Google Glass: This Sailing Instructor’s Vision of Help for Adaptive Sailors

After working with several sailors who are visually impaired, I started pondering ways the new Glass might help them. A little research led to still more ideas.  At the moment, this post is my dream of ways Glass could help adaptive sailors. But I don’t think the future is that far off.

About Glass

A “smart phone worn on the face,” Glass contains a camera, bone-conductive speaker, GPS, accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass. Headphones and dark lenses can be added. Glass connects to the web via Wi-Fi or a Bluetooth connection through an Android phone. “Glassware” refers to web services that can send and receive content. Additional apps, similar to other Anrdoid-based apps, will be coming to market as Glass rolls out.

My wish list for Glass

Here’s my sailing instructor Wish List for ways to use Glass could help sailors. If you are not a sailor, keep in mind that sailing is a dynamic, kinetic sport where things happen quickly. Equipment needs to stay tight to the body; apps need to respond instantaneously. And, in spite of peaceful sunset cruise photos, sailing is also loud: instruction means using my outdoor voice to be heard over wind, waves, and flapping sails (remember, I’m working with beginners – there are a lot of flapping sails!).

Hearing assistance

Captioning on Glass transcribes spoken directions visible to the wearer. Currently, working with sailors who are deaf involves a lot of hand gestures and some body pantomiming. Lip reading doesn’t always work, because it requires both instructor and student to be facing each other. Not easy to do when eyes need to be focused on wind, waves, and traffic. I’ve worked with a sailor who used a hearing loop. Trouble is, sailing involves constant physical movement: the device kept switching itself off or shifting to a position where it would not pick up my voice. A smaller, Bluetooth microphone that attaches to my shirt or lifejacket, then convert my instruction to captions would be more effective.

Visual assistance

In many ways, sailing is an ideal sport for people with visual impairments. Experienced sailors – sighted or non-sighted – eventually sail by “feel.” We feel the wind, the way the boat responds to the waves, how the tiller responds. The two obstacles I have observed for non-sighted sailors: orienting themselves to the boat and, well, other obstacles.

Solving for fixed obstacles – docks, rocks, structures – is fairly simple with the GPS function in Glass. Experienced sailors complain about the loss of independence: a sighted person is still needed to help avoid obstacles. Loading navigation charts, along with GPS, would reduce that reliance.

Solving for moving obstacles – other boats or debris – is more complicated. But Google has been working on cars that navigate busy streets, independent of the driver. Once that is worked out, my hope is that Google will make that function available for boaters. Sounds far-fetched, right? Check out this TED talk about cars for blind drivers.

Inexperienced sailors need help getting oriented to the boat. Think of it this way – if you’ve never seen a boat before, how do you know where the front is? Sure, we give people model boats, and we guide them around the boat to get a feel for the parts. But if you have never in your life seen a triangle, how do you get the concept that a sailboat has a pointy end and that it’s the bow? Also, boat benches run parallel to the sides. People with visual impairments tend to sit on them as one sits on a park bench, which leaves them facing the center of the boat, not the bow. What’s more, how do you tell a person to “center the tiller” after a tack when they can’t see the center of the boat?

Currently, the OpenGlass and Mechanical Turk projects are using Glass to help visually impaired people identify objects. This means taking a photo, uploading it, and waiting for an actual, live person to identify the object. That process is entirely too slow for a boat. What would help: an app that could match what a sailor is seeing with preloaded images of the boat. On the most basic level, such an app could tell a person whether they are facing forward, port, starboard, or aft. On a more advanced level, it could help with identifying lines.

Physical assistance

Computers and cell phones are terrific tools for learning and socializing. But, for the most part, you need good hand and finger function. Glass can respond to spoken commands, which provides the opportunity to search for instructional videos, sailing terms, weather and navigation information … anything on the web.

But far more important, Glass expands the ways people with limited physical abilities can participate, share, and contribute in ways the rest of us take for granted. Take a look at this poignant story on how one Tammie Lou Van Sant, who is paralyzed from the chest down and has limited digital dexterity was finally able to photograph and share her story.

Follow the link to see a video of her very powerful interview at USAToday.  Beyond a gadget: Google Glass is a boon to disabled

All sailors

I can imagine a future where all sailors could benefit from Glass.

Navigation. The GPS function, combined with nautical charts, would indicate rocks, shallows, reefs, and other objects hidden just below the surface. For longer voyages, the GPS would be invaluable for instant updates of boat speed and course-made-good. Much more efficient than checking the GPS every half hour.

Instant weather information delivered upfront, all the time. Chicago weather changes quickly. Currently, weather is delivered to cell phones, but radar images are slow to load when on the water, the screens are small, and an extra hand is needed to retrieve from a pocket (not all sailors have use of their hands). Being able to access weather instantly, right in front of my eye, would be invaluable for making decisions on the water.