On the Grid: Printing the universe to teach blind people

There’s a revolution underway. Deep within the Auckland Viaduct lurks the beginnings of our own tiny Silicon Valley. At GridAKL, more than 50 startups, in industries as diverse as medicine, robotics and augmented reality, are running the entrepreneurial gauntlet looking to build a high-growth business – or at least get a second funding round.

In On the Grid, a sponsored series with Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED), we tell their stories. In this, the sixth instalment, Tactile Astronomy co-founder Arturo Pelayo.

Despite the proliferation of high resolution cameras and powerful post-processing software, some photographers continue to shoot in black and white, producing emotive and iconic imagery without a single colour. At times, rules and limitations spark a shift in perspective which results in enhanced, not reduced, creativity and efficacy.

Co-founder of Tactile Astronomy, a firm developing 3D printed resources to teach astronomy to the blind, Arturo Pelayo experiments with such a philosophy. Rather than hacking existing systems for accessibility purposes, Pelayo demands his developers design for accessibility first, and the billion people around the world with accessibility needs, reasoning that a minimum viable product provides a foundation on which the rest of the user base can operate.

But Pelayo faces challenges. Operating in the precarious social enterprise space, funding Tactile Astronomy has been a series of frustrations, with Pelayo blaming an attitude towards risk incongruous with the national number 8 mentality.



That sounds like a Spanish accent. What’s your background? Where did you study?

I went to school in the United States and studied Physics. I’m originally from Mexico but I left when I was 17 and I’ve been living abroad for half of my life now. Basically I’ve been always interested in innovation and technology. About five years ago I went to Singularity University and I began my career in innovation and consulting – futurist thinking and that sort of thing. A part of that has always been for me about asking how do you find intersections between the human connection, the technology connection and how can you create a new reality based on that? A lot of people think the future is ahead of us, but I think it’s here now in pockets. We have pockets of the future, and one tends to dominate and that’s what becomes the future. It’s not that it’s a new idea that will eventually happen, it’s what dominates.

So I think of this project as a way to help begin a conversation in New Zealand around digital fabrication, and what it means to have local fabrication. If you can print the moon you can print the universe and you can also print a car or anything else. Local manufacturing can have a boom, and I think it will because you don’t need to have a massive supply chain to get prints delivered. People always say New Zealand is too far away, too remote, so things cannot get here, but things don’t need to get here. You can just print them. I think this project brings out the social impact angle, if you want to call it that, it has an approach around a new medium for students, be it blind or not.

Why blind students?

The blind student part is the minimum viable product. It’s who we interact with to get the best technology out. Rather than have a trickle-down approach that we then hack to work for accessibility, we start with accessibility and it will work for everybody else. We care about the texture, we care about how it feels, and we can worry about the colours later. That’s the intent, creating as a whole accessibility technology and do it with a frame of inclusion.

One of the things with the project is how can we teach astronomy to blind children as a start for any other science field, or any other artifact. We’re in conversation with the Auckland Museum and with Te Papa, I’m one of the mentors for an innovation accelerator that they have. It’s mostly around how do we categorise things together? What’s the metadata of objects? How do museums make materials? And how can we make it easier for teachers in New Zealand, and around the world, who have blind students or students with low vision have a more inclusive classroom experience? How can we make sure that students get the most impactful education with the human resource that they have, which is the most expensive part that the government has already paid for. How can you make life easier for the teacher?

My customer is the blind student, of course, but it really is the teacher. Because, if you think of it from an efficiency perspective, each teacher is working in isolation making a model for the student that is next to them, replicate that across the country, and then at the end of every week you throw away these models. That to me is highly inefficient. When you’re born digital that doesn’t make sense, because you think what if one single teacher made a really good model, we did a volumetric capture, and then everyone else in the country can just print that one. Then you don’t need to do 30 or 50 of each, you just get one really good one. You start to build up a library of things to download and print.

It’s interesting that the proliferation of 3D printing technology means that one idea can be printed in 100 locations around the world, instantaneously.

Exactly, and it’s not just about manufacturing and production and sales of goods and services, but it should really start in the classroom. We’re not designing for blind people, we’re designing with blind people. That ‘with’ takes a lot of work.

