At age 5, MSU graduate student Adi Mathew developed a fascination with technology. He would spend hours and hours playing computer games. He eventually grew tired of just playing the games and decided to venture into the source code files to make his characters invincible, or to win the game more easily.
Years later, as one might anticipate of a tech-minded individual, he would pursue an undergraduate degree in engineering—electrical and computer engineering—at Michigan State University. He had the training and skills upon graduation to work for a car company on automotive wiring. Adi had always enjoyed cars as a hobby, but realized he was missing a much more compelling use of technology, which had been sparked in him during his time at MSU.
As part of his senior electrical and computer engineering capstone course, Adi met Stephen Blosser, an assistive technology specialist in the Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities (RCPD). There he learned some of the ways technology could be used to provide equitable course experiences for students with disabilities. He had many discussions with RCPD director Michael Hudson and the students and faculty who came to the center for resources, and heard a common concern that MSU's vast campus was difficult to navigate, especially for someone with low vision or blindness.
By combining knowledge from his engineering programs, personal insights gained at the RCPD, and a spirit of innovation, Adi partnered with many to develop new technologies that leveraged smartphone technology to meet the orientation needs of several RCPD populations. While initially promising for those with visual disabilities, the idea that one could point their phone in a given direction and know what buildings were nearby, was helpful to many. This ability to both meet the needs of a given person with disability challenges while simultaneously serving a broader audience was a powerful notion for Adi and the RCPD. Much like the universal design constructs that made curb-cuts or audible traffic signals useful to many outside the intended disability community, the MSU Guide app would come to serve the location awareness needs for thousands of new arrivals at MSU each year.
This vision for making technology universally appealing helps ensure the innovation does not remain a niche tool but rather something celebrated by a broader user base. To date, the app has been downloaded 30,000 times and opened 300,000 times, and rose to thetop fifty most searched navigation apps in the App Store at the beginning of the 2018 school year.
Adi grew up moving around from place to place, and, in his words, “felt like a fish out of water” no matter where he was. His own lived experience of unease at not knowing places, customs, and cultures helped him recognize that such insider knowledge can be isolating, and that barriers exist between people and knowledge.
From the MSU Guide app project onward, Adi was officially hooked on the use of technology to help people use technology to remove barriers. He enrolled in a dual master’s program in computer science from the College of Engineering and human and computer interaction in the College of Communication Arts in Sciences and will graduate in May 2019.
Concurrently with his graduate coursework, Adi has contributed to other projects pertaining to movement and access. In collaboration with IPF, the College of Engineering, and the Office of the Executive Vice President for Administration to help develop the MSU Mobility App, which, with the permissions of its users, tracks movement patterns across campus, whether cars, bikes, or pedestrians. The MSU Mobility app is the only blind-accessible digital geographic survey software on mobile, in that it allows a blind participant to make independent, informed data donation in the same way a sighted participant would.
In addition, he is now leveraging his RCPD assistantship in partnership with the Infrastructure Planning and Facilities (IPF) and Residential and Hospitality Services (RHS) to develop accessible tools using augmented reality to aid wayfinding and menu/nutrition awareness. This complex, multitier research analyzes elements like building infrastructure, menus, scenes, and even patterns of attendance within dining commons through the lens of four or five wayfinding technologies. Eventually, trained artificial intelligence may be able to predict when a dining commons has reached capacity and could suggest other locations for a person in a wheelchair (or a person who does not like crowds) to dine while affording them the precise food items they most desire.
His favorite way to develop technology is by talking with people and listening to complaints, developing a prototype, and then seeking honest feedback on those prototypes. He finds value in connecting, meeting, seeing and understanding people, and doesn’t bristle at their criticism of his work. He says, “If they’re not complaining, I can’t do my job.”
Adi has found a purpose and a place through his work and interactions at the RCPD. He says, “The RCPD provided a space where I was given the freedom to study needs, work on addressing them and create new approaches to software design. In doing so, it has allowed me to learn, meet, interact, design with and create with truly wonderful members of the MSU community. These connections, creations and this culture of empowerment elevate the RCPD to a place that I consider home. Time spent here is less about finishing a project or a feature, but more about being part of a community you live in everyday which calls on me to do my very best.”
Adi’s view of accessible technology and universal design is expansive. While he doesn’t know what’s next after graduation, he hopes to continue to be involved in using technology to solve problems and to help people with disabilities. His life mission is inspired by the words of quadriplegic tech developer Todd Stabelfeldt: “Convenience for one person is independence for another.”