The Easter Seals of Houston demonstrated new vision control technology from Comcast. Photo courtesy of Easter Seals

A local nonprofit organization has tapped into new technology from Comcast to benefit the community of people with visual disabilities and impairments.

In November 2014, the company announced the industry's first voice-enabled television user interface, a solution that allowed those who are blind or visually impaired to navigate the platform. In May 2015, Comcast announced the Xfinity remote with voice control. Later that same year, the company produced the first live entertainment show in U.S. broadcast history to be accessible to people with visual disabilities.

Continuing on this track of innovation, in June 2019, the company announced eye control for television. Any Xfinity user can now change the channel, set a recording, and search for a show using eye movement, working seamlessly with existing eye gaze hardware and software.

The Easter Seals Greater Houston demonstrated the new technology with their community, posted on the its YouTube page. The demonstration showcased the web-based remote for tablets and computers that pairs with an eye gaze system allowing viewers to control their smart TV.

"While eye gaze technology has existed for quite some time, last summer Comcast launched the Xfinity X1 eye control, which is a web-based TV remote for tablets and computers that pairs with an existing eye gaze system," says Cristen Reat, founder and program director of Easter Seals' BridgingApps. "This feature allows people with physical disabilities, such as Cerebral Palsy, ALS, and spinal cord injuries the ability to change the channel, set a recording and search for a favorite TV show with just their eyes."

Reat tells InnovationMap that most people who have significant physical disabilities are also nonverbal or have nonstandard speech, making a voice remote not a possibility.

"Now, with this new feature, they can do things without relying on a caregiver," says Reat.

The Comcast website states that X1 eye control is free and uses a web page remote control that works seamlessly with existing eye gaze hardware and software, Sip-and-Puff switches, and other existing assistive technologies. To use eye control, Xfinity customers can visit xfin.tv/access and use their Xfinity login credentials to pair the web-based remote with their set-top-box. Then, each time the customer gazes at a button, the web-based remote will send the corresponding command to the television.

"The response from clients we have demonstrated this with has been ecstatic," says Reat. "Something as simple as being able to change the channel independently, without relying on another person's help, can be life-changing."

Reat tells InnovationMap that Comcast and Easter Seals have collaborated in the past.

"We've been great partners, especially over the past few years," says Reat. "Because of that partnership, they reached out to us when they wanted to create awareness about this new feature."

"Changing the channel on a TV is something most of us take for granted but until now, it was a near-impossible task for millions of viewers," says Tom Wlodkowski, vice president of accessibility at Comcast in the product launch news release. "When you make a product more inclusive you create a better experience for everyone and we're hoping our new X1 feature makes a real difference in the lives of our customers."

This week's Houston innovators to know are hoping to make an impact. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Starting off a new — hopefully drier — week in Houston, these three Houston innovators to know are looking to make an impact. From using tech for good to creating a women's movement in Texas business, these three Houstonians are on a roll.

Cristen Reat, co-founder and program director at BridgingApps

BridgingApps, a program backed by Easter Seals of Greater Houston, uses technology like iPads to help provide services for children and adults with disabilities — as well as for veterans — and their families. Courtesy of BridgingApps

At the cusp of the tablet generation, Cristen Reat saw her child, who had down syndrome, and this convenient emerging technology and connected the dots. She helped start a support group in a therapy clinic where many parents were interested about why mobile devices and apps were so engaging to their children.

"We were just amazed about how our children with different types of disabilities were engaged with the devices, were able to communicate with the devices, and were making big strides in their therapy," says Reat.

BridgingApps was founded by Reat and Sami Rahman in 2010, both seeking to help their children grow. The program became a part of Easter Seals of Greater Houston in 2011. The website currently boasts over 3,000 apps which users can sort through by category, age, price, skill, grade level, mobile device, and more. The apps are also able to benefit and treat veterans and their families. Read more about Reat and the BridgingApps program here.

Charley Donaldson, co-founder and COO of CaringBand

CaringBand is using a simple technology to better connect family and friends to the ones they love. Courtesy of CaringBand

When Charley Donaldson's mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer, he and his wife knew they were in for a tough time. What they didn't realize was how important communication was going to be with each other. The ability to check in with loved ones frequently is tough — whether it's a good day or a bad day, people are busy and picking up the phone can be time consuming.

"It's like, you want to show people that you care about them, but you don't want to interrupt their day, or you don't want to be a burden to them if they aren't up to company," Donaldson says.

CaringBand is a light-up bracelet that's Bluetooth enabled, and connects to a mobile app. A person gives the bracelet to a loved one, who then pairs it with his or her smartphone. App users can send and receive pre-set messages of encouragement to and from other app users. Those wearing a CaringBand bracelet get alerted by a blinking light or vibration that lets them know someone is thinking about them. The wearer then reads these encouraging messages on the CaringBand app when convenient and with no need to respond. Read more about the Houston company connecting loved ones.