We started with Slack, and we’ve moved very quickly to tools that are open source. We’re working with seven developers and my challenge to them was ‘I would like a blind person to work with us on all phases.’ That means getting Slack to work with voice. You command everything with your voice. That’s become a part of the inclusion journey. Yes, we’re doing this initially for blind students with the specific topic of astronomy, but all the inclusion exercises that have happened before are very important because you need to listen to your customer.

The guys from 90 Seconds are sponsoring our videos, so all of the story telling, visual and otherwise, is important. They’re also starting a practice around VR which is very curious for them around blind people, because blind people have a very different spacial relationship. Even us, from a developer perspective – when you look at machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms, how we design spacial relationships, blind people get it straight away and it’s for us to catch up.

The headline thing for me is not a product about disability, I don’t think disability exists. Accessibility is a word that is more progressive, but what I really think is happening when you think of digital manufacturing, 3D printing, robotics, mechatronics, that convergence of bio info and nano, is augmentation. You’re going to have people who can change their arm and they can have a flamethrower if they want, because it’s fit for the job and they can do it. You have people in the US at MIT that have 12 pairs of legs – if they want to go climbing, they put their climbing legs on. So it changes our mentality as plain old humans, born with bones and tissue.

What does it mean to create a space that is not only a makerspace for blind people but a makerspace for augmented humans? That really changes your perspective on things, and we should be thinking about that. Pockets of the future already exist. There are plants in South Korea building these huge ships, and all of the workers are wearing exoskeletons that can help them lift 300kg pieces of metal to weld, and by the way they weld them with their hands because there’s a welding device on their exoskeleton. So that is already happening. It’s not only for the elderly who fell down the stairs and need an exoskeleton, those are not going to be your grandparents, it’s going to be us. We’re getting to a point where we’re going to be those biomechanical grandparents.


So you’re all in on the transcendence of the flesh?

I think it’s happening, and like I said, it’s not that there’s going to be an ‘on’ switch, I think that you’re going to see a lot of pockets where it’s going to become more prevalent, and we should aspire to that. We have a legacy of 200 years of war, where if you have a landmine you have a lot of children losing their limbs. What happens to them? It’s not going to be something that stops because war ends, there’s millions of landmines, unexploded ordnance, around the world. Asia has some of the highest rates of people missing limbs because of it. We need to think about it.

If you look at any accessibility need for any previously known disability, a seventh of the world, a billion people, you have a market of a billion people that you should serve. You don’t need a billion dollar market, if you can sell one thing worth a dollar and a billion people buy it, it’s the same effect.

Is that why you decided on the education space? There’s already this inclusion rather than something like gaming or entertainment as the platform.

What I found is that in two years nobody has said that it’s a bad idea to teach astronomy to blind people, because they understand the human, emotional connection. When you start with that, then it becomes easier to open Pandora’s Box a little wider. If you start with ‘robots will take your job’, a real dystopian future, people switch off. But if you tell them ‘I’d like to make your job easier, not to remove you from the role, but actually to enhance your role,’ then they’re a lot more receptive.

What advantage does teaching with a tactile experience offer over audio?

So we are doing a few things. For a blind person you need a kinesthetic approach. From the testing we’ve done with some of the volunteers – and it’s been difficult to get access to them – the advantage is the spacial relationship of an object. They can understand the trajectory if I show them a crater and then a crater with a mount and then a moon covered in craters, they follow along. They can scale it out in their mind. It’s very interesting.

They’re regularly building an entire model of the world in their minds anyway, right?

I think it’s quite interesting. We all have a visual cortex. It’s there and activated even if you can’t see. You get a different reaction from students who have gone blind, rather than being born blind, because they have seen at some point. You get the memory trigger and you get the visual cortex. But for blind students they still get that reaction.

If you’re blind you only get audio books or raised braille paper. 3D printing might not totally replace them, but it’s another medium. It’s another medium that’s becoming price-competitive, very distributed. In New Zealand there are about 12,000 people who are blind, and of those 12,000 about 2500 live in the greater Auckland area. That’s important because if you think of the blind resource centre for those students, where you’d find any material you would need, there’s only one in the country. For 4.5 million people, there’s just one. There are more McDonald’s in New Zealand than that. There are more of a whole lot of things. When you think of that, when you think that you can print anything, anywhere, any time, your mentality has to shift from ‘we need more blind schools and resource centres’ to ‘Yes, maybe we can work on the 3D printers that are already distributed around the country and increase the value proposition.”

