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Creators of wearable tech for visually impaired win ASU Innovation Open

Somatic Labs gets $100,000 to produce wearable tech for visually impaired.
April 2, 2017

Three entrepreneurs say they have 230 preorders for Moment device

Three young men who met five years ago as Flinn Scholars and launched an entrepreneurial venture won $100,000 on Sunday to fund their project, which makes wearable technology for people with visual impairments.

Shantanu Bala and Ajay Karpur, both graduates of Arizona State University, and Jacob Rockland, a senior at the University of Arizona, created Somatic Labs, which won the first ASU Innovation Open competition this past weekend. The three met during networking events for winners of the Flinn Scholarship, a prestigious, merit-based program for Arizona high school graduates to attend one of the three state universities.

The $100,000 investment will get the team closer to filling orders for Moment, their wristband device that uses “haptic,” or touch, technology to turn information into finely tuned vibrations.

The competition began last year with 33 student-led teams applying from several states and was narrowed to 15 semifinalists in February. The finalists pitched at Sunday’s “Final Four Demo Day” event, held at the Beus Center for Law and Society at ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus. The contest was sponsored by Avnet, which donated the prize money, and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU. Additional sponsors were Draper University, Zero Mass Water, Hool Coury Law and SRP.

The other ASU team that was a finalist, Swift Coat, won the $10,000 SRP Innovation Award. Swift Coat, a delivery system for nanoparticle coatings, similar to an aerosol spray nozzle, was launched by Zak Holman, an assistant professor in the School of Electrical, Computing and Energy Engineering, and Peter Firth, a PhD student at ASU. They’ve already drawn $3 million in federal funding and also won the $45,000 New Venture Challenge at ASU last year.

The other two finalists were RepWatch, made of three students from California Lutheran University, and Nunami Labs, created by three University of Arizona students. RepWatch created a platform and wearable device to enhance physical therapy for patients. Nunami Labs is developing 360-degree sensors for driverless cars.

All four teams won $5,000 for advancing to the final round.

Bala, a 2014 graduate who double majored in psychology and computer science, and Karpur, a 2016 grad in electrical engineering, worked at ASU’s Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing on projects to help people with disabilities. Somatic Labs came directly out of that experience.

“A lot of what we were doing day to day was working with people who were blind or visually impaired, and a lot of them were ASU students,” Karpur said. “The process involved a lot of direct interaction with the people who would be using this technology.”

During the pitch, Bala said the team already has 230 preorders for the $199 Moment device and one patent. The $100,000 investment will speed the process of filling the orders, which Somatic Labs hopes to do by June.

“We’re starting with people who have visual impairments because they needed this technology yesterday,” said Bala, who won a $100,000 Thiel Fellowship to research haptics.

As the orders came in, the three entrepreneurs talked to customers with visual impairments, and one man described how, when he wanted to know who was calling him, he had to have an audio notification.

“Even as simple as checking what time it is involves cranking up the volume and having the phone yell out the time,” Bala said.

“If someone is calling, you’ll hear something like, ‘Your mom is calling, your mom is calling,’ in the middle of a meeting or in class.”

Moment communicates tactilely. For example a visually impaired person who is walking down the street and approaching an intersection will feel a sensation on her wrist. Different callers would have unique sensation patterns on the user’s wrist.

Users download an app on their smartphones to sync with Moment. The device works with applications such as Facebook and Twitter, but it’s built so that anyone can make an app to interface with it for free. It includes an accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer to calibrate and provide interactive feedback.

Bala said the team is constantly updating its prototype — even as often as every few days.

“We’ve fabricated our own plastics, made our own circuit boards, wrote all our own software over the last year. We do all our own marketing and design.

“We built this company from the ground up.”


Top photo: Designers of wearable technology for the visually impaired, Somatic Labs team members — Ajay Karpur (left) and Shantanu Bala of ASU, and Jacob Rockland of UofA — won the top prize at the ASU Innovation Open on Sunday at the Beus Center for Law and Society in downtown Phoenix. They took a moment to collect themselves after picking up the $100,000 award and championship belt. 

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now


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ASU expert: Constant spread of misinformation can be corrosive to society.
April 3, 2017

New ASU initiative seeks to help counter the threat of fast-spreading forms of information, disinformation warfare made for digital age

Dramatic leaps in the quantity of information and the speed of its delivery may be spawning some of the most fundamental cultural changes in history spurred by advances in technology, according to Arizona State University Professor Brad Allenby.

Much of what this portends is good, but there are now clear signs that some of what it has wrought is a platform for the launching of “what you could call Propaganda 3.0,” he said.

What Allenby and some of his colleagues are calling it more precisely is “weaponized narrative.”

