Learning from Light
How a bright idea was transformed into the latest educational tool in assistive technology
By Bill Winter
Three years ago, sitting in a showroom at Philips Color Kinetics, Catherine Rose saw the light. Literally.
She was staring at a wall illuminated by a dazzling rainbow array of LED lights when she thought, "I know someone who would love this."
That someone was her daughter, Alexis, 7, who attends Perkins School for the Blind.
Like all parents, Rose was constantly looking for new ways to engage and motivate her daughter. Sitting in that showroom, it occurred to her that lights could be a powerful educational tool for Alexis and other children with visual impairments.
Three years later, Rose's insight has been transformed into a teaching device called the LightAide™. It's being used regularly in Perkins' classrooms and is now available for sale around the country to teachers of the visually impaired.
Break through the darkness
Rose was the right person in the right place when she had her bright idea.
At the time, she was a senior manager in the finance division of Philips Healthcare. On that particular day in 2010, she was visiting one of the company's other divisions - Philips Color Kinetics, which sells commercial lighting. Color Kinetics makes, among other things, intensely bright multi-colored LED nodes, or bulbs, that are used for displays on bridges and casinos.
But Rose was more than just a finance person. She also has a degree in mechanical engineering. And she's the mother of a child with extensive medical and physical disabilities, including deafness and blindness.
Looking at the bank of LED lights, Rose thought their powerful glow could break through the darkness that surrounds children with visual impairments. "I just wanted to prove my theory, which was, if you make something bright enough, they will see it," she said.
Inspired, Rose contacted the CEO of Color Kinetics and quickly got approval to move forward with a new project.
She scheduled a meeting between Color Kinetics engineers and staffers from Perkins, including Martha Majors, assistant education director of the Deafblind Program.
Majors was excited by the idea of a light-based teaching tool. "Kids with vision challenges are often attracted to light," she said. "So what we were looking at was a product that would promote interest and motivation and interaction."
To inspire brainstorming, Majors showed the engineers a primitive light device that was already being used in the Deafblind Program - a flat piece of cardboard, wrapped in blinking holiday lights.
The Color Kinetics crew was amused by the low-tech item, recalled Majors. "The engineers simply laughed, saying, ‘This is what you're using?'"
But it got the discussion started, and the engineers were enthusiastic about using light for education. They decided to design a grid of multi-colored LEDs that could be controlled remotely.
"The folks at Color Kinetics were probably 125 percent on board from the moment I started working with them," Rose said. "They all really loved the idea."
One of the original team members was John Warwick, a software system architect. "We got permission to work on this as a 5 percent time project," he said. Philips allows employees to devote 5 percent of their time - one day a month - to non-work-related projects.
"We call it innovation time," Warwick said. "We're very encouraged to try to solve problems that lie outside our typical day-to-day work. It's part of the culture."
Warwick assembled a team of five or six people. "It was very easy to recruit people to work on it," he said. "It's a great project. We had mechanical design, we had industrial design, we had electrical engineers, and we had a couple of software people."
Using off-the-shelf lights and electronics, the team built a crude prototype. It featured a 7x7 grid of LEDs, for a total of 49 bulbs. The team wrote a few simple software programs to operate the lights.
"The first prototype was essentially hand-cut out of wood, with the electronics taped to the back," Warwick said. "There were wires everywhere."
They wanted more lights
In early 2011, the team brought the device, originally called the Light Guide Panel, to Perkins for a hands-on encounter with students.
They set it up in a lobby and watched the reaction. Students with some vision were immediately attracted to the brightly glowing object, Majors said. They sat down and began interacting with it.
"Many of them actually communicated in a really exciting way by hitting the switch and then signing, ‘More!'" she said. "Like they wanted more lights."
Warwick said the team enjoyed watching students use the Light Guide Panel. "For engineers that typically stay in the lab, to be able to go onsite and actually see kids use your product was amazing," he said.
Over the next two years, the Color Kinetics team built an increasingly sophisticated series of prototypes, incorporating feedback from teachers and students. Working nights and weekends, they packed more LED bulbs into a sturdy hard-plastic case and wrote more complex educational software.
How many yellow?
The device - now called the LightAide™ - has been used in a variety of ways by students in several education programs at Perkins. One lesson, for example, combines color identification with arithmetic, Majors said. "I push the button and a particular color illuminates. And I ask, ‘What color is that?' And they sign, ‘Yellow.' And then I might say, ‘How many yellow?' And then they have to count it."
The LightAide™ also helps youngsters develop pre-reading skills by illuminating lights in a left-to-right sequence, which is the way people read print or braille. The device has enough lights to clearly display numbers and letters, which makes possible more complex literacy and math lessons for older students.
Meanwhile, Rose, who today is a senior product manager for Healthcare Lighting at Philips, said young students like Alexis can study age-appropriate lessons such as cause-and-effect or turn-taking, which their sighted peers learn by simply observing everyday life.
If Alexis is any indication, children have so much fun using the LightAide™ they don't realize they're learning.
In her classroom, Alexis' eyes sparkle behind her thick pink-framed glasses. Her face is bathed in blue, violet and orange lights as she joyfully pounds the large plastic button that controls the LightAide™.
She is playing what Rose calls the "building blocks game," which teaches organization and planning. Alexis repeatedly presses the button to build a towering structure of lights.
"She just thinks it's the craziest thing," Rose said. "She gets all excited, because she's click-click-click up to the top, and then it crashes back down."
And then Alexis does it again, her face aglow with enthusiasm and wonder.
The LightAide makes the leap
In September 2013, after three years of testing and refining, the LightAide™ finally made the leap from prototype to official product. It's available for sale from Perkins Products, the Perkins division that offers accessible technology for people who are visually impaired.
The commercial version – a sleeker model with a built-in stand that doubles as a carrying handle - packs 224 small LED bulbs in a 14x16 grid. The oversized operating button comes in a choice of bright colors. A control panel on the side allows teachers to choose from a variety of preloaded educational software.
The LightAide™ is being marketed to teachers of the visually impaired and parents of children who have low vision, said Laura Matz, director of marketing and sales at Perkins Products. She's planning to display the product at educational conferences and trade shows.
"It's an exciting new education tool for low-vision learners," she said. "The fact that it was developed by the mother of a student who has low vision, with direct input from teachers who work with children who have low vision, speaks to how relevant it is."
The activities created specifically for the LightAide™ also align with the standards of the expanded core curriculum for students who are blind and have other disabilities, added Joe Martini, director of assistive technology for Perkins Products.
"We're really pleased to bring this valuable learning technology to the market with our partner Philips," he said.
Meanwhile, teachers at Perkins are still figuring out new ways to incorporate the LightAide™ into their lessons, Majors said. "I'm hoping we have it in as many classrooms as possible. We can then share ideas."
Other potential uses extend beyond the school. Vision specialists might one day use it to assess how much usable vision children have, and physical therapists might use it to encourage children with physical challenges to move and stretch.
When Rose thinks back to the day she sat in the Philips Color Kinetics showroom, she's dazzled by how far the LightAide™ has come, and by how much further it might go.
"I feel like the proud parent to see the product grow," she said. "But it's even more powerful because I get to see the impact on students - including my own little girl."
To learn more about the LightAide™, visit LightAide.com.