The audible part then converges on the 3D printing. We created these parts that also have beacons on them. They have a micro computer attached to the back of the plate, and there are buttons that trigger audio narration. Things that you would associate with museum exhibits – touch a button and things talk to you – we’re at a point where you can build something like that for $20. We’re trying to build that at scale, so we need to get cheaper even than that, and we’re working with a bunch of developers around what it means to have objects that you can print, and how do we catalogue them in a way that any museum could print and put on display? We’re working with the Auckland museum on that. They built an API around that. For us it’s celebrating open source and we’re also celebrating accessibility.

Isn’t it difficult to make money if everything is free and open?

It’s a different value ecosystem. My view is that I’m starting with a billion people. There are a billion people with accessibility needs. Anyone can make them but it really matters what your ethos is coming into the project. If you operate from an approach focused on money, this is not for you. Your return may take a while. You’re going to be looking at Excel tables for a long time. But if your currency is impact then you are actually going to do the opposite and you’re going to tell all of your potential competitors, ‘can we just agree on building this?’

Then you can build kits, and you can sell the kits. The Kickstarter approach does that. Any part that we use can be flashed so that the memory can be erased and it can be used for other stuff. It’s more of an approach taken from the maker movement, which is having kits you can build and configure for one application, but you could also do any other thing. When you’re bored with it you should be able to take it apart, figure out how it works and come up with something new.

There’s obviously great potential there. If you consider the original maker kits, imagine how many kids moved into careers in science because of it.

Exactly, and to me that’s the most interesting thing. How do you create that spark? I cannot design this as if I’m going to print the moon so that someone has an ‘a ha!’ moment and ten years later they become a scientist, but if you create enough interactions and interventions…. And that’s the thing with 3D printing. Braille has been with us for a very long time, and the dominant medium for braille has always been text. But what happens in a world of augmented and virtual reality is that a lot of these models that you can print can also be used in AR and VR.

What a lot of people forget is that augmented reality and virtual reality, those acronyms, do not say this is limited to a visual display. When you’re augmenting reality it’s all of your senses: temperatures, surfaces that change temperature, surfaces that morph, sense, it’s a whole lot of synesthesia. You have to use all of your senses, and I think that’s what this project starts putting the foot in the door to say ‘actually, don’t focus on the graphic user interface,’ and that’s what has gotten a lot of the developers interested.

To give you an example, with this project we begin with 3D printed parts and we thought ‘ok we need something to augment learning’ so we had the beacons. Now we’re moving towards having an AI assistant. I would really like having a 3D printer you could talk to and have it print anything you need. But how do we build from where we are to that? We’re getting there. There are a lot of very passionate people in New Zealand who would like to have a challenge and they’ve been working on it. The condition from their end, and from mine, is that it must be open source so that anybody can pick up the work if I cannot commit more time later.

That’s a generous proposition.

Generosity is a big enabler for this project, and it’s also why it’s taken three years. I cannot ask somebody who has an 8-5 job and a family and so on to commit a lot on a tight deadline. You have to create a distributed workforce and you need more than one person looking at it.

Recently I told a designer, “I’ve got a Christmas challenge for you,” because I’ve learned to give longer deadlines. I said “Can you build an MMORPG for blind people?” And he just went “I’m a game developer, I know how to do that, but everything is visual. Everything I think about and know how to code is visual,” and I said “Exactly.”

That motivates people. In my traditional job I develop training programmes, and the software that I use is incredibly visual. Everything is visual. So when you shift the frame of reference, it changes what you would consider as best practice. It’s not like blind people are new, right? We’ve had blind people for the whole of human history. So how do we make sure that we design for everybody? What I always get is a big dose of empathy. We’ve done Skype interviews with a few of our friends in the US who are blind, and they have access to Facebook. Some are blind and some are blind deaf, andbraille is how they interact with us, but it was very interesting to hear the amount of sport and inclusion activities that they are involved with. They go skiing! Blind skiing. I’m so risk averse that I don’t jump off the bridge here to swim, but there are blind people who love skiing. That immediately puts you in a place where you realise you’ve been raised thinking that’s not possible for them, therefore they can’t do it, and you realise you need to open your mind a little.

It’s an interesting philosophy for creation, right? Limitations breed innovation.

Take the cameras that self-driving cars use. The sensor has come down in price from around $2 million to around $35. You can put it in a phone. By the time you have your iPhone 8, you’re going to have this sensor, and what it does is real-time obstacle avoidance. A blind person won’t need a cane anymore, their assistant will be able to tell them stop, move, left, right, navigate around this object and so on, because it creates a 3D model of your relationship to space.

