LookUP: Nick Howe (left) and Sean Spires (right)

LookUP is the Yahoo Answers for people with dyslexia

Two 20-year-old Auckland students have created an app that combines the brevity of Q&A platforms like Yahoo Answers or Quora with the visual nature of websites like YouTube or Instagram. Now, they’re competing against 11 other teams all across Asia in one of the biggest student tech competitions in the world.

A few years ago a developer named Victor Windell wanted to help visualise what the internet was like for dyslexic people. To do this, he took the first few paragraphs from the Wikipedia entry for dyslexia and animated it into a moving jumble of letters, numbers, and words. It’s a dizzying thing to look at, but not entirely unreadable: if you concentrate hard enough and exercise a little patience, sentences start to slowly come together.

“A friend who has dyslexia described to me how she experiences reading,” Windell’s scrambled intro explains. “She can read, but it takes a lot of concentration, and the letters seem to ‘jump around’.”

For a lot of dyslexic people, this is what it’s like with many text-based corners of the internet. Think Facebook, Twitter, Google search, and of course Wikipedia –  our greatest source for quick and easy knowledge. Even Q&A style forums like Reddit, Quora, and Yahoo Answers can be a struggle if the responses are complex and long. 

Windell’s visualisation of what it’s like for many dyslexic people navigating sites like Wikipedia

Sean Spires, a 20-year-old software engineering student with mild dyslexia, encountered this problem to its fullest extent when he decided to teach himself how to play the piano.  That meant that whenever he had a question or encountered a problem, he had to turn to Google for teaching and guidance.

“The first few links were always Q&A platforms and they just had these huge blocks of text describing what to do. It was annoying having so much text to power through,” he explains. “YouTube was the obvious solution. But often the videos were way too long for the small problem that I had. Some guy would make a 20-minute video when I just needed 20 seconds.”

In an effort to address this, Spires came up with a solution called LookUP which combines the “the specificity of Q&A platforms with the convenience of [audio-visual] solutions”. That means that if you have a question about how to play a trill on the piano or how to solve an algebra equation, you can post the question on LookUP for others to respond to. But rather than getting the sort of text-heavy response you might otherwise encounter on traditional Q&A platforms, users will respond with short visual demonstrations instead: a one-minute clip showcasing the technique behind the trill, or a step-by-step guide on how to solve an equation, for example.

“You can ask any sort of question on the app,” says Nicholas Howe, a computer science student and old high school friend of Spires who’s been with LookUP since its inception in early November. “We have groups like high school math, high school chemistry… you can even make your own.”

What it’s like to ask a question (and receive an answer) on Q&A platforms like Quora

Currently, the three-month-old platform’s in beta testing mode, but once it’s ready, the pair hopes that it can help in both public and private settings. Publicly, the platform will be free for everyone to join, creating a community not unlike Quora or Yahoo Answers (Spires adds that while LookUP was designed with the dyslexic community in mind, non-dyslexic people – such as visual learners – could also benefit from the technology).

Privately, a specially-tailored version of the platform will be sold to schools and classrooms to use, much like how the University of Auckland uses online Q&A platform Piazza. With Piazza, students can post questions specific to their course and have them answered by instructors or other students. LookUP would work on a similar basis, albeit, with more of an audio-visual focus. 

Targetting the education sector makes sense for LookUP. Last year, UNICEF found that New Zealand was one of the worst culprits of educational inequality among OECD countries. A lot of that has to with our widening socio-economic gap and institutional racism, but it also has to do with the fact that most people with SLDs (specific learning disabilities) struggle to thrive under our current education system. 

Tracey Martin, NZ First MP and associate education minister, responded to this by announcing she was working on a plan to rethink how the education system would recognise and support students with additional learning needs. After all, for many of the 80,000 school-aged children in New Zealand believed to have dyslexia, their access to education could be drastically improved by simply putting text on a blue page with a black border

Image: Getty

Technology like LookUP can help with these sorts of situations. Recently, it got the seal of approval from Speld NZ, the country’s leading provider of support for children and adults with dyslexia and other SLDs. Speld NZ also advised the pair on features that would make the app more dyslexic friendly, such as specific fonts, colours, and sizes that would be best to use.

“Other platforms care more about the aesthetics,” says Howe. “But just having something in lower case and bold can mean so much more to a dyslexic person than a piece of text that’s just full on caps.”

With Speld’s approval in the bag, the pair are now hoping to get the business community on their side as they get set to compete in the regional finals of the Imagine Cup – Microsoft’s global student developer competition. Beating out thousands of other teams from the Asia-Pacific region to secure its place in the regional finals, Spires and Howe will need to outpitch 11 other teams from countries like India, Singapore, and China for a place in the grand final and a $15,000 cash prize.

So, do they think they stand a chance at first prize?

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“We’re feeling pretty confident and excited,” says Howe. “I honestly think it comes down to who presents the best and who can validate their idea the most.”

“[But in the long term] the plan is to create a parent company with LookUP as one of many apps,” adds Spires. “It’ll be an overarching company managing multiple products. We have a couple more ideas in mind that we’ll hopefully start working on soon.”

LookUP is currently competing in the 2019 Imagine Cup in Sydney. Jihee Junn travelled to Sydney courtesy of Microsoft.


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