Marty Schultz has added a twist to hangman, the classic word-guessing game. His tablet-run version of the game has the same goal: pick letters to figure out a mystery word. But to pick a letter, you run your finger over a paper Braille sheet on top of the screen.
The tablet reads out each letter, building your association between the raised dots and the alphabet. You tap twice once you’ve settled on a letter, and the tablet tells you how many times the letter appears in the mystery word.
“We’ve now taken the boring task of learning Braille and turned it into a game,” says Schultz, co-founder of Boston-based educational games maker ObjectiveEd. “We’re changing the dynamic so that a kid is looking forward to learning.”
Schultz has taken a career in building special needs software and games for people who are blind or have low vision into ObjectiveEd, a new endeavor at a time when investor interest in educational tools and investor interest in assistive technology are apparently on the rise.
According to Crunchbase, global investment activity in assistive technology has grown from $118.5 million across 38 deals in 2012 to $276.5 million across 71 deals in 2017.
Schultz isn’t a stranger to technology for people with impairments. He co-founded eSped, a K-12 software suite to help districts serve special-needs students, which sold to Frontline Education in 2016, and has operated Blindfold Games since 2013 to offer accessible games to adults with visual impairments.
Blindfold offers a library of 80 games including puzzles, slots and adaptations of mainstream titles like “Candy Crush” and game shows like “Jeopardy.” The company says they have been downloaded over 500,000 times by 25,000 users.
But even with all his experience, Schultz believes assistive technology has historically been a tough sell to venture capital due to the small number of potential customers and a likelihood that customers can’t afford the expensive technology. According to the American Foundation for the Blind, about 568,000 children in the U.S. have vision difficulty and about 26.9 million American adults have experienced vision loss. About 10 million of them have a family income of less than $35,000.
While Blindfold Games focused on adult consumers, ObjectiveEd adds games specifically for pre-K through 12th grade students. The company has raised $1 million to date and is in pursuit of a round of funding.
The company has about 10 skill-based games in areas like Braille literacy, orientation and mobility that track student progress on a web-based dashboard. More are in development and slated for release over the next few months.
Teachers and specialists can assign students practice skills within a game, check on student progress and create lesson content through ObjectiveEd's dashboard. Source: ObjectiveEd
ObjectiveEd is now in beta testing with over 10 selected teachers from a pool of about 400 applicants. When the school year starts, the company will start a pilot program with dozens of teachers nationwide in about 15 public schools and schools for the blind. The company will track student progress in the games.
One of the places piloting Schultz’s technology this year is The Carroll Center for the Blind, a nonprofit based in Newton, Mass.
Charles Warren, an orientation and mobility specialist there, says he was impressed by how engaged the group of 15 students were when Schultz demonstrated games like “Barnyard,” where children use a finger to drag an animal in a called out direction, like “downward” or “north.” He says the blending of education and entertainment is unusual in the world of assistive technology, and the kids enjoyed them. “You can’t trick kids,” he says. “They’re either into it or not.”
Warren—who does not have a visual impairment—is also pleased to see assistive technology options from large tech companies, such as Google’s Lookout app that identifies people and objects for people with visual impairments. Microsoft recently launched its Soundscape app, which can guide people with visual impairments using audio beacons. “It seems like there is a race to be more accessible,” Warren says.