Sounds can improve health and concentration.

For people with sensory and attention issues, focusing on tasks is a major problem. We are frequently sidetracked by intrusive thoughts and “shiny” objects as our brain desperately seeks out stimulation. It’s not laziness or as simple as being easily distracted, our bodies do not reward our brains for getting things done like other people do. Most peoples focus is based on what is important, our brains focus based on how interesting something is.

One thing that can help is providing supplemental stimulation. Something that can fill in the stimulation gap between what we are doing and what our brains need. Here are some tools that I have found success with, and I think will help others.

Background music. 

I find that music that doesn’t have lyrics works best. The genre is up to personal preference. For me Electronica, Instrumental Metal, and Lo-Fi House music works great. Others may prefer Classical or Jazz. For me, that doesn’t provide enough stimulation, but everyone’s brain is different, so find something that works for you.

Nature sounds/White Noise.

    There are lots of options out there, but one I particularly like is https://mynoise.net/. It provides highly customizable soundscapes, and you can even save them once you get them just the way you want. You can also load soundscapes that others have made. They have apps for Android and iOS, so you can take your happy place anywhere! Studies have shown that nature sounds can even improve health outcomes, so there are benefits beyond additional focus. Others, like Calm.com, also provide mindfulness features. I was sceptical of mindfulness for a long time, but I have found it highly beneficial over the last few years.

Hopefully this helps you live a more peaceful and successful life! Please let us know if any of these tips helps you, I love to hear that something I suggested has helped someone. If you have your own tools that help you focus, please let me know. I like to try new things, and am happy to share tools that help people succeed!

We will make it through this. It’s up to us what we look like on the other side.

Most of my job involves talking with Doctors and Nurses across the country. I talk to practices big and small, general medicine and specialists. I frequently ask them about COVID-19, out of curiosity and a desire to increase my own understanding. This is what I hear universally.

This is not just a simple virus. Yes, it’s a virus, but it’s very different from what we have seen before. The symptoms and contagiousness are dramatically worse than the Flu.

The regular flu already costs the US between $1-5 Billion annually in economic damage, not to mention the loss of life. I can’t imagine the economic and health impact Coronavirus would have on the economy if we just let it run rampant. Hospitals were already short staffed and overworked just dealing with the usual health issues we face. What happens when the demand for services outstrips the supply by an order of magnitude? Then the people providing the services start getting sick and dying, lower the availability and quality of care? Hospitals all over the country and world are at or near capacity, even with the dramatic reduction in non-COVID sicknesses and procedures. Opening up too soon would just make it worse.

I know it’s hard. I know businesses are struggling. I know people are struggling, I’m one of them. I see my family struggling also. I want this to be over SO BADLY. Just wishing for it to be over won’t make it so. We all have to do our part to keep this thing in check.

I hate COVID. I hate what it’s done to our society, our economy, our friendships, our children, and our mental health. I want it to be over. I’m struggling, I see my kids, my friends, my acquaintances, my country and my world, all struggling.

Remember, I’m not basing this on media talking heads or political grandstanding. This is what I hear from the mouths of Doctors and Nurses all over the country. The threat is real. I wish to God it wasn’t.

I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind with this. I think people who are going to listen have already, and those who won’t listen aren’t going to start now. But maybe, just maybe, I can be part of keeping the conversation going in a respectful and loving way.

Let’s hold on for just a little while longer. Hold onto your family, friends, and community. We will get through this, but only by loving and respecting each other will we come out better for it.

Enabled to play

Technology can be anything, and can help with anything.

When we think about technology, we usually picture something with a screen, flashing lights and buttons. In reality, technology can be anything that helps us to do a job. It is defined as “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes”.  

Universal Design is about creating an environment that meets the needs of everyone, not just the average human. It’s about designing from the ground up to provide people with different abilities the ability to reach equal results. It’s about being flexible, thoughtful, and inclusive.

We mostly focus on practical usage of technology, but let’s not forget that fun and play are an equally important part of our lives. People can feel left out when their friends play games, but the controllers are too complex for disabled people to use. To help with that, Microsoft created the Xbox Adaptive Controller. https://www.xbox.com/en-US/accessories/controllers/xbox-adaptive-controller This device is an excellent example of universal design. It is flexible, customizable, and allows people with different abilities to play games on an Xbox or PC. If you, or someone you know, could use a little more fun in their lives, give it a look. There isn’t much out there that competes for price and flexibility.

For more information, check out https://ablegamers.org/. They provide personal and financial support, and work to create a better environment for gamers of all kinds.

