Getting Ready with OrCam

I am still putting OrCam to the test! This week I had great fun working out how it can help me with tasks in my day to day life- like getting ready. The OrCam can tell the difference between two face cleansers in near identical packaging within seconds. It can also tell me the name and shade of the foundation that I need to pick up at the shop. It feels so good to be able to do this kind of task independently again. Fully sighted people take for granted that they can identify anything with minimal effort.

I was amazed that the OrCam could read the tiny information stickers at the ends of my lipsticks. From colours to finishes- It’s the little things that make me the happiest! 

Sometimes with the OrCam you have to refocus the camera and point again before it gets the text’s wording exactly right. In the case of the lipsticks it was easy to tell when I needed to retry because the OrCam would read numbers (presumably from elsewhere on the sticker) or beep.

OrCam are hoping to bring colour recognition in on the next software update, this will be the icing on the cake for me! This device allows me to be curious and to explore the things that I wouldn’t feel were important enough to ask someone else about. When you’ve got stacks of brown envelopes you need to go through, queries like: “what is this nude lipstick shade called?” Slip into the ether of unimportance.

This video is short and sweet but I wanted to show how versatile the device is and how, albeit with some perseverance, it can read even really tiny text! More OrCam findings to come! 

Trying the Orcam for the First Time

I have been following the developments of OrCam since 2013 when I first contacted Dr Yonatan Wexler wanting to know more about this peculiar gadget he was envisaging. Dr Wexler kindly kept in touch with me over the years as OrCam developed and grew. Last week I was loaned an OrCam MyEye to wear for a month, in order to test it out and review it from the point of view of a young blind person. It is a four year dream to get my hands on this technology and I can’t wait to share my findings with you.

OrCam MyEye is a tiny camera that is positioned on the top right edge of any pair of glasses. A black wire runs behind your ear and to a box which contains the device computer. It is light and can then be clipped onto your belt or clothes. When turned on the OrCam MyEye can recognise pre-saved objects/faces and read text to the user via a bone conducting ear piece. The device is discreet and excels in recognising text- both on screens and paper.

Below is a video of myself and OrCam trainer Judy as she introduces me to the device for the first time. As you can see I was sceptical at first as to whether it would read my favourite poetry book accurately. A week on and I am still amazed at what OrCam is able to do. I am so excited to be able to share this ground breaking new technology and to provide a realistic and grounded review of the product. From what I’ve experienced so far, I firmly believe OrCam could be instrumental in the lives of many visually impaired people around the world. I will be putting the device through its paces in the life of a young person with sight loss. In the UK there are already over 600 users of OrCam and worldwide there are thousands. So, are we looking at the beginnings of artificial vision?

 

How to Make a Bubble Wrap Advent Calendar

So it is that time of the year again. Where the shops get crammed, the weather gets colder and if you hear Slade one more time things may get heated… It is also the time where we pay the most attention to the passing of time using advent calendars.

It crossed my mind the other day that there are no really interactive and tactile advent calendars. If there was such a thing it could benefit those with sensory impairments, those who don’t like/can’t have chocolate and small children who like things that ‘do’. Chocolate advent calendars are the most conventional, and there are also figurine or picture calendars which admittedly aren’t very exciting (especially to those who can’t see the pictures). By chance on the same day I was made in possession of a decent quantity of bubble wrap. Queue a creative frenzy… If you would like to make a tactile bubble wrap advent calendar read on!

  • The first thing you need to do is work out how many bubbles you can have per day. The bubble wrap I was used had large bubbles so there were six to each day.
  • Next cut away any excess bubble wrap so there are just enough bubbles for each of your 25 days- leaving one line of bubbles spare along each edge.
  • Then take your cardboard and cut it to the right size. (If you want a standing calendar you could make it in three moveable pieces and stick them together with tape).
  • After, stick onto the cardboard 25 numbered pieces of paper. These could be any colour you like but I chose neon post-it notes for high visibility and simplicity. Make sure the paper is the right size so that the correct number of bubbles fit when placed over the top. I used blue polkadot washi tape to stick them down, which gave the calendar a nice pattern.
  • Next is the trickiest part. Pop the extra line of bubbles along the edges so that they are just flat plastic. Fold them over the edges of the cardboard and stick them down to the back of the board. You should end up with a very clean looking, tight, layer of bubble wrap over the cardboard.
  • Finally decorate any spare space with christmas themed messages or images.