Ludmila Golovine, president and CEO of MasterWord Services Inc. and a founding member of Women in Localization's Texas Chapter

Ludmila Golovine, president and CEO of MasterWord Services Inc. and a founding member of newly formed Women in Localization's Texas Chapter, writes on the importance of localization. Courtesy of Golovine

Your business message is only as good as the receiver's ability to understand it. Localization is extremely important for business growth, and Ludmila Golovine, president and CEO of MasterWord Services Inc., wrote a guest article for InnovationMap about this importance as it pertains to the digital age.

"Opening a website or an app that wasn't intended for you can feel a lot like being lost in another country: you cannot understand the street signs, everything is different, and you don't even know how to ask a question of where to go," she writes.

Golovine is a founding member of newly formed Women in Localization's Texas Chapter. The organization is hosting its first Houston panel and networking event on Tuesday, September 24, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Station Houston. Read Golovine's guest article here.

BridgingApps, a program backed by Easter Seals of Greater Houston, uses technology like iPads to help provide services for children and adults with disabilities — as well as for veterans — and their families. Courtesy of BridgingApps

Houston nonprofit optimizes technology for special needs treatment and diagnoses

Using tech for good

When the first iPad was released in April of 2010, tech accessibility changed in more ways than mobile checkouts or on-the-go streaming.

The interface of the device is built around the multi-touch screen, which became a game changing component in special needs therapy and sparked the founding of BridgingApps, a program part of Easter Seals Greater Houston.

The program provides access to educational and therapeutic tools to parents, teachers, and therapists to use these mobile devices and apps to target and improve cognitive and physical development in children and adults with disabilities.

"I am the parent of a child with multiple disabilities; my son was born with Down syndrome," says Cristen Reat, co-founder and program director at BridgingApps.

Reat tells InnovationMap that she helped start a support group in a therapy clinic where many parents were interested about why mobile devices and apps were so engaging to their children.

"We were just amazed about how our children with different types of disabilities were engaged with the devices, were able to communicate with the devices, and were making big strides in their therapy," says Reat.

BridgingApps was founded by Reat and Sami Rahman in 2010, both seeking to help their children grow. The program became a part of Easter Seals of Greater Houston in 2011. The website currently boasts over 3,000 apps which users can sort through by category, age, price, skill, grade level, mobile device, and more. The apps are also able to benefit and treat veterans and their families.

"I was amazed at how quickly my son was able to do things independently with these touch screens that he was not able to do with traditional computers," Reat tells InnovationMap.

The Easter Seals Greater Houston organization was recently awarded a $15,000 grant from the Comcast Foundation as part of the Comcast NBCUniversal Assistive Technology Grant Fund, expand the available equipment used in the community technology labs with new equipment such as the TobiiDynavox EyeMobile Mini Classic Eye Gaze system that includes new software called Look To Learn and SnapCore First, and the AbleNet Latitude Mounting Arm that holds an iPad, Kindle, or other tablet and mounts to beds, wheelchairs, and tabletops.

The nonprofit offers three assistive technology services labs across the Houston area, in Bellaire, the Woodlands, and Stafford. According to the website, each lab has open lab days that the public can access without an appointment to explore a variety of assistive technology, including adapted toys and switches, specialized software and computer equipment, communication devices, and mobile devices and apps. Workshops and trainings are also available.

"The whole idea of BridgingApps is a shortcut, so that you don't have to Google search every day," says Reat. "It's basically the Yelp of special needs apps where you can type in a diagnosis, a skill, something you're looking for, and you'll come up with a video, instructions, and summary that helps people figure out what can help them today."

The organization was also awarded a $75,000 grant by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, which, according to a news release, will help the nonprofit serve 50 individuals that are veterans and or current military as well as their family members through services such as digital trainings through app reviews and videos, face-to-face counseling and counseling via tele-health, especially for those without transportation or living in rural areas.

BridgingApps currently has a team of two full-time and seven part-time employees. The nonprofit hosts an annual fundraiser each Spring called Walk With Me. The next walk is scheduled for April 25 at the Houston Zoo.
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3 businesses join Houston initiative for carbon capture and storage

seeing green

Three big businesses — Air Liquide, BASF, and Shell — have added their firepower to the effort to promote large-scale carbon capture and storage for the Houston area’s industrial ecosystem.

These companies join 11 others that in 2021 threw their support behind the initiative. Participants are evaluating how to use safe carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology at Houston-area facilities that provide energy, power generation, and advanced manufacturing for plastics, motor fuels, and packaging.

Other companies backing the CCS project are Calpine, Chevron, Dow, ExxonMobil, INEOS, Linde, LyondellBasell, Marathon Petroleum, NRG Energy, Phillips 66, and Valero.

