News Column

Central High grad, Auburn senior developing apps for Google Glass to enable disabled

August 31, 2014

By Mark Rice, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer

Aug. 31--He still is in college, but Central High School graduate Nick DiChiara already has been granted early access to a product that promises to change the way folks use computer technology.

And here's another tidbit about this Auburn University senior that makes him shine amidst his generation: He isn't interested in producing the next popular video game. Instead, he is developing a software suite of apps he calls Able, to enable Google Glass to help the disabled, starting with the hearing impaired.

"I think it's important for me to spend my time doing that than making another Angry Birds," he said.

Inspiration

Nick, 22, is one of about 8,000 software developers nationwide and about 30,000 worldwide to be a Google Explorer, an advance chance to create apps for Google Glass, the wearable computer that looks like a pair of eyeglasses. He also is probably among the youngest.

"As far as I know, I'm the only one in this area," he said, "one of maybe five in the state."

Google didn't answer the Ledger-Enquirer's questions by deadline.

While he was in high school, Nick's aunt, Linda DiChiara, was diagnosed with ALS. She became paralyzed but was able to communicate via a computer that watched her eyes and allowed her to type by looking at each letter she wanted on the keyboard.

"That inspired me to go into this to find a better way," said Nick, the 2010 Ledger-Enquirer Page One Award winner in science.

He made a copy of the software, put it on his laptop and started tinkering.

"I was trying to find ways for those with disabilities to be able to connect and control computers and interact with them in different ways," he said

That gave him credibility when he sent an unsolicited email to Google two years ago. Nick had been reading about the development of Google Glass. On a lark, he asked to help with the project. Although it took nearly a year to hear back from Google, he was accepted into the Explorer program.

For $1,500, Google sends you the Glass, with your choice of a frame, pouch, mono earbud, cable and charger.

"Most of it came out of pocket," Nick said, "but I was able to go through the university and get some financial support."

The Explorers don't earn cash for their work; they earn cachet.

"If there weren't any apps, like on an iPhone, nobody would buy it," Nick said. "There has to be a lot of apps on there before it's useful. They want the developers to make as many as they can to find something useful or innovative."

Nick started working on Glass in November of last year.

"It's a completely new platform," he said. "If you think about your desktop computer or laptop, usually the things you do on there are yearlong, long-term projects. If you think about your phone, that's day-to-day or week-type tasks. But on Glass, they want that to be only what's going on right now."

Innovation

Imagine your vision divided into nine rectangles, arranged 3-by-3. Wearing the Glass, the projected image takes up the upper right rectangle with a transparent screen. The rest of your vision is unobstructed.

"If you look around anywhere, whether it's on the streets or something, you see everyone walking around glued to their phones with their head down," Nick said. "The point of this is that it's funny how to get technology out of the way we have to get it closer."

Glass offers the alternative of integrating the computer experience into the user's real world.

"You basically have a smartphone jammed into this small area," Nick said, pointing to the right side of the frames. "Back here, you have the battery, as well as the bone-conduction speaker. They didn't want this to plug your ear, so this speaker just rests against this bone. Whenever it makes sound, it vibrates against your bone and the sound echoes into your ear."

A companion app, called MyGlass, allows users to sync their smartphones with Glass. Some users have figured out how to connect their Bluetooth keyboard to type on Glass.

Glass automatically adjusts the brightness of the screen so the clarity is consistent, whether looking toward or away from a light source. You navigate on Glass by swiping your finger along the right side of the frame next to your temple. It also works with voice recognition. Nick demonstrated:

"OK, Glass. Google. Show me pictures of cute puppies."

First, however, Glass showed it has sense of humor, displaying this message: "Not that again."

Nick gets lots of stares when he wears Glass in public.

"If it's on campus, people get really excited," he said. "If it's just out and about, some people have never even heard of them. 'What's on his face?'"