The full definition of the concept is a work in progress, but it generally describes technologically and psychologically sophisticated efforts to manipulate groups of people, and even nations, socially and politically through the spread of distorted information, or “false narratives.”

"By creating the stories and controlling the narratives over time, it’s being shown that you can significantly turn public opinions and attitudes in different directions,” Allenby said.

By skillful use of social media, the internet and other communications venues with nearly instantaneous global reach, it has become much easier to target members of specific groups with messaging craftily scripted to shape their outlook on the world — think, for instance, of the purveyors of “fake news.”

“What you can do with the help of today’s technologies is essentially isolate like-minded communities and feed them messages, images or ‘news’ tailored to reinforce what those communities are already inclined to believe,” Allenby said.

Battles waged with words and images

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Weaponized Narrative Initiative co-director Brad Allenby says the constant spread of misinformation can be corrosive to society. Photo by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU

The strategy itself is nothing new, he adds. The difference is that with the lightning quickness and far-reaching saturation of today’s mass media, communities can be set against each other more effectively.

“So what you now have is an erosion of connections between citizens who may have long had different outlooks on public issues but were at least united on some basic ideals and principles,” said Allenby, an ASU President’s Professor of civil, environmental and sustainable engineering in the university’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

He is also a professor of engineering and ethics in ASU’s Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics and author of the recent book “The Rightful Place of Science: Future Conflict and Emerging Technologies.”

Allenby is now teaming with Joel Garreau, professor of law, culture and values in ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and a former long-time award-winning Washington Post journalist, to establish and co-direct the Weaponized Narrative Initiative, which will operate under the umbrella of the Center on the Future of War at ASU in collaboration with New America.

“We are at an inflection point in history. A new battlespace and a new civilization are being born,” Garreau said. “With our two directorates, research and operations, the Weaponized Narrative Initiative is an early attempt to understand what’s going on, and then do something about it.”

Diverse team is taking on the challenge 

The Center on the Future of War focuses on research, education, public policy studies and analysis of the social, political, economic and cultural implications of the changing nature of war and conflict.

New America is a combination think tank, policy research institute, technology laboratory, public forum and media platform, committed to “renewing American politics, prosperity and purpose in the Digital Age.”

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Initiative co-director Joel Garreau says false narratives are part of the new “battlespace” in modern information warfare. Photo courtesy of The Garreau Group

With those partners, Allenby and Garreau hope to work with other researchers to embark on intensive study and analysis of the rise of weaponized narratives.

They also will be aided by a team of faculty from ASU and other universities with expertise in politics and global studies, international security, strategic communication and media technologies, including several who have served with the U.S. Marine Corps and Air Force who have expertise in national security and intelligence operations.

They want to produce white papers, conference presentations and platforms for education and discussion with the aim of finding ways to counter the impacts of narratives constructed to plant seeds of political and social destabilization.

Allenby and Garreau recently outlined their view of the threat and the challenges of defending against it in an article titled “Weapon Narrative is the New Battlespace,” posted on Defense One, a website dedicated to news and analysis of national security issues, as well as ideas from strengthening security.

The new initiative’s mission was further explained at the recent Future of War Conference 2017 in Washington, D.C., at which Allenby gave a presentation to an audience that included U.S. Department of Defense, Central Intelligence Agency and White House officials.

Undermining trust in ‘applied rationality’

One aspect of the security threat is rooted in the unprecedented capabilities of our technological advances.

For all the advantages of “smart” devices and systems embedded in phones, buildings, infrastructure, cars, computer networks, consumer products and more, “many of these things are susceptible to being used as tools of information warfare,” Allenby said.

Engineers, scientists and industry that are expanding the capabilities of such technologies must be more aware of how they can “unintentionally create vulnerabilities” that compromise cybersecurity. But what we are dealing with is “something more than the Russians hacking into information to mess with an American election,” Allenby said.

From a social psychology perspective, we are witnessing the reverberations of people throughout the world being confronted with a much more complex and thus often more confusing and frightening world than in the past.

Frustration and disorientation over the loss of life’s seeming simplicity is opening susceptibility to aggressively manipulative narratives that seek to undermine knowledge and understanding “to such a degree that applied rationality is no longer a trusted way to discern the truth,” Allenby said.

“Now you’re watching a rejection of rationality and the validity of scientific findings as sources of truth in favor of these politicized narratives that reinforce highly partisan viewpoints,” he said.

In a recent article on the website of Fifth Domain, a cybersecurity and defense news outlet, Allenby was quoted about how such trends of rejection and denial of facts gives tech-savvy creators of disinformation openings to influence large populations.

The thrust of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative’s work will be to find ways of breaking through the power of these narratives and reversing our self-destructive societal fragmentation.


Top image courtesy of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative

Joe Kullman

Science writer , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering