). The

sensors basically act like a joystick. If you press the left sensor, the cursor goes

to the left, if you press the right sensor the cursor goes to the right. You can

also send a swipe by pressing two of the sensors at the same time. So this

gives those with motor limitations the ability to play games that require a swipe

action like Angry Birds or Cut the Rope. There are also many kids who already

have accessible switches, like head switches, that are currently used to operate

computers. You can use those same switches to interface with TabAccess

and provide equivalent functionality with a tablet, allowing them to interact with

apps. It’s pretty cool when you see a kid use these devices and actually interact

with apps that they didn’t have access to before.

 

Brad:  Is the TabAccess and Zumo package already compatible with existing

Android or iOS apps?

 

Dr. Howard:  It’s compatible with about 80% of Android apps. iOS 7 has switch

access integrated into the system, so it is compatible with iOS 7 and switch

accessible apps.

 

Brad:  Will third party developers have access to an SDK to develop more apps

that are compatible with TabAccess.

 

Dr. Howard:  For developers, an SDK will be available. You can develop your

apps to easily work with Zumo. Zumo will extend the user experience of your

apps.

 

Brad:  Where do you see Zyrobotics going in the future? Are there anymore

technologies planned that you can tell us about?

 

Dr. Howard:  Our next project is actually an accessible robot. We have an

accessible robot we are working on that kids can interact with through an app on

their tablet. It was also inspired by the robot programming camps.

 

Brad:  I think it is pretty obvious, with your background, motivation and passion,

that Zyrobotics is opening a new door for our kids with motor limitations to start

using and having fun with tablets.

 

Dr. Howard:  One of the things I believe is “play” is the job of a child,

period. That’s how they learn and grow. I think by focusing on accessible play,

we provide that ability. There will obviously be educational and therapeutic

components, but at the end of the day a kid is a kid, and every kid wants to

have access to the GAMES, apps and tablets. It’s fundamental and I think it’s

the right of every child. It feels very rewarding to be working in this space and

working hard to make sure that this happens.

 

Be the first to own Zumo and TabAccess! Purchase a unit below retail cost through their Kickstarter campaign.  You can also show your support by Backing this project so this technology can get to the children who need it!

Zyrobotics Kickstarter

TechKid-Z Council

Are you a child with a disability that’s interested in trying out and providing your input on the newest Zyrobotics’ technologies?  Zyrobotics is currently recruiting a group of advisors – made up entirely of children – to provide advice on new play technologies that could address their unique needs.  They are looking to sign up children aged between eight and eighteen to the council where they will play an important role in assessing new technologies and helping to make technology more accessible, fun, and engaging for children with disabilities.  The perfect candidate will be brimming with enthusiasm and fun, plus have a natural love for new gadgets. TechKid-Z will get a chance to try out new technologies, before they are released to the public, and provide their insight on what they would like to change. Every quarter Zyrobotics will host a TechKid-Z meeting where new robots, new games, and new devices will be brought out in a group play setting. TechKid-Z will interact with each other and make suggestions that can be put into practice to help make the technology more accessible, fun, and engaging for other children with disabilities.  If you are interested in participating in the TechKid-Z council, ask your parent or caregiver to contact Zyrobotics [with link] and they will provide them with a simple application form that they can send back via email.

 

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