Application

Nick started working with Auburn's assistive technology group at the end of the year. His father, former Phenix City Public Schools superintendent Larry DiChiara, previously was the special-education coordinator in Lee County, so he had contacts at the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind.

"I was thinking about what are some ways, how could this be useful," Nick said. "I was previously interested in assistive technology, so I immediately went to that."

Nick visited AIDB in Talledega as part of his research.

"I don't have any hearing disabilities, so I don't know the day-to-day things that could be solved," he said. "Usually, when people try (Glass) on, they instantly kind of go into that creativity mode where they start thinking about what are some of the things it could do. I wanted to get their ideas. They shared with me a lot of things."

Nick learned that lip-reading is only 30-60 percent accurate, so the hearing impaired would welcome a better way to communicate with other hearing folks. That's what sparked Nick's idea to create an app that uses voice recognition to display subtitles on Glass. He already has a functioning prototype, but he is fine-tuning it.

"I want to work on making it be able to tell the difference between two people," he said. "If they're in a crowd, that would be tough."

Nick demonstrated as a visitor wore the Glass.

"Everything I say right now, it's going to start typing that out on the screen," he said. "It takes kind of a second to get going, and that's what I'm working on, the timing right now. But as you see right now, everything I say it's putting it on the screen."

Other apps Nick envisions for Glass to aid the hearing impaired include:

-- Direct the user to the source of a sound, such as a crying baby in another room

-- Alert the user if a sound is too loud, such as the volume on a TV.

-- Notify the user what song is playing on the radio.

-- Vibrate to wake up the user as an alarm clock.

Nick calls the suite of apps Able.

"I wanted it to be a broad enough title," he said, "because I want it to be a collection of apps that doesn't depend on just one disability so you have a bunch of tools, like a toolbox."

Daniela Marghitu, faculty coordinator and director of the Auburn University Lab for Education and Assistive Technology, has been overseeing Nick's research.

"This project can help tackle some of the day-to-day frustrations that those with disabilities encounter, especially with those disabilities that hinder communications," she said. "Creating new forms of interaction between the human and computer opens up many possibilities."

Marghitu mentioned some of them.

"This project has the potential to spread into a suite of applications across many devices -- not just mobile devices, but robotics and prosthetics as well," she said. "These can all work in unison to ensure that the gap in quality of life is as minimal as possible amongst all people. Also, raising awareness helps get people involved in solving these problems, whether it's a kid inspired to go into engineering or a financial donor to charities and research."

Destination

Nick is waiting for Google to release Glass to the general public so he can gain more feedback on his Able apps.

"That's when the magic really happens," he said.

Meanwhile, he helps maintain the website for Auburn's engineering school and shoots video for the university's development office -- using Glass, of course. After he graduates in December with a bachelor's degree in software engineering, he plans to continue at Auburn while pursuing a master's in business administration.

His goal is to be a product manager for software projects. He wants to be adept at the technical and business aspects of computer applications.

"It's pretty rare to find engineers with good communication skills," he said, "so I've kind of been playing that as a strength."

Nick already established a software company, called SprezzSoft. The name is spawned from the Italian word sprezzatura, which means a perfect performance without apparent effort. That's what he hopes Able can do on Glass.

"Any software I make I want it to have that level of polish," he said.

Regardless of his direction, he is confident that Central High and Auburn University prepared him well.

"I definitely learned a lot," he said.

Barbara Romey, who was Nick's gifted education teacher at Central, isn't surprised by his early success.

"He was very aggressive about finding opportunities that matched his skill set," said Romey, now retired. "When he found something that interested him, he was unstoppable until completion."

Romey also isn't surprised Nick is using his education and talent to help others. Central's gifted program emphasizes community service projects.

"I think he got bit by that bug," she said. "I think he sees that he can be extremely successful not just because of his technological skills but also because of the good he is doing."

Marghitu called Nick "an outstanding young man with amazing human and professional qualities. I think we will hear a lot about him in the future."

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter@MarkRiceLE.

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Source: Columbus Ledger-Enquirer (GA)


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