Before the race even begins

Running across the Namibian desert has been a long time in the making. Becoming comfortable with the idea of attempting the run unassisted, finding a race organiser that would agree and creating the technology all took time. Despite this the race seemed to rapidly approach.
So a little over two weeks ago I boarded my first flight and the adventure would begin. Before the flight had even taken off someone had pegged me as the blind runner attempting the race alone. It was the wonderful Natasha who just so happened to be the sister of Samantha, who was gracious enough to let me attempt the run.
Fast forward many hours and we boarded our second flight. This was the one that would drop us off in the desert. As the plane approached the airport, Neil turned to me and said “Simon, there is nothing, it is all just desert”. Departing the plane we walked through the desert to the small arrivals area grabbed our luggage and headed for the transfer. Again Neil turned to me and said “Simon, there is nothing, just desert”, I was beginning to get the picture that there was truly nothing but sand.
Thankfully, there did turn out to be a hotel in this desert. In fact it was a rather wonderful hotel. Although Neil and I were slightly deterred when we found out the suite we had booked would see us sharing a bed! A quick negotiation later and we had our own beds, so we decided to quickly top up on tea, it would be at a premium after all once the race began.
We toured the local town over the next couple of days and began to bump into fellow competitors. During these interactions we had found out many people had lost their luggage, thus their kit for the race that would start in a day. In fact during the race briefing there was a request made for anyone that could donate kit, Neil and I donated what we had and headed to our room to put out last few things together before a 4 hour bus ride to the start line.
The bus ride was our first opportunity to read the course notes, sections were rated as easy, moderate or difficult. Reassuringly there were few difficults!
We arrived at our first camp site as the sun was dipping on the horizon. We quickly headed to our tent and unpacked. With military precision, my mat was inflated, sleeping bag rolled out and the ever essential pillow put into position. It was now time to meet fellow competitors around camp fires and have our last real meal before we began the joys of rehydrated food.
We sat down and chatted with a few competitors who had lost all their kit. They had to replace everything in the local town, Neil and I felt very thankful our kit had made it, but did have a small giggle at the competitor who when faced with a lack of signalling mirror, replaced it with a rather large vanity mirror. It would have been better placed as a shaving mirror than something pocketable to signal in emergencies. But on the bright side, at least they could have a good shave if needed.
We finished our meals and headed to bed for the night. I simply couldn’t sleep, I lay awake for hours. I then began to need the toilet, I decided to see if I could just drop off and wait till morning. This predictably didn’t work, so I thought to myself I can just head outside and go for a quick pee.
I planned how I would do this in my head, how I would get out of the tent, use some hotel slippers to save me lacing on my shoes, follow the guide ropes of the tent, walk out a few steps, turn round and head back. It seemed like a flawless plan.
Like a ninja I removed my slippers from the bottom of my bag, silently slipped out of the tent and found the first guide rope. I knew if I followed this down, turned ninety degrees to my right, it would be four steps until I felt another rope at my feet. I found this next rope, stepped over and counted out 10 steps. Ahead of me lay the open desert, behind me the tents, to the left and right even more open desert.
The wind had picked up just as I was about to start, so I rotated as not to be covered by my own pee. I finished then thought, how far did I rotate from the wind? I couldn’t remember, which way did I even rotate? I took my best guess turned back round and walked back, except I didn’t arrive at the guide rope. Shit!
This wasn’t in the plan, if I had thought this through I may have entered the cold night desert with more than a t shirt, or even a torch to signal, or even the emergency whistle for situations like this. However, I had nothing and a sudden rush of dread washed over me, how would I find the tents?
I thought perhaps I could shout? Would I even wake people up? And did I want to be the idiotic blind person who went out alone into the desert in the middle of the night? No. So I decided to get down on my hands and knees and crawl around and see if I could feel a guide rope. After what felt like a few minutes of circling around I found a rope! Yes, I can now find the tents.
I followed the rope, locating the spike acting as a tent peg I knew walking straight would bring me to the guide rope at the tent entrance. I leant into the tent reached over to my spot and was blown away to feel my sleeping mat. Yes! I was back in my tent, I snook in to find some cheeky sod on my mat. Except it wasn’t my mat, they just had the same one as me. Shit! 
I contemplated what to do and decided I just had to wake someone up. I gently poked at the first person in the tent and said “Hi, this may sound strange, but I am blind and got a little lost outside, could you take me back to my tent?”. Thankfully, they were ever so gracious, jumping up they began escorting me back, they introduced themselves as Yoji, and I was terribly grateful.
Back in my own tent, I zipped myself back up in my sleeping bag just as everyone else in the tent awoke. We are popping to the toilet Simon do you need it?
If only I had waited ten minutes…. read more

Is it possible?

