A degree in geography and love of bicycles led Doug Hagedorn into an unusual venture — developing a tablet for the blind

Hagedorn, founder and CEO of Tactalis, walks into the Holy Grill wearing a t-shirt and jeans, fresh from a meeting concerning his other passion – cycling – at Speed Theory. The 29-year-old entrepreneur orders a coffee at the local joint and sits down to chat about the technology he’s developing that could potentially make life a lot easier for the visually impaired.

Over one million Canadians are living with blindness or significant vision loss according to the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). Although technological advancements have allowed for universal smartphones and tablet computers, the blind and visually impaired are unable to use these visual devices.

Hagedorn is seeking to provide a solution to a problem that is greatly reducing information accessibility for thousands of people in Alberta and across Canada. Hagedorn and the team at Tactalis are developing a tablet computer that doesn’t rely on sight to be operated.

“Someone who can’t see a regular LCD monitor in colour pixels, or a printed page, can instead explore the content on the screen through touch,” Hagedorn said.

“Someone who can’t see a regular LCD monitor in colour pixels, or a printed page, can instead explore the content on the screen through touch.”

– Doug Hagedorn

From bikes to the blind

Hagedorn began his work in the field of assistive technology while pursuing his master’s degree in geography at the University of Calgary.

Although Hagedorn didn’t have a personal connection to the blind community, he was inspired to enter the research field because of Dan Jacobson, his graduate supervisor. It was through a shared passion for biking, which led Jacobson to recall a story about a blind cyclist paired with a sighted cyclist on a tandem bike.

“When I was working with Doug he was incredibly intelligent, thoughtful and always asking questions beyond the norm, always pushing boundaries, thinking outside the box and questioning, ‘Why have we always done it this particular way,’” Jacobson said.

With a newfound interest in the field and a background that aligned with the work the university’s lab was doing, Hagedorn was invited to join the research team. The focus of his work was primarily on how to create maps for the blind, but as he completed his degree he questioned what was next.

“I realized there wasn’t really a job waiting for me at the end of my degree,” Hagedorn said. “To start a company and start digging into some of the technical aspects of product development, it was just a matter of wanting to continue what I was doing.”

In 2012, Hagedorn founded Tactalis as a way to use his research to create something for himself. He didn’t originally have a personal connection but he has since become friends with many blind people through his work.

Trials and tribulations

Nick Winsor and Doug Hagedorn are changing the assistive technology field through the development of a tactile tablet computer that will allow users the ability to feel digital information using magnetism.

Photo by Evan ManconiThe road of an entrepreneur hasn’t been an easy ride. Hagedorn said finding the right staff, getting people on board and working with outside consultants can be difficult. He adds, as a small team there is of course more work to do.

“Especially something like this, which is admittedly a really large project,” he said with a laugh. “Let’s invent a new product category.”

Because the product is new and unheard of in many ways, there have been challenges in figuring out how to explain the device to people.

“From a purchase and features standpoint it’s a lot closer to a laptop, but from a user experience it’s a lot closer to a tablet and you’re selling it to people that can use neither of those products,” Hagedorn explains.

In marketing products, generally graphics and visuals are used, but their audience uses screen readers and text to audio.

“I can’t just go and put up a billboard,” he adds. “It’s good because I think it’s made us a lot more conversational. We have to engage people on Twitter, do stories and interviews and articles.”

Hagedorn said that like any start-up there are going to be challenges to secure funding. Fortunately Hagedorn received the E. (Ben) & Mary Hochhausen Access Technology Research Award from the CNIB, which provided $10,000 for the project.

“That’s just huge validation and to have it so early on I think really pushed us to say – when we were still unsure – that there is something legitimate here and at the end of the day someone is interested in pushing this forward.”

Developing a tactile system

As far as digital tactile devices go, Hagedorn said they are leading the field in a way. The tablet system Tactalis is developing is called the Origin Tactile Interface. While other devices use vibration or sound frequency to provide tactile feedback, the OTI uses magnetism.

Using magnets embedded beneath the screen and a metal stylus or ring, a user can feel the attraction and repulsion of the magnetic field corresponding to points of interest. This type of output allows the person to interact with digital graphics that previously would have been impossible.

Hagedorn said they are looking to have products in people’s hands by late spring 2015 and with a price point as far below $3,000 as possible.

Educational applications

Hagedorn said even though the company is pre-revenue, the OTI is getting a lot of attention from teachers who work with blind students.

Joel DeRaaf, vice-president of the Alberta Society for the Visually Impaired and mother of two visually impaired children, said there are several accessibility options currently available to students.

Ashley King (left) lost her sight three years ago while vacationing in Indonesia. Assistive technology like the OTI could help improve her accessibility.

Photo courtesy of Doug HagedornTypically a student will connect headphones to their computer to listen to the resource material, power point presentations and textbooks. DeRaaf’s 14-year-old daughter is legally blind but has some vision and is able to use tools on her iPad to magnify the content.

“Apple has done a really good job so far by making accessibility available on computers for the visually impaired and the blind,” DeRaaf said.

While there are different assistive options out there, they aren’t always available to every student. DeRaaf added that many school subjects such as some aspects of mathematics and geography are much more difficult for the visually impaired because of the loss of the graphic components.

“I just feel that any advancement in technology for the blind and visually impaired is going to make a significant difference in their education,” she said.

Jung-Suk Ryo, CNIB manager of communications, said that assistive technology is incredibly important for the blind and visually impaired. Both young and old people are turning to assistive technology to help communicate and stay connected.

“What we’re seeing with Doug’s company Tactalis is really exciting because we are seeing a real homegrown solution to an issue that affects over 100,000 Albertans that live with vision loss.”

Ryu said that accessibility solutions aren’t at the forefront of the minds of those in technology companies, but the mentality is changing.

“It was very encouraging and exciting to see a company –like Tactalis – look at a problem and say, ‘How do we use technology to solve the problem for people with vision loss,’” Ryu said.

He added that in many ways Hagedorn has raised awareness and encouraged other innovators to pursue accessibility solutions in developing a product.

Hagedorn said that the community response has been very rewarding.

Tactalis has been named a 2014 finalist for the Alberta Science and Technology Awards, happening Oct. 24th in Edmonton. Writer Evan Manconi met Hagedorn when he interned at the ASTech foundation during the summer 2014.

emanconi@cjournal.ca