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August 18, 2020

UMaine assistive technology spinout UNAR Labs receives NIH award

Courtesy / UNAR Labs UNAR Labs makes visual graphic information more accessible for blind and visually impaired users on digital devices.

UNAR Labs, a University of Maine spinout company that develops assistive technology for blind and visually impaired (BVI) users, was awarded $300,000 under the National Institute of Health’s Small Business Innovation Research Phase I program to further prove its concept. 

With the award, UNAR plans to prototype an information access system that would help educational institutions develop accessible learning materials more efficiently, according to a news release.

The company’s mission is to make the visual graphic information that has become such a big part of modern daily life more accessible to BVI users on the digital devices they already have, including smartphones and tablets.

“More than 60 to 70% of digital content is completely inaccessible to visually impaired users: think of maps, images, photos, Facebook, Twitter,” Hari Palani, co-founder and CEO of UNAR, said in the release. “We want to provide a bridge and enable BVI users with access to all this information.”

UNAR Labs’ core technology is a software platform called Midlina that translates visual graphical information into an accessible multisensory graphic that BVI users can touch, feel and hear using the haptic, vibration and audio features built in to digital smart devices (phones/tablets).

The award will allow Portland-based UNAR Labs to focus on improving the process to translate textbooks and other educational materials, including the graphical components, into a multisensory format that makes them fully accessible for BVI students. 

Using existing methods, the process can take two weeks to two months, depending on the complexity of the material, involves significant manual labor, and can cost many thousands of dollars, according to Palani. The company is developing a software system that aims to cut this time down to hours and reduce the manual labor that makes it so expensive.

“Translating visual information into equivalent non-visual information is not a trivial task, so we have a long research agenda to achieve this technical feat,” said Palani, who arrived at UMaine in 2011 to conduct graduate research on accessible technology with professor of spatial informatics Nicholas Giudice, co-founder of UNAR Labs.

The two began to explore commercialization of their research after connecting with the team at UMaine’s Foster Center for Innovation in 2017. Their path to commercialization has been deliberate. In 2017, UNAR Labs became the first team from Maine to be invited to participate in the National I-Corps program. 

After completing I-Corps, where Palani and Giudice conducted extensive customer discovery research, they joined the MIRTA accelerator at UMaine in 2019, built a prototype, and began to prove the feasibility of their technology. 

A $225,000 National Science Foundation Phase I SBIR award in 2019 helped fund the work, along with a $100,000 commercialization support grant from the Maine Technology Institute. UNAR Labs is participating in the 2020 Top Gun program, a statewide accelerator that targets startups with high growth potential.

Giudice, who is visually impaired, believes that UNAR Labs has a distinct edge in advancing this technology.

“Lots of companies are interested in this type of technology, and for good reasons, but they’re often coming at it from a technical standpoint and not thinking about it from the human side: the perceptual, cognitive aspects of it,” said Giudice. “We’re working in a field that we both have had a lot of experience in, personal and professional. This company is built out of a lot of Hari’s dissertation work and my experience as a blind scientist who has dealt with trying to find solutions to this for the last 20 years and understands what works, what doesn’t and the real challenges.”

UNAR Labs is building solutions for use in commercially available hardware such as  smartphones. A dedicated device with a braille display to show graphics can cost upwards of $15,000, Giudice said. For institutions, the process of producing accessible versions of textbooks involving graphic information is in the range of $20,000 to $30,000 and involves a complex, multi-step production process that requires an experienced transcriber to convert the materials to a tactile format and a second person to check that they are accurate before printing on a tactile embosser. 

UNAR’s software would automate the process and eliminate the manual steps, setting it up so that educational institutions or commercial production facilities could quickly and easily prepare accessible material from standard visual materials for printing and delivery.

The company’s long-term goal is to create a suite of products that will meaningfully improve information accessibility for the BVI community across platforms and devices.

“We have met all our planned milestones thus far and are well on our trajectory toward creating a truly inclusive and accessible digital world,” Palani said.

UNAR is in the process of hiring its first full-time employee, and Palani said they hope to add four more positions before the end of 2020. In addition, the company has contracted with UMaine’s Virtual Environment and Multimodal Interaction Lab, known for innovative research to support nonvisual information access, to help conduct some of the human usability studies with the products being developed as part of their new NIH project.

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