Nearly 6 years ago I began a journey, I perhaps didn’t realize it at the time, but it was one that would push the boundaries of possibility.
Learning to run solo as a blind runner, was at times truly challenging and at others phenomenally uplifting. It was truly a difficult and long journey. Back then I had vowed never to compete as I wasn’t particularly interested in competition. However, as the idea of seeing how far I could run began to play on my mind, I decided the only way would be to compete at the ultra distance.
It was during this time, when I had entered a race and rather quickly lost my guiding team, that I came up with an idea. If I couldn’t run a 100 miles with a guide perhaps I could do it alone. I had planned on running my standard route repeatedly and then running the entire night segment on a 0.3 mile loop. Thankfully, I found a guide team last minute and didn’t subject myself to a nights torment on that tiny loop.
But it planted the seed of competing alone, it was something I hadn’t believed to be possible. But so was training alone as a blind runner. Surely all I needed was the right race.
Well I found it, 160 miles through the Namibian desert. What had once been a dream is now a reality, in 8 days I will stand for the first time alone at a start line, with 160 miles of possibility ahead of me.
Is it possible to cover this distance alone? The fact a question still lurks around this is what still attracts me. I don’t know if this is possible. I have been spending time with the IBM Bloomix Garage to develop the technology to give me the opportunity. But there remains the same question that always popped up during my original ultra training.
What will break first, the technology or me?
Neither have ever been tested in the desert, neither has ever had to survive for 7 days in a desert. I head out there alone once again in synergy with technology to advance the line of possibility.
I am thankful I have this opportunity and intend to push to my absolute limit to achieve something wonderful.  read more

Boston – I just can’t stay away

The city of Boston has come to mean so much to me over the past few years. It is the home of RunKeeper and therefore, served as the jumping off point for my Boston to NYC running adventure. Starting the adventure from the offices of RunKeeper and having the opportunity to run with the team that enabled my running achievements was a great moment.

The first day running served as my introduction to the Boston marathon course. Running from the offices we quickly headed to the official finish line for an obligatory photo, as starting in the city meant the course would be run in reverse! I can safely say the course is far easier in reverse, after all Heartbreak hill becomes a breeze!

But it wasn’t until I ran the NYC marathon that the idea of running the Boston marathon entered my mind. It was pointed out by Andrea of Team with a VIsion, that after running from Boston to NYC and then completing the NYC marathon, I was only 13 minutes shy of qualifying for the Boston marathon. read more

Raspberry Pi 2 – Improving accessibility

Technology truly is redefining what is possible for the disabled community. However, there always remains a barrier – cost. Often products designed for assistive purposes carry a substantial price tag. There are a number of reasons for this and I firmly believe the majority of these issues can be overcome through universal design.
For example, design a product with a universal approach and it has the possibility of longevity, improved functionality for all and scale. The great benefit of this is a reduced price tag, making it affordable and overcoming that greatest barrier of all – cost.
This made me assess what I would consider the most functional piece of technology I own from a price perspective. Thinking of this for a while the answer surprised even me. it is my Raspberry Pi 2, including the Pi, a case, power supply and SD card for storage the cost was around £50. This is incredibly low cost but what exactly does it offer me?
After all it isn’t the most accessible of products, as I run it headless and control it through a command line interface. But it just sits there stuffed down the back of my television quietly working at integrating all my other technology together.
It serves FLAC audio to my Sonos 5, a wonderfully accessible music player, it serves up my audio described content to my iPhone, iPad and Apple TV and it also serves as file storage for my iPad Pro. It truly does allow all my other accessible technology to work seamlessly, it is this little device that allows everything else to function.
Therefore, for its price point I class it as the most functional device in my house. It certainly couldn’t replace my iPhone or iPad, but those devices would not serve me so well without that cheap little Raspberry Pi. read more

IBM & CMU assisting in mobility

Mobility for the visually impaired is always difficult. From simple tasks as heading to Starbucks for a coffee, to jumping on a bus or grabbing a taxi. Lets take the first example, heading to Starbucks is certainly challenging when you are unable to see, but what about when you enter the store? Without sighted assistance locating the counter or indeed finding somewhere to sit is challenging.

Therefore, any technology that aims to improve any of these mobility issues is always a step in the right direction. With the fear that this blog is turning into IBM fandom, it is yet another project IBM are working on.

Along with Carnegie Mellon University, IBM have developed and open sourced a smartphone application that can help you move from point A to point B.

