August 31, 2018

Orono startup launches game app for visually impaired players

Courtesy / UNAR Labs LLC
Courtesy / UNAR Labs LLC
Screenshots showing Tic Tac Toe by UNAR Labs, a game app that's accessible to visually impaired users, thanks to an artificial intelligence software platform created by UNAR Labs LLC of Orono. It was released on Apple's iTunes store this week.

An Orono startup that aims to help visually impaired people access graphical information in digital media using smart phones and tablets has released its first app — Tic Tac Toe by UNAR Labs on Apple's iTunes store.

The free game app uses an artificial intelligence software platform created by University of Maine researchers and business partners Hari Prasath Palani and Nicholas Giudice, who is visually impaired. They founded UNAR Labs LLC last October.

Palani holds a doctorate in spatial informatics with a focus on blindness accessibility, while Giudice is a professor of spatial mathematics with a doctorate in cognitive and brain science.

For the past eight years, they've studied how to bridge the information gap between sighted and visually impaired people.

When they discovered they couldn't play games with each other and that there weren't any mobile game apps for players who couldn't see, they designed their own version of the classic pen-and-pencil game Tic Tac Toe.

Their app, released this week, is powered by their artificial intelligence innovation, which is called Midlina. Palani says it's named after after a bridge in Iceland that links two continents, "just like how we are working to connect the visual with non-visual parts of the world."

Palani was pleased to see 26 Tic Tac Toe downloads on the first day of its release. The game is intended for both sighted and visually impaired users.

Thanks to Midlina, those who cannot see can instead "feel" the lines dividing the Tic Tac Toe grid through a short vibration (activated via the vibration setting). And by switching on the audio setting, users can hear voice narration of the action in real time — who has put an X or an O into what square, and who wins (sometimes it's the computer).

Users can play on their own or against an opponent, and can also challenge and play against anyone around the world using the 'Play Online' mode.

Tic Tac Toe is the first of many products promised by UNAR Labs in its mission to "make digital information accessible beyond sensory bounds."

'Just the beginning'

The early-stage tech startup notes that out of nearly 24 million visually impaired people in the United States alone, 70% are unemployed or underemployed, only 11% have a college degree and 33% finish high school, and 80% do not travel independently.

To reverse those trends, Palani and Giudice pioneered Midlina for use in education (through the ability to feel charts, images, shapes and other graphical information in digital form), navigation (world exploration by feeling digital maps) and games like the new Tic Tac Toe app.

"This is just the beginning of our mission towards creating a truly inclusive and accessible digital world," promises Palani. "We are not stopping here, watch out for us!"


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