Every day just pop the bubbles!

Happy popping!

Scattered art supplies on the floor

Draw the numbers 1-25

The finished product is brightly coloured with the message merry christmas below.

Moving Forwards

As I write this I am at my desk in a room that I didn’t know I would be living in less than two months ago. There is a suitcase on the floor with stuff spilling out as I attempt to pack. My ever faithful guide dog is asleep in her bed, choosing to ignore the chaos. I have been at my new college for seven weeks now and it is nearly half term, and time to go home.

If I think about all the things that I have done in the last seven weeks it feels like I have been here for a lifetime. I’ve grown so much in independence, resilience and responsibility. I’ve done so many weird and wonderful things and formed closer friendships than I could have ever hoped. If I think about the the amount of time that has passed between nervously getting out of the taxi with my Mum and Dad on the first day to right now, it feels almost non-existent.

Moving to a specialist college was hard at times because in some ways it felt like I was giving up on myself and on ‘the system’. I want to live as a person and not as an impairment, and I was afraid that the move to specialist education would contradict this aim. But I am proud that I have made the decision, because now I can learn and I can have just a normal college experience. Normal meaning not having to justify myself, or fight for my access to the curriculum. My college isn’t so different from any other- there are a wide range of pupils with different personalities and abilities, we do lectures in the day and have fun with friends at lunch and in the evenings. At my old school I was constantly having to justify why I needed help, why I was doing things in a certain way and why it mattered that I couldn’t read things. It was exhausting. Now I barely have to talk about my sight because it is just a matter of fact that everyone has their own requirements for learning. On letters from school it used to state that things should be in my ‘preferred’ reading format, as if it would be nice if I could have it but it wasn’t pressing if I didn’t. Now my lecturers know what I need and it is waiting for me on the desk when I come into the classroom. I don’t worry anymore, because the focus at college is certainly on the person rather than the impairment.

On top of normal subjects most people here do additional lessons. Transitional support helps us to plan what we are going to do when we leave here and independent living skills teaches us everything from ironing to cooking. It’s not all about learning to get grades, it’s about learning for life itself.

I’m home for the holidays now, and although it is good to be in my own bed and away from work for a while I can’t help but think about college. This time last year I was struggling; ill, stressed and there was a question mark over whether I would actually complete my secondary education. Moving on, the changes are huge and overwhelming, but so very positive. I am so grateful to my parents for putting massive resources of time and energy into helping me get the funding to go to college, and to the college itself of course.

Obviously I know that we live in a ‘mainstream’ world and that I am not always going to be able to have the same ease of access as I do at college. However after my experience of studying for GCSE’s with very poor access to the curriculum there was no way that I could repeat the process for my A Levels. Whilst at college I am learning what technology can help me from other people, rather than doing my own research and being unsure of what I actually need. There are many people in the VI community who see going into specialist education as isolating yourself from the ‘seeing’ world. I don’t see it like that at all! In my opinion going into the specialist system is helping me repair almost. I am learning that it is possible for me to learn properly and achieve given the right resources, and I am also learning what those resources are. When I do end my time at college, and hopefully move on to university, I will know what I need and how to produce it. I will have had the time to try different things- technologies, printed formats and techniques to know what I like and what works best for me. Going to college has taken away the day-to-day emphasis on my sight, and it is truly allowing me to see myself, and develop, as an individual. This is something that I needed to do very badly, and I am so grateful I have been able to. It is definitely onwards and upwards from here.

