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Day: May 16, 2019

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ObjectiveEd is building a better digital curriculum for vision-impaired kids

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Children with vision impairments struggle to get a solid K-12 education for a lot of reasons — so the more tools their teachers have to impart basic skills and concepts, the better. ObjectiveEd is a startup that aims to empower teachers and kids with a suite of learning games accessible to all vision levels, along with tools to track and promote progress.

Some of the reasons why vision-impaired kids don’t get the education they deserve are obvious, for example that reading and writing are slower and more difficult for them than for sighted kids. But other reasons are less obvious, for example that teachers have limited time and resources to dedicate to these special needs students when their overcrowded classrooms are already demanding more than they can provide.

Technology isn’t the solution, but it has to be part of the solution, because technology is so empowering and kids take to it naturally. There’s no reason a blind 8-year-old can’t also be a digital native like her peers, and that presents an opportunity for teachers and parents both.

This opportunity is being pursued by Marty Schultz, who has spent the last few years as head of a company that makes games targeted at the visually-impaired audience, and in the process saw the potential for adapting that work for more directly educational purposes.

“Children don’t like studying and don’t like doing their homework,” he told me. “They just want to play video games.”

It’s hard to argue with that. True of many adults too for that matter. But as Schultz points out, this is something educators have realized in recent years and turned to everyone’s benefit.

“Almost all regular education teachers use educational digital games in their classrooms and about 20 percent use it every day,” he explained. “Most teachers report an increase in student engagement when using educational video games. Gamification works because students own their learning. They have the freedom to fail, and try again, until they succeed. By doing this, students discover intrinsic motivation and learn without realizing it.”

Having learned to type, point and click, do geometry and identify countries via games, I’m a product of this same process and many of you likely are as well. It’s a great way for kids to teach themselves. But how many of those games would be playable by a kid with vision impairment or blindness? Practically none.

Held back

It turns out that these kids, like others with disabilities, are frequently left behind as the rising technology tide lifts everyone else’s boats. The fact is it’s difficult and time consuming to create accessible games that target things like Braille literacy and blind navigation of rooms and streets, so developers haven’t been able to do so profitably and teachers are left to themselves to figure out how to jury-rig existing resources or, more likely, fall back on tried and true methods like printed worksheets, in-person instruction, and spoken testing.

And since teacher time is limited and instructors trained in vision impaired learning are thin on the ground, these outdated methods are also difficult to cater to an individual student’s needs. For example a kid may be great at math but lack directionality skills. You need to draw up an “individual education plan” (IEP) explaining (among other things) this and what steps need to be taken to improve, then track those improvements. It’s time-consuming and hard! The idea behind ObjectiveEd is to create both games that teach these basic skills and a platform to track and document progress as well as adjust the lessons to the individual.

How this might work can be seen in a game like Barnyard, which like all of ObjectiveEd’s games has been designed to be playable by blind, low vision, or fully sighted kids. The game has the student finding an animal in a big pen, then dragging it in a specified direction. The easiest levels might be left and right, then move on to cardinal directions, then up to clock directions or even degrees.

“If the IEP objective is ‘Child will understand left versus right and succeed at performing this task 90 percent of the time,’ the teacher will first introduce these concepts and work with the child during their weekly session,” Schultz said. That’s the kind of hands-on instruction they already get. “The child plays Barnyard in school and at home, swiping left and right, winning points and getting encouragement, all week long. The dashboard shows how much time each child is playing, how often, and their level of success.”

That’s great for documentation for the mandated IEP paperwork, and difficulty can be changed on the fly as well:

“The teacher can set the game to get harder or faster automatically, or move onto the next level of complexity automatically (such as never repeating the prompt when the child hesitates). Or the teacher can maintain the child at the current level and advance the child when she thinks it’s appropriate.”

This isn’t meant to be a full-on K-12 education in a tablet app. But it helps close the gap between kids who can play Mavis Beacon or whatever on school computers and vision-impaired kids who can’t.

Practical measures

Importantly, the platform is not being developed without expert help — or, as is actually very important, without a business plan.

“We’ve developed relationships with several schools for the blind as well as leaders in the community to build educational games that tackle important skills,” Schultz said. “We work with both university researchers and experienced Teachers of Visually Impaired students, and Certified Orientation and Mobility specialists. We were surprised at how many different skills and curriculum subjects that teachers really need.”

