Research Highlights / Full Story

CAT Research is Far Reaching

Center on Access Technology Director James DeCaro, professor and NTID dean emeritus, says the research conducted there often involves collaboration with other RIT colleges, other universities or industries and professional organizations.

  • The CAT Innovation Lab, where technology is designed, assembled, tested, and disseminated.
  • Development and support of C-Print, a classroom captioning service developed by NTID in the late 1980s and refined as technological improvements were made. Michael Stinson, a professor in NTID's department of research, oversees C-Print. In recent years, a tablet has been added to C-Print, allowing drawings, equations, and diagrams to be captured in notes.
  • A five-year, $1.6 million National Science Foundation grant to develop the Deaf STEM Community Alliance, a virtual academic community for college students who are deaf or hard of hearing and majoring in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, partnering with Cornell University and Camden County (N.J.) College.
  • The Pre-College Education Network (P-CEN), improving the utilization of technology and sound teaching and learning practices to improve education for people who are deaf and hard of hearing in pre-college programs, primarily in Asia. Funding is from the Nippon Foundation of Japan.

"We really want to show that RIT and NTID are leaders in research for access technology for deaf and hard-of-hearing people," says Gary Behm, a retired engineer for IBM who is now director of the CAT Innovation Lab. "Not only are we improving technology, we're improving the quality of life for many people."

CAT Innovation Lab

NTID's Center on Access Technology Innovation Laboratory ("CAT Lab"), established in 2009, is a first-of-its-kind engineering facility that provides a place for students to get involved in the innovation process. The CAT Lab brings together faculty and associate, bachelor's, and master's degree-level deaf and hard- of-hearing students to collaborate on multidisciplinary projects related to developing and adapting access and instructional technologies, health care technologies and services, and more.

Not only will students benefit from these emerging technologies in the classroom, students are also gaining valuable experience developing and testing it. In the last four years, about 20 engineering, computer science, infor- mation technology, and industrial design students from RIT have completed paid co-ops on various projects in the CAT Lab.

"Students who are involved in innovative projects develop leadership, teamwork, and communication skills," says CAT Associate Director E. William Clymer. "Their experiences instill in them a passion for innovation. Ultimately these students become empowered to be more independent."

Behm, a support member of the NTID engineering studies department, says, "NTID has a vision of creating learning partnerships among students, faculty, and external partners that will respond to future challenges and shape future opportunities with innovation. The CAT Lab holds a central place in this future."

Walking into the CAT Lab in NTID's Lyndon Baines Johnson Hall, visitors see evidence of the work that has gone on inside. Several large posters used in exhibits and conferences describe some of the new products being developed and tested there. A sampling:

  • The See-through, Life-sized Interactive Monitor (SLIM) allows engagement of teaching by allowing teachers to face their students while writing on the board. It features two large monitors placed back- to-back. Teachers can face their students in the classroom and write on a screen without turning away. What they "write" on one screen is reversed on the other while at the same time, allowing them to see what's on the other side of the screen. A prototype at last year's Imagine RIT: Innovation and Creativity Festival won a ribbon and sponsor award for the emerging technology from Texas Instruments.
  • Smart Cane Prototype for the Deaf-Blind, a new project receiving seed funding from RIT's Effective Access Technology Program. The goal is to design and develop a low-cost, lightweight "Smart Cane" prototype that will aid deaf-blind persons in navigating surroundings via real-time tactile and directional force feedback and guidance. A proposal was submitted to the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research for a workable prototype.
  • Low-vision Glasses, in the proof of concept stage with a goal of integrating with a miniature camera installed on the bridge above the nose; uses a smartphone to capture images beyond the user's field of vision. The images are condensed and displayed on a lens on the subject's field of vision. This is particularly helpful for people with Usher Syndrome, a condition some deaf people are born with that can result in tunnel vision in young adulthood. Low-vision glasses provide a wider field of vision, which allows users more engagement in classroom settings and enables them to see who is talking.
  • See-through Face Mask, patented with prototypes being tested. Developing the perfect plastic polymers will allow it to be flexible and strong enough to work as an efficient mask while enabling deaf or hard-of-hearing coworkers to read lips and facial expressions in an emergency room or a manufacturing clean room. Similar masks have been developed by others, but they proved to be inefficient and often fogged up due to respiration.
Virtual Academic Community

NSF grants RIT/NTID has received over the years involving remote technology led to a summit in 2008 to look at remote services that could address the access needs for deaf and hard-of-hearing STEM students. That led to an enrichment grant to investigate different remote video relay systems for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, and to a five-year, $1.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation's Research in Disability Education program to establish the Deaf STEM Community Alliance, creating a model virtual academic community for college students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

"Rather than having an interpreter in the same room as your students and teacher, you can provide that service over the Internet," Clymer says. "But it's not done in the classroom much yet. We're also trying to provide the best ways to provide the service, such as seeing if Chromebooks or laptops can be used. The challenge is to find a video technology proficient for deaf audiences. Having that visual connection is very important."

Currently the project is implementing remote tutoring and remote mentoring on a one-to-one or small-group basis. Participants are using Google applications (such as Google+ Hangouts) for the video platform. Members of the community are also using social media to create a community of practice that shares ideas and resources about STEM that are accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences.

Although being piloted in the Northeast, the project seeks to implement a model that will be shared throughout the country.

Project Director Lisa Elliot, senior research scientist in the Center on Access Technology, says there are more than 30,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing students studying at colleges across the country. "Our goal is to see that they receive the best access and support services possible."

"Lisa's and Bill's efforts demonstrate the logical, thoughtful, and systematic approach being taken by the center to develop solutions that people who are deaf have access to education on par with their hearing peers," DeCaro says.

The Future

A working relationship with those who teach pre-college students in ASEAN countries (represented in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) has begin and continues with P-CEN. Workshops, exchange visits, and technology used in classrooms is being discussed, and the 40-plus years of experience NTID has in teaching deaf and hard-of-hearing students is being shared with countries seeking to meet NTID's standards.

Last fall, a P-CEN delegation from NTID visited Moscow to meet with educators and government officials to share development of voice-to-text systems such as the NTID-developed C-Print application.

And a symposium for the summer of 2014 is in the planning stages to bring people from around the world together to discuss voice-to-text technology, and how it may be integrated to benefit deaf and hard-of-hearing college students.

CAT officials have also been consulted to assist officials at the Greater Rochester International Airport to provide accessible information for travelers, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's staff in developing accessible communications during emergencies, and even officials in Japan who are seeking best communication practices after dealing with the aftermath of natural disasters.

"We're probably the most involved in this kind of work with communication for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals of any other academic institution," Clymer says.

Although the center has been successful at securing funding for its research, DeCaro says grants aren't as plentiful as they once were and are more competitive. But he's optimistic more will come. One current proposal calls for postdoctoral students who are deaf to come to Rochester. Once in town, the students will work 75 percent of the time in a research lab at the University of Rochester, and 25 percent of the time at RIT to learn how to teach other students in the field of health care.

DeCaro hopes that as a direct result of the 2012 findings from the Task Force on Health Care Careers for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, RIT's Institute of Health Sciences and Technology will help sponsor a program to send top graduates who are deaf or hard of hearing and have completed a bachelor's degree in Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics to RIT to pursue a master's degree program, then continue on to the University of Rochester to pursue a doctoral degree in health sciences.