I'm in repair

Birthday Adventure and Travels

This is going to be a quick blog post, mostly because I have spent way too much time thinking and not left enough for writing. Excuses, excuses I know. Tomorrow I start on my epic summer ‘tour’ and I am very excited. Every year in the summer holidays I tend to do something away from my family or, as I prefer to call it, an adventure. For two years I went on Action for Blind People activity weeks, before that I did guide and brownie camps and last year I went through my biggest adventure yet- training with my guide dog. This year, after finishing my exams and finding myself a whole extra month of holiday to play with I have taken it upon myself to cram as much in as possible. Tomorrow is the start of my travels, but first a catch up…

My status as a ‘May Baby’ was always fine until I hit my year six SATs at primary school. This was the first time that I realised that my birthday would clash with nearly all of my major exam seasons throughout my time in education. However during my SATs I remember being more concerned with the vomiting bug I had unfortunately contracted at the start of my tests than my multiplication methods taking over my birthday! Being a may baby really isn’t that bad though, so far it has been only every six years that I have had exams imminent on the day. This year my birthday took place right before my friends and I were due to sit our final french exam. I figured that it would be both incredibly selfish (and incredibly stupid) to use the weekend before our monday exam for a sleepover or celebration. So I waited for summer and I am so glad I did!

As I have already written in a previous post: Dalby Forest is one of my favourite places in the world. For my late birthday celebration I was lucky enough to be able to go camping there with my friends. We had a fantastic time and the weather was perfect. During the day we went bike and tandem riding around the many paths through the forest, and at night we devoured a very large oatmeal and raisin cookie cake slice by slice. Riding a tandem is something that I had not experienced as a VI person before, though I had ridden (navigated by Mum) a tandem around the forest when I was six years old. This was nothing to do with my impending vision loss, but I was just a very uncoordinated child and wasn’t to be trusted near large hills and craters whilst on a bike. Ten years later and though myself and friend Z were initially very unsure and wobbly on our new found shared wheels we quickly picked it up. We found that a system of counting up and down for setting off and slowing down was very helpful for keeping us in sync. It seems that the first few seconds of movement are very important when navigating a tandem and if both riders aren’t seated, balanced and peddling you are on very rocky ground! Though Z found the experience slightly stressful as she was completely responsible for my safety (apparently I am to blame for some grip-related blisters on her hands) I found it relaxing- after all I only had to peddle! Myself, S, E and Z did two bike rides: one which was two miles long in the morning, and the other which was supposed to be eight miles. All the routes were circular and so you just had to keep riding and following the signs to get home, simple!

Sadly my friends and I have a tendency of getting in bizarre/dangerous situations. On the first bike ride there was an incident with E, who was at this time probably the most confident rider in the group, and Z’s video camcorder which she got for christmas. One thing that we all share is our love of multimedia; S is a keen future animator, Z is a very good photographer and always is the one with the camera, and I am the geek with the sound recorder and often a camera somewhere in a bag too. Early into this first trail -when myself and Z were still wobbling but beginning to relax a bit- we remarked how cool it would be to get some footage travelling through the forest and of the scenery around us. E, who was riding my old bike rather well, offered to film with Z’s camcorder and everything was fine… until it wasn’t. Myself, Z and S passed over a bridge and we didn’t have any doubts that E would be quick to catch up with the camera. But then there was an “Agh!” from behind in the direction of where we had just come, not very loud and not enough to make us brake. It was the splash that followed that made us abruptly stop in our tracks. Screaming E’s name in the alarming silence which had fallen upon us, we all ran to the side of the bridge where we found E kneeling in the stream water just to the side of the bridge. Offering her a hand and helping her up the mucky slope she had seemingly fallen down, and then fishing out the bike, we established that she was not too badly hurt aside from some grazed knees. E is one of those remarkable people who tends to bounce back quickly when they are put in a potentially dangerous situations, in fact she was once hit by a car and was texting friends a few minutes later. Sadly the same could not be said for Z’s rather soggy camcorder which we hoped very dearly would dry off and recover, or at least let us see the footage of E falling into the stream for a laugh. It showed how strong our friendships are in the group because it was a good few minutes before Z even mentioned her likely broken christmas present even once we found out that E was fine. The rest of the ride was beautiful, though E was still soaked through!