Based on their suggestions, for instance, the company has built two games to teach iPhone gestures and the accessibility VoiceOver rotor. This may be a proprietary technology from Apple but it’s something these kids need to know how to use, just like they need to know how to run a Google search, use a mouse without being able to see the screen, and other common computing tasks. Why not learn it in a game like the other stuff?

Making technological advances is all well and good, but doing so while building a sustainable business is another thing many education startups have failed to address. Fortunately, public school systems actually have significant money set aside specifically for students with special needs, and products that improve education outcomes are actively sought and paid for. These state and federal funds can’t be siphoned off to use on the rest of the class so if there’s nothing to spend them on, they go unused.

ObjectiveEd has the benefit of being easily deployed without much specialty hardware or software. It runs on iPads, which are fairly common in schools and homes, and the dashboard is a simple web one. Although it may eventually interface with specialty hardware like Braille readers, it’s not necessary for many of the games and lessons, so that lowers the deployment bar as well.

The plan for now is to finalize and test the interface and build out the games library — ObjectiveEd isn’t quite ready to launch, but it’s important to build it with constant feedback from students, teachers, and experts. With luck in a year or two the visually-impaired youngsters at a school near you might have a fun new platform to learn and play with.

“ObjectiveEd exists to help teachers, parents and schools adapt to this new era of gamified learning for students with disabilities, starting with blind and visually impaired students,” Schultz said. “We firmly believe that well-designed software combined with ‘off-the-shelf’ technology makes all this possible. The low cost of technology has truly revolutionized the possibilities for improving education.”

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Rivals in gaming, Microsoft and Sony team up on cloud services

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For the last two decades, Sony and Microsoft’s gaming divisions have been locked in all-out war against one another: on price, on hardware, on franchises, on exclusives… you name it. But it seems they’ve set their enmity aside temporarily that they might better prevent that filthy casual, Google, from joining the fray.

The official team-up, documented in a memorandum of understanding, was announced today, though details are few. But this is clear enough:

The two companies will explore joint development of future cloud solutions in Microsoft Azure to support their respective game and content-streaming services. In addition, the two companies will explore the use of current Microsoft Azure datacenter-based solutions for Sony’s game and content-streaming services.

Of course there is no doubt that Sony could have gone with a number of other cloud services for its gaming on demand services. It already runs one, Playstation Now, but the market is expected to expand over the next few years much like cord cutters have driven traditional TV and movie watchers to Netflix and other streaming services. Expansion would surely prove expensive and complicated.

The most salient challenger is likely Google and its new Stadia game straming service, which of course has a huge advantage in its global presence, brand recognition, and unique entry points: search and YouTube. The possibility of searching for a game and being able to play it literally five seconds later is an amazing one, and really only something Google can pull off right now.

That makes Google a threat. And Microsoft and Sony have enough threats already, what with the two of them making every exclusive and chip partnership count, the resurgence of Nintendo with the immensely popular Switch, and the complex new PC-and-mobile-focused gaming market making consoles look outdated. Apple Arcade exists, too, but I don’t know that anyone is worried about it, exactly.

Perhaps there was a call made on the special direct line each has to the other, where they just said “truce… until we reduce Google Stadia to rubble and salt the earth. Also Nvidia maybe.”

We don’t actually have to imagine, though. As Sony President and CEO Kenichiro Yoshida noted in the announcement: “For many years, Microsoft has been a key business partner for us, though of course the two companies have also been competing in some areas. I believe that our joint development of future cloud solutions will contribute greatly to the advancement of interactive content.”

Sony doesn’t lack technical chops, or the software necessary to pull off a streaming service — but it may simply make more sense to deploy via Microsoft’s Azure than bring its own distribution systems up to par. No doubt Microsoft is happy to welcome a customer as large as Sony to its stable, and any awkwardness from the two competing elsewhere is secondary to that. Google is a more existential competitor in many ways, so it makes sense that Microsoft would favor partnering with a partial rival against it.

Sony has long been in this boat itself. Its image sensors and camera technology can be found in phones and DSLRs that compete with its own products — but the revenue and feedback it has built up as a result have let it maintain its dominance.

Speaking of which, the two companies also plan to collaborate on imaging, combining Sony’s sensor tech with Microsoft’s AI work. This is bound to find its way to applications in robotics and autonomous vehicles, though competition is fierce there and neither company has a real branded presence. Perhaps they aim to change that… together.

