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gingerKutsch at yahoo.com
Tue Sep 14 11:09:59 UTC 2010
SEPTEMBER 14, 2010.
Remote Control: A Blind Man Goes Sailing With Help From Afar
Mr. Gallagher's High-Tech System Supports His Adventures, Might
Help Others.ArticleVideoSlideshowCommentsmore in US >.
SAN FRANCISCO-When Ed Gallagher goes sailing, he wears a webcam
on his head, straps a netbook computer to his hip and hops onto a
boat with his dog. Then he relies on Herb Meyer, a skipper back
on land, to watch the live, streaming webcam video and give him
Sailing Without Sight
By Brian L. Frank for The Wall Street Journal
Mr. Gallagher, who is 59 years old, is blind. "I used to listen
to the old blind guys who had been sailing for years say you
don't really need your eyes," he says. "I wanted the ability for
blind people to truly sail by themselves without a whole crew."
Mr. Gallagher's sailing experiment was on view one Sunday
afternoon recently. While Mr. Meyer, who is also disabled, parked
his wheelchair at the bar in the San Francisco Yacht Club with a
laptop, cellphone and a beer, Mr. Gallagher was in a 36-foot
sailboat with his guide dog, Genoa.
"Tack left, Ed. Tack left," Mr. Meyer spoke into his headset.
"Ed, you're not listening to me. I'm the captain. Tack left. Oh,
I lost him again," he said after the screen went dark from a weak
signal. For Mr. Meyer, who still sails after a boating accident
left him wheelchair-bound 17 years ago, it was like playing a
Blind sailor Ed Gallagher has developed webcam technology called
Genoa Systems that allows him to take his boat out solo, with the
aid of a sighted partner back on shore. WSJ's Nick Burns reports.
.The sailing experiment is part of Mr. Gallagher's broader
project to offer a remote guidance system to help the blind
perform everyday tasks from reading expiration dates on food
packaging to crossing streets (since bicycles and hybrid cars are
difficult to hear). In the past four years, the retired building
contractor has performed a number of dangerous-and ordinary-tasks
using the system.
He has driven a car through the Rocky Mountains, fired handguns,
practiced archery and repaired his broken thermostat-all the
while receiving instructions from a sighted person miles away.
Mr. Gallagher's vision loss prevents him from obtaining a drivers
license, so it is illegal for him to operate a car. But a
spokesman from the California Department of Boating and Waterways
says no federal or California laws prohibit him from recreational
boating as long as he "obeys the rules of the road."
Ed Gallagher and Genoa
.Mr. Gallagher says he hopes that with his system and others like
it, visually impaired users will feel more comfortable working
outside their homes. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Current
Population Survey estimated that in August 2010, approximately
75% of nearly 4 million people over the age of 16 who reported
being blind were "not in the labor force."
"Technology is a tremendous liberator for people with vision loss
and most people with disabilities," says Mark Richert, director
of public policy for the American Foundation for the Blind, in
Mr. Gallagher's system is controversial, and it isn't foolproof.
Last March, the San Francisco resident suffered a bad concussion
in a skiing accident in Aspen, Colo., when he hit a big rock that
his guide hadn't seen, flipped over and landed headfirst. It took
him months to recover.
"I've been going skiing there for years," he says. "After this
accident, I think it's time to hang up my skis."
Mr. Gallagher, who grew up in Lake Fenton, Mich., lost his sight
15 years ago to cytomegalovirus retinitis, or CMV retinitis, a
rare viral infection. An avid sailor, he says that he thought at
the time that his vision loss "was the end of sailing."
But Mr. Gallagher regained his sea legs when the Department of
Veterans Affairs suggested that he join a nonprofit organization
called Bay Area Association of Disabled Sailors in 2000. The
group offers specially engineered dinghies that allow its
quadriplegic and paraplegic members to sail solo.
That inspired Mr. Gallagher to pioneer a system that would
achieve the same goal for the blind. In 2006, he teamed up with
psychiatrist Richard Baldwin and wheelchair-bound sailor Paul
Walker, who were also involved with BAADS, to create Genoa
Services, which he named after his dog.
Developing it was slow at first, with the trio depending on
donated equipment and a shoestring budget. By 2007, they had
created a rudimentary system using a laptop and a bike helmet
with a bulky video camera strapped on top. But with improvements
in technologies like Wi-Fi, the system progressed to include
sunglasses with a webcam embedded inside, and a small Asustek
Computer Inc. netbook.
During a recent demonstration at the LightHouse for the Blind in
San Francisco, a Northern California blind-services organization,
a blind woman, Sandra Abeyta, 46, struggled to hold back tears
after she was able to distinguish between classic yellow mustard
and Dijon in the cafeteria refrigerator using the system.
"Genoa could really improve people's lives," she said.
But not everyone is excited by Mr. Gallagher's invention. Bryan
Bashin, chief executive of San Francisco LightHouse, says the
system could prevent blind people from learning basic, nonvisual
survival skills. "This could lead students down the wrong path,"
he says. "I fear that they will think having someone sighted see
for you is the only solution to blindness."
Mr. Gallagher remains undeterred by skeptics. He says Genoa
Services has attracted small amounts of cash from investors-and
equipment from device maker Logitech Inc. and its founder Daniel
Borel. Mr. Gallagher is applying for a government stimulus grant.
Meantime, Mr. Gallagher is having fun with his system. Last
month, he took Genoa (the system and the dog) to a San Francisco
park for a game of fetch. He hurled a tennis ball across the
park, all the while being guided by his assistant Isabel Tifft,
who was about 15 miles away in Alameda, Calif.
Genoa scurried after the ball but refused to return it to Mr.
Gallagher. (Fetching isn't generally part of guide dog training.)
"Where's the ball?" Mr. Gallagher asked aloud.
Some people standing nearby who thought he was talking to them
called out, "It's to your left, a little further." Mr. Gallagher
quickly replied, "I know where it is." To their astonishment, he
quickly picked up the ball.
"They must have thought I was talking to myself or had gone
completely crazy," Mr. Gallagher said, laughing.
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