So it actually makes sense for a blind person to wear a helmet or AR/VR glasses, because if you have all of your 12+ sensors, you’re better off than with a cane.

This project is not about having parity, it’s not about having the same ability, or a hack, it’s about augmentation. You’re going to have 15 different new sensors feeding you data to help spacial relationships and that’s the future of biology, electrical engineering, and miniaturisation.



Do these ideas get you out of bed?

It gives me motivation but the problem that I run into is how do you find the drive? Do you find it or do you make it? I’ve done both. There are people that immediately get it, they catch that spark, and they’re super keen to work on a project. They start thinking in a new way, about how to code, how to do any type of project. At the same time, it’s very hard to sell an analogy.

A year ago at MIT I was talking to Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’ wife, and her first reaction to my idea was ‘how do you even begin to teach astronomy to blind people?’ so part of my struggle and hustle is to create those experiences and to say ‘here it is, play with it,’ and then to extrapolate out what I intend to do.

But also it’s difficult, particularly in New Zealand, where a lot of medium to large companies have specific charities that they give money to, and it’s almost like a blind horse, ‘We give to KidsCan, we give to this other charity’, which is great, everybody needs the money, but there’s no flexibility around ‘can we build an R&D project for this area’. It happened with the blind school. I said “I want to do this, I don’t know how, can we give it a try?” It’s the Callaghan approach – Mr Callaghan that is, not necessarily Callaghan Innovation.

So that’s the challenge, funding the thing. How are you going to do that?

It’s getting the buy-in and to me, it’s not charity. This is a billion customers. You’re creating an impact and if your currency is impact your value proposition changes, because yes you can apply it to blind people, but picking up something that talks to you and that you can interact with is applicable to, for example, any retail experience you have. You can put money towards the social impact approach because you care, but you can also get a benefit on the other end.

A friend of mine says I live in the time traveler’s dilemma. He says I’m not from the present, but I don’t think that’s the truth. I’m just not a salesman, and that’s a gap in my skills, convincing people this is a good thing that should exist. With some of the people and potential donors that I’ve seen, and even traditional funding sources like the Blind School, there’s a lot of people that are afraid of the future. There’s fear of the unknown, and how people react to it can be cumbersome. It’s difficult to fathom sometimes why they react the way that they do. Because I’m an independent person, and I’m not attached to an acronym, I’m seen as the crazy weird guy coming up with stuff that’s just spinning, but there’s a lot interesting markers that are popping up. I think we need that, and I think that’s the purpose of a Callaghan. “Let’s put $100,000 at this idea that even if it’s not commercially viable, it’s an accessibility technology that has helped locally.” There’s nothing wrong with that, as opposed to a product that flops or a company that goes to another country.

It’s about attitude to risk, then?

The appetite for risk in New Zealand is scarce. I’m going to get in trouble for this, but what I’ve been told by a lot of nonprofits and people who donate is that they want something that’s in a market, as ‘off the shelf’ as possible, and that has been proven somewhere else to be working and to not have any risk. That’s not innovation. I’ve been told specifically ‘We’re a fast follower and we’ll invest fully once we see proof of it existing in a market, it being bought and adapted’. You see the fast follower approach, which is ok but it makes you a commodity market and you will always be buying something. I think that’s counter to the number 8 mentality, which is strange because when I came to New Zealand 4 years ago it was all about number 8 wire, we can do it ourselves. But the funding sources are incredibly risk averse and I have that clash.

When you hear about New Zealand you hear about people making stuff in their garage. You hear it over and over, so I thought I’ll buy into that, I’ll commit, I’ll move into the country, but then you get here and you get ‘We’re not going to put in money because you need to not be risky, and you’re not established.’

Even looking at funding sources from New Zealand arts funding, 3D printing is not an art. Carving is an art. Making jewellery is an art. Doing something in a 3D printer, because it used technology – this is the actual justification that I got on the phone – because it’s a 3D printer it’s not possibly art.

So I don’t want to get too negative, it’s not that people need to get out more, but we need to take that Kiwi OE experience and apply it. We’re not remote anymore, we’re .6 milliseconds from the world. I’m in New Zealand, I’m a resident, I’ll be a citizen next year, and I want to create an impact. When you operate from a perspective of impact, it’s changes everything.

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