Business and government leaders in the Houston area hope the region can become a hub for CCS activity.

“Large-scale carbon capture and storage in the Houston region will be a cornerstone for the world’s energy transition, and these companies’ efforts are crucial toward advancing CCS development to achieve broad scale commercial impact,” Charles McConnell, director of University of Houston’s Center for Carbon Management in Energy, says in a news release.

McConnell and others say CCS could help Houston and the rest of the U.S. net-zero goals while generating new jobs and protecting current jobs.

CCS involves capturing carbon dioxide from industrial activities that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere and then injecting it into deep underground geologic formations for secure and permanent storage. Carbon dioxide from industrial users in the Houston area could be stored in nearby onshore and offshore storage sites.

An analysis of U.S Department of Energy estimates shows the storage capacity along the Gulf Coast is large enough to store about 500 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, which is equivalent to more than 130 years’ worth of industrial and power generation emissions in the United States, based on 2018 data.

“Carbon capture and storage is not a single technology, but rather a series of technologies and scientific breakthroughs that work in concert to achieve a profound outcome, one that will play a significant role in the future of energy and our planet,” says Gretchen Watkins, U.S. president of Shell. “In that spirit, it’s fitting this consortium combines CCS blueprints and ambitions to crystalize Houston’s reputation as the energy capital of the world while contributing to local and U.S. plans to help achieve net-zero emissions.”

Texas doctor dives into Shark Tank with invention that stops hiccups

shark bait

Humans are weird. Take, as a perfect example, the phenomenon of hiccups — the sudden and involuntary spasm of the diaphragm muscle between regular breaths. All humans experience them, and so do other mammals and even amphibians. But we’re guessing other animals don’t approach treating hiccups in the wacky ways humans do.

For instance, some less-than-successful hiccup remedies of lore include sipping water upside down (and subsequently trying to not drown), holding one’s breath for a long time (and often hiccupping throughout the hold anyway), sucking on a peppermint, gagging oneself or pulling on the tongue, and even gobbling up a spoonful of peanut butter to help change the breathing and swallowing pattern.

The truth is those ideas are mostly a waste of breath. Luckily, one San Antonio doctor has invented a device that supposedly instantly relieves hiccups — and his invention is getting so much attention that he’s even hooked a chance to pitch the product on a new episode of ABC’s entrepreneurial-focused reality show, Shark Tank.

Dr. Ali Seifi, a neurointensivist at UT Health San Antonio and the inventor of the aptly named HiccAway, will appear on an episode of Shark Tank that airs tonight, January 21 at 7 pm.

HiccAway, a straw-like device that a hiccup sufferer uses to sip water through, is likely to wow the sharks — maybe even take their breath away? — as it is the world’s first scientifically proven medical product that safely relieves hiccups.

In fact, HiccAway was recently the subject of an article in JAMA Network Open, a publication of the Journal of the American Medical Association Network. The article addresses a four-month cross-sectional study of 249 participants from multiple countries that found that HiccAway stopped hiccups in almost 92 percent of cases and was rated a heck of a lot more favorably than home remedies.

“I believe that the science behind our product is what makes our product trustworthy and reliable. There are many hiccup remedies that are all hit and miss with no exact science to them,” Seifi says. “Some healthcare products claim they can cure a medical condition, but they don’t have scientific backup to support the product. I can confidently state that HiccAway is one of the few products on Shark Tank so far with a strong published research study as a backup.”

While hiccups are simply an annoyance for most of us, they can also be chronic for patients with cancer, meningitis, multiple sclerosis, stroke, traumatic brain or thoracic injury, and even for patients who have had surgery that requires anesthesia.

“After I witnessed my own neurology patients suffering from hiccups without an effective treatment, I was inspired to develop a safe and effective device that would be simple to use and easily available to all people,” Seifi says. “When you forcefully sip water through the device, it keeps the phrenic and vagus nerves occupied, so they don’t have enough time to cause unwanted spasms in the diaphragm. This interruption stops the hiccups.”

While the HiccAway device is already available to purchase through hiccaway.com and on Amazon, as well as at walmart.com and even in H-E-B stores throughout South Texas and at heb.com, Shark Tank (which boasts a viewing audience of about 7 million) could propel HiccAway and Seifi into a new realm of entrepreneurial success.

“For me, the experience was surreal,” says Victor Fehlberg, president and CEO of Higher Innovations Inc., which manufactures and distributes HiccAway from the Denver area. “It took so long to prepare, so much time was spent waiting, that when the pitch and appearance were finally recorded, it went too fast. It was like I was dreaming because it had been so long in the making.”

The Shark Tank appearance is likely a dream come true for Seifi and the HiccAway team — and a total breath of fresh air for the hiccup-suffering public.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.