As a person with a visual impairment, Nathalie Gingras-Royer brought a unique perspective to developing an app to help visually impaired people during her MITACS internship at VMware.
VMware, a cloud computing company that recently opened offices in Montreal, wanted to develop an AI-powered application to help people with visual impairments, among others. To do so, the California-based company had to enlist the help of experts in the field. That’s where MITACS came in: the non-profit organization specializes in finding paid research internships in the private sector for graduate students.
“When MITACS reached out to me last year looking for an intern for VMware, I immediately thought of Nathalie Gingras-Royer,” said Joe Nemargut, a professor in UdeM’s School of Optometry who supervised Gingras-Royer’s professional master’s degree in vision science.
“The internship was on top of my master’s degree, which already included an unpaid internship, so it was a lot of work,” said Gingras-Royer, who graduated in January. “But it was related to my master’s project, and it’s a topic that’s close to my heart.”
Gingras-Royer’s specialization is visual rehabilitation, and she has herself been functionally blind for eight years. For the VMware internship, her visual impairment was considered an asset.
“VMware’s people are good at app development and using artificial intelligence, but they don’t have any expertise in visual impairment,” she explained. “To identify needs, you have to ask the right people early in the process.”
The student researcher was tasked with doing just that. “My role,” she explained, “was to identify needs that visually impaired people have in their daily environment that are still not being met, even with all the apps out there.”
All kinds of apps were considered, from general audience staples like FaceTime to assistive technologies for people with visual impairments that perform functions such as audio description of images or recognizing the denomination of bank notes. “I also had to go to non-scientific sites, like blogs and forums, to gather information and survey people. That gave me a good overview of the situation,” said Gingras-Royer.
An app for big-box stores
Next, she drafted several proposals. The one selected for development was an app to assist people in big-box stores. “People with visual impairments face a lot of barriers, from finding the entrance to the building or specific aisles to pushing a cart, identifying products, getting to the checkout and more,” she explained.
Before the technical development stage, focus groups will be formed including participants with different levels of visual impairment and diverse profiles. “We’ll also need to take participants to real big-box stores to see which parts of their journey go smoothly and which are more difficult,” said Gingras-Royer.
VMware’s goal was never to create an app just for people with visual impairments. “It could be helpful for the general public as well,” noted Gingras-Royer. “For example, it could be used by someone visiting a big-box store for the first time, or someone traveling to another country who doesn’t speak the language. An app like this can make it easier to navigate the store and find what you’re looking for.”
The crux of the project was to develop an inclusive app by factoring in the needs of people with visual impairments from the outset. “There are already many apps used by both the general public and people with visual impairments,” Gingras-Royer noted. “The app most used by visually impaired people is Google Maps.”
Other versions of VMware’s app could also be developed to meet related needs. As Gingras-Royer puts it, “It’s not much of a stretch, for example, to imagine that an app that helps people navigate big box stores could also help them find their way around a hospital.”
Partners come on board
The project has attracted a growing number of partners, who clearly see a bright future for it. “The project started small, then grew with the arrival of IVADO Labs, Humanitas Solutions, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) Foundation, and Jeremy Cooperstock’s lab at McGill University,” said Nemargut.
Now, the project is entering a new applied research phase with a MITACS Alliance grant, which will enable it to hire researchers for three years. Whether Gingras-Royer will continue to be part of the adventure remains to be seen. After completing her master’s degree she was hired by the institution where she completed her unpaid internship, the Institut Nazareth et Louis-Braille, which is the only specialized rehabilitation centre for people with visual impairments in Quebec.
“I’m working there three days a week, and the other two I’m a research assistant in a lab,” she said. “Starting a PhD is a big decision. I’m thinking it over.”
In early February, MITACS received nearly $65 million from the Quebec government to create more applied research internships. MITACS places master’s and doctoral students with private companies to do research. The companies pay half of the students’ salaries, with the rest covered by provincial and federal government funding.