After a lunch of crisps and brioche bread we attempted the second of the ‘beginner’ routes. My Mum, a naturally outdoorsy person, had warned us that it started with a very large hill which we shouldn’t let deter us. Thinking back this should probably have set alarm bells off in my head. For Mum to even mention a hill existing, for the average person it must of been an extreme mountain. When we reached the start of the route we were faced with what appeared to be a cliff face. A very steep hill indeed. Cycling up the hill lasted mere moments because none of us had the muscles that would be required to prevent ourselves rolling back down the slope. Lugging our heavy bikes up caused energy levels -and general morale- to drop. It was all that I could do to keep in a state of permanent optimism, although my arms and legs were admittedly screaming from pushing the back end of the tandem. If you were going to make the assumption that a tandem shared between two people walking up a hill requires less effort than a whole bike each- you are sadly mistaken. After recovering from the climb we carried on cycling; it was steeper than our first route and we had to walk the bikes up various bumps in the track. Whilst trying to follow the signs my group had problems distinguishing the green arrows (a very dark shade) from the black. This was a bit of a problem because the black was, according to our map, ‘extreme’ where as the green (which we were already struggling with) was ‘beginner’. At some stage I think these signs were responsible for causing the following incident. Myself and Z had found ourselves at the head of the group, and after powering up and down a hill we had lost the other half of our party. We had raced past a cross roads and (whilst pausing for them to catch up) it began to dawn on us that E and S had probably gone the other way. At this point we had been biking for a few hours and we were expecting to be approaching the end of the route so we continued, knowing that all the routes would end in the same place anyway. Sadly the end wasn’t in sight, and after cycling for another half hour we found that we were at the stunt bike track that we had passed before at the beginning of our ride. We had run out of water, were hungry and very tired when Z left me with the tandem to try and find some people to ask for directions. We were both trying to block out the thought that we might have to complete the route again to exit , meaning we would have done roughly sixteen miles on this single track. We asked a Mum who was sitting on a log watching her son do various gravity defying stunts on the course below how to get out. She, in turn, gave a detailed description and then conferred with her son who enthusiastically gave completely different instructions.  Now the only sighted person cycling, Z had to keep looking for orange arrows which apparently indicated an escape. Though the forest was undoubtedly beautiful, there is nothing like burning first to make you want to get out of it. We went down some extremely large hills (thankfully not having to climb up them first) this was perfect because we were both verging on too exhausted to peddle. Luckily by this time I had picked up the queues which meant that Z was slowing down, changing gear, or upping the pace so we dropped the verbal communication we had previously had through the journey to preserve our energy.

Reaching the bike hire building, only minutes before our maximum time was up, we were pleasantly surprised to find that E and S were there and had been for quite some time. It seems that they found some other very large and rocky hills to use as an escape and that they had indeed gone the other way at the cross roads. We were too tired to really comment on this though, and we both reported feeling like we were either going to vomit or cry. After all, myself and Z had done four miles on top of the necessary eight. After ice creams at the visitor’s centre we felt significantly better, and after showers at the campsite (plus spidery companions) our aches and pains from the saddle were quite far out of our minds. There aren’t many things that beat campfire cooked pasta and white sauce either! There are countless moments that I can’t fit in this post, but maybe thats not a bad thing. As I have already said in a previous blog- Dalby is one of my favourite places to just think about the now and to simply ‘be’. But at the weekend I found that it is amazing to be there with friends

Over the next few weeks I am going to be doing a lot of travelling. I could do a big long list of the places I’m going and the things that I am doing there, but it will be more interesting to write about it after (or maybe whilst I am there). I am planning to put my WordPress app on my phone to good use, though it all depends on if I have wifi at the various places I am going. Adventures are ahead and the suitcase is packed… well nearly. Why is my whole life on charge?! Too many wires! I decided to leave the word ‘quick’ in the introduction for irony, I have never seen such a long post!

Four girls on bikes, two sharing a tandem.