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The Meizu 16s offers flagship features at a mid-range price

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Smartphones have gotten more expensive over the last few years even though there have only been a handful of recent innovations that really changed the way you interact with the phone. It’s maybe no surprise then that there is suddenly a lot more interest in mid-range, sub-$500 phones again. In the U.S., Google’s new Pixel 3a, with its superb camera, is bringing a lot of credibility to this segment. Outside the U.S., though, you can often get a flagship phone for less than $500 that makes none of the trade-offs typically associated with a mid-range phone. So when Meizu asked me to take a look at its new 16s flagship, which features (almost) everything you’d expect from a high-end Android phone, I couldn’t resist.

Meizu, of course, is essentially a total unknown in the U.S., even though it has a sizable global presence elsewhere. After a week with its latest flagship, which features Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 855 chip and under-screen fingerprint scanner, I’ve come away impressed by what the company delivers, especially given the price point. In the U.S. market, the $399 Pixel 3a may seem like a good deal, but that’s because a lot of brands like Meizu, Xiaomi, Huawei and others have been shut out.

It’s odd that this is now a differentiating feature, but the first thing you’ll notice when you get started is the notchless screen. The dual-sim 16s must have one of the smallest selfie cameras currently on the market, and the actual bezels, especially when compared to something like the Pixel 3a, are minimal. That trade-off works for me. I’ll take a tiny bezel over a notch any day. The 6.2-inch AMOLED screen, which is protected by Gorilla Glass, is crisp and bright, though maybe a bit more saturated than necessary.

The in-display fingerprint reader works just fine, though it’s a bit more finicky that the dedicated readers I’ve used in the past.

With its 855 chip and 6GB of RAM, it’s no surprise the phone feels snappy. To be honest, that’s true for every phone, though, even in the mid-range. Unless you are a gamer, it’s really hard to push any modern phone to its limits. The real test is how this speed holds up over time, and that’s not something we can judge right now.

The overall build quality is excellent, yet while the plastic back is very pretty, it’s also a) weird to see a plastic back to begin with and b) slippery enough to just glide over your desk and drop on the floor if it’s at even a slight angle.

Meizu’s Flyme skin does the job, and adds some useful features like a built-in screen recorder. I’m partial to Google’s Pixel launcher, and a Flyme feels a bit limited in comparison to that and other third-party launchers. There is no app drawer, for example, so all of your apps have to live on the home screen. Personally, I went to the Microsoft Launcher pretty quickly, since that’s closer to the ecosystem I live in anyway. Being able to do that is one of the advantages of Android, after all.

Meizu also offers a number of proprietary gesture controls that replace the standard Android buttons. These may or may not work for you, depending on how you feel about gesture-based interfaces.

I haven’t done any formal battery tests, but the battery easily lasted me through a day of regular usage.

These days, though, phones are really about the cameras. Meizu opted for Sony’s latest 48-megapixel sensor here for its main camera and a 20-megapixel sensor for its telephoto lens that provides up to 3x optical zoom. The camera features optical image stabilization, which, when combined with the software stabilization, makes it easier to take low-light pictures and record shake-free video (though 4K video does not feature Meizu’s anti-shake system).

While you can set the camera to actually produce a 48-megapixel image, the standard setting combines four pixels’ worth of light into a single pixel. That makes for a better image, though you do have the option to go for the full 48 megapixels if you really want to. The camera’s daytime performance is very good, though maybe not quite up to par with some other flagship phones. It really shines when the light dims, though. At night, the camera is highly competitive and Meizu knows that, so the company even added two distinct night modes: one for handheld shooting and one for when you set the phone down or use a tripod. There is also a pro mode with manual controls.

Otherwise, the camera app provides all the usual portrait mode features you’d expect today. The 2x zoom works great, but at 3x, everything starts feeling a bit artificial and slightly washed out. It’ll do in a pinch, but you’re better off getting closer to your subject.

In looking at these features, it’s worth remembering the phone’s price. You’re not making a lot of trade-offs at less than $500, and it’d be nice to see more phones of this caliber on sale in the U.S. Right now, it looks like the OnePlus 7 Pro at $669 is your best bet if you are in the U.S. and looking for a flagship phone without the flagship price.

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