The app called NavCog utilises either voice or haptic feedback to aid in navigation. NavCog currently uses beacons to assist in the navigation process. read more

Artificial Intelligence and accessibility

Over the past couple of weeks I have been fortunate enough to be exposed to some fantastic technology as well as ideas. Attending WiRED 2015 kickstarted my thought process on how artificial intelligence could be applied to accessible technology.

While attending the conference there were two ideas I wanted to pitch to people, emotion detection to facilitate social situations for the visually impaired and facial recognition. I felt both these technologies could improve an individuals ability to socialise greatly. After chatting to a few people and pitching my ideas on how these systems could work from a design, implementation and marketing front I managed to interest a few companies and institutions.

There is fantastic scope for these technologies and their assistive ability. I concentrated on the emotion detection system initially as I feel these could have the greatest and speediest impact. I have encapsulated the idea into a product for all, rather than a product specifically for the visual impaired, as I believe these to be key for mass market adoption which, in turn will reduce the price significantly and reduce that initial barrier on any accessible product, price. read more

TICKR X & The 7 Minute Workout Accessibility

I am always looking for simple and effective ways to make workouts more accessible. It can often be difficult to monitor and track workouts so I was very excited when Wahoo sent along the TICKR X. The TICKR X is a very capable device that can track a whole multitude of stats, from HR, to body movement and more, but the data point I was most interested in was rep counting.

Utilising the TICKR X along with the Wahoo 7 minute workout app on my iPhone, all my reps could be automatically counted. No more writing it all down in an app afterwards, assuming I could remember how many reps I performed on each exercise.

What is the 7 minute workout

The 7 minute workout is a collection of 12 body weight exercises that you can complete anywhere with no equipment needed. It has been shown to give results comparable to longer running or weights sessions. It comprises of 12 work sets of 30 seconds each followed by a 10 second rest. It is a quick and highly effective HIIT workout. read more

IBM Serendipity

Two years ago in the middle of my degree I went to meet with IBM HR. The idea was to have a chat to them about my vision of an inclusive and accessible world through technology..

IBM stand at a fantastic point within the technology sector where they have the ability to touch a huge amount of organizations in wildly different fields. It was this very point that made me think IBM and I could be a perfect match.

There is a need for all technology to be inclusively designed, to enable everyone to have universal access. From mobile devices, to the internet of things to access to transport. Indeed it was IBM’s Smarter Planet initiative that made me believe there was a way to make the world accessible through the advancement of new technologies.

I pitched to HR that I would be a wonderful fit for an accessibility evangelist, working with all manner of partners focussing on how technology could be made inclusive. From advising on human interface interactions that not only had visual elements but auditory and haptic, to communicating complex information in new and interesting ways. I continued by highlighting that the opportunity to interact with clients at the early stage would aid in a universal design approach amongst all technology. read more

Looking forward to Apple TV OS

My favorite piece of technology in the living room is my Apple TV and it is about to see a significant update. I love the Apple TV for two reasons VoiceOver and Netflix. VoiceOver is fantastic at assisting in navigating the UI as it reads aloud all the elements and Netflix has fantastic audio described content.

However, it is limiting. I only access my media through Netflix but I have a world of other media. I have numerous DVD and Blue-Ray discs all with great audio described content. The problem is how I access this media. For example, identifying the discs or navigating the menus are both challenging and require sighted assistance. There just isn’t an a great accessible removable media device.

So the current solution is to rip these discs along with their audio described content and AirPlay them to my Apple TV. This allows me to use a screen reader to select the content I would like to listen too. But it shouldn’t be this hard and I hope the Apple TV can help in this respect. read more

Learn to code in a day?

Learning to code in a day, the premise seems a little far fetched, so I was certainly intrigued by the event at Decoded in London.

With the breadth of possibilities of coding so large the focus of the day was on the specifics of creating an app that incorporated location data. Even this reduction in focus seems like a mammoth task, especially considering the course is not aimed at people with previous coding experience. In fact it is billed as aiding new comers in obtaining these skills in a day.

So with zero prior experience, is it possible to enable someone to create a location based app within a day? The quick answer is yes. Everyone on the course successfully created a location based app.

The day is broken into a few distinct learning methods, lectures, hands on and team tasks. These three different methods enable participants to gain a rounded knowledge of coding. The introduction lecture is a whirl wind tour of the beginnings of coding, I was disappointed that this didn’t feature Alan Turing, but it was a whirlwind tour after all! This lecture also included the technologies we would be utilising in order to create our app, HTML5, CSS and Javascript. read more