Leaves

Girls sitting outside a tent

Arty with Your Hands

I’ve never been an overly arty person. I enjoy art, but I’m not talented and I don’t do anything arty on a regular basis. Whether this defines ‘arty’ I’m not sure, but I did do GCSE art at one stage. I didn’t like it much even though I had an amazingly inclusive teacher who allowed me to explore the tactile element of art and encouraged my ‘unique perspective’ on the world. Though this was brilliant I found myself frustrated. I may not be arty but I am ambitious academically and there was something about my consistent C/D (which was stubbornly attached to my work no matter how long each piece had painstakingly taken me) that tainted the experience. It seemed no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t move up a grade to a stable pass. Once when sitting in Maths with my Teaching Assistant, waiting for the teacher to arrive, we had the discussion: “How can you grade art?”. I don’t think it is as clear cut as the stickler specifications and effort evaluations that it is made out to be in schools. How can art be evaluated fully without standing in the pupil’s brain as a tiny neurone and assessing the emotion, understanding and perspective they have on the said task? Like I said before, my teacher was amazing, but I can’t help but think that the gods of all things ‘exam’ didn’t quite have the capacity to mark my different perspective on the world. To cut a long story short, I got sick for a month or so and had to give up some subjects at school and fish drawing in art was quick to go.

I like tactile things. I can see some forms of visual art- big, bold and basic are the best bet for my peepers- but I just prefer the tactile or haptic medium. Touching art gives you a physical connection to it instead of the distance needed to admire a picture with your eyes. You can feel what the artist is aiming for and you can analyse things that you would miss if you were simply gazing. “What is the purpose of this very straight line?” or “Does this curve express deep rooted emotion?”, it gives art a whole new lease of life. I like the tactile world so much that I have a ‘bag of tricks’ filled with feely things and fiddle toys. I find that having something to fiddle with or feel has a calming affect which really helps me.

But it is only in the past few days that I have started exploring how I can make tactile art myself. I’m not a huge fan of glue and it’s sticky and slimy texture, so I was sceptical in how far I’d get. I started with the basics and did some clay work.

Picture of two pieces of brown clay. The first is rectangular with the imprint of the back of a leaf on it. Underneath in indented braille it says 'Peace'. The other piece of clay is flatter and wider with an indent of a flower and some flower buds on their stem.

This was pretty straight forward to do and I was very pleased with the results. I used flowers and leaves from the garden to roll into the clay and once I was satisfied it had been sufficiently compressed I peeled the plant away. It leaves a very clear outline on the surface of the clay and is easy to find and to trace with your fingers. I also brailled ‘Peace’ into the bottom of one of them with a skewer from the kitchen… because why not?

Today I decided that after yesterday’s success I wanted to try and get another sense involved in my arty awakening. I decided smells would be interesting to throw into the mix so I commandeered the herb rack. The kitchen being raided appears to be a common theme in my work. My first experiment was with a large pot of Paprika. I can’t ever remember tasting paprika, and being aware of it anyway, but the smell is fairly distinctive so it was a good choice.

Image

This was a lot of fun to do and I basically went mad on the paper. I didn’t use any tools or paintbrushes because I figured it would be better to use my hands to make something designed for ring fingers not retinas. I splodged some old water colours I had kicking about in my room to make some raised dots and added Paprika to Gesso to make an interesting beige. I thought about the smell and what colour I would link it to in my mind so I threw in some blue watercolours too. In an interesting mix of paprika and water I also seemed to create the outline of a person. I think the person is jumping a hurdle or obstacle, which gives it a nice link to my current state of post-GCSE-ness. Totally unintentional- but I’m proud of it all the same.

Picture of a page with different shades of yellow. Herbs are scattered in clumps like clouds around a raised butterfly.

I repeated this with yellow and a pot of ‘mixed herbs’. I’m not sure of the deep meaning of the yellow sky, herb clouds and watercolour butterfly yet but I’m sure I will think of something. These pictures are really tactile, still smell of herbs no matter how ambitious you are with the paint and they look pretty cool too.

When presented with tactile art people tend to be cagey with their hands, they either eye up the piece and make an instant verdict or just give a tentative swipe of their finger on the surface. There’s no need to be cautious though, because you wouldn’t control your eyes in this way if it was a poster you were being presented with. It’s fine to separate your senses for a while and just focus on each tool of your understanding one at a time. Because that is what senses are in a way, together they are a toolkit that you can use to understand anything and everything, but it is up to the individual themselves which tool in the box they prefer to use most.