More resources: https://craighospital.org/services/assistive-technology/assistive-tech-gaming-resources

Source for accessibility reviews and video games.: https://dagersystem.com/

The IGDA Game Accessibility Special Interest Group: https://igda-gasig.org/

UK-based charity SpecialEffect: https://www.specialeffect.org.uk https://www.youtube.com/user/GameOnForEVERYONE

Let your voice be heard

From Thought to Paper with Speech-to-Text

One of the hardest parts of writing is just getting started. Changing personal and specific internal, and sometimes abstract thoughts into something someone else can understand is extremely challenging. If our kids are struggling with writing, why not use their default method of communication to get things started? With Speech-To-Text, they can!

Most phones and computers will do Speech-To-Text now. On iPhone, the default Notes app will listen to your voice and convert it to text. Almost any app that allows text entry, on any mobile device, will offer an option to use the microphone to record your voice and convert it to text. If you’re on a desktop computer with a microphone, this website works pretty well, https://dictation.io/speech, and Google Docs has built-in speech-to-text capabilities under ‘Tools > Voice Typing’.

It’s important to remember that creating documents with dictation is a very different process than starting a document with writing. Allow the spoken dictation to be free flowing. Just start talking, don’t worry about punctuation, spelling or sentence structure. If you think better when you move, try taking a walk or doing some work around the house. If you think of something, record it right away rather than trying to hold onto it until you can write it down. Speak as if you are talking to a friend, or actually record yourself talking to a friend! That can really help keep the thoughts flowing. Let the words flow naturally, with all of your own personality, passion and expression!

Once that’s done, then worry about the editing. Spoken and written communication are very different experiences, so they require very different structures. Use the dictation as a guide. Edit out the ‘umms’, look out for times when you used the same sentence length or repeated yourself. Those typically aren’t a problem when in a conversation, but they are for someone reading. Vary your sentence lengths, remember how you FELT when you spoke the words, and find ways to show that feeling to your reader. Feel free to move sentences and paragraphs around so they tie together better. Conversations have a very different flow than reading, so the finished written product will have substantially changed from what was first recorded.

Remember, the goal isn’t to be a great writer, the goal is to learn how to get ideas on paper.

Setting up to learn from home.

With many schools switching to remote teaching, parents are trying to figure out how to give their children the best chance to succeed. Here are some tips that will help.

Set aside a dedicated space. Having a physical space that is dedicated to schoolwork will help get children, and parents, differentiate between doing schoolwork, and just being at home. Try and set aside a corner of a room for a small desk or table, and keep all the necessary supplies close by. It is extremely difficult to remain focused on a task when you have to make trips around the house to get needed supplies, and stepping away from the desk will introduce lots of opportunities to get distracted. If you don’t have space for another desk, try setting up temporary dividers on the family dining table. You can create separate dividers for different subjects, with frequently needed information applied on each one.

Here is an example of one set up, and places to buy them: https://bit.ly/2ErusB2 https://bit.ly/2ErDlKT https://amzn.to/31pae46

Here is a video for an idea of how to set up the dividers. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TxyusiXuQdQ&

If you need a place to store the supplies, we use a mobile cart of drawers like this. https://amzn.to/2QkfUG0

Get a good internet connection. If at all possible, connect the school computer directly to your router with a network cable. It will provide a faster and more stable connection than wireless does. This is especially important for video chats. While not strictly necessary, it will make the whole experience much smoother.

Protect your kids online. To monitor and control computer usage, create an individual Microsoft Account on the computer for your child. https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/help/4026923/windows-10-create-a-local-user-or-administrator-account Once that’s done, Windows 10 has some very powerful and effective controls built in. They allow parents to block websites and web content, track usage, set time limits, share calendars, and more. https://account.microsoft.com/family/about

Find a good chair. Ergonomics are just as important for kids as they are for adults, posture problems now can become big health problems in the future. Physical discomfort and fatigue also make it harder to concentrate. Here is an article reviewing childrens chairs to give you an idea of what to look for. https://www.imore.com/best-desk-chair-kids Remember, there is high demand right now, so finding something in stock may be difficult. When you find a deal, jump on it. Also, add a small step stool for your kids to set their feet on. Feet dangling off the chair is not only uncomfortable, it can cause dangerous blood clots even in children.

Take care of yourself. All these tips apply for those of us working from home also. We are going to be working or going to school from home for the foreseeable future, so let’s try and reduce little annoyances. They add up, and over time make the whole experience stressful and exhausting.

Finally, BE PATIENT. This is a new routine and experience for everyone, and change is always difficult. It’s ok if it’s hard and things don’t go smoothly at first. Learn the lessons that come along, be adaptable, and keep moving forward. Definitely don’t be afraid to ask for help!
We are all in this together.

Special challenges require special tools.

As parents to a special needs son, my wife and I have struggled with the right way to teach him the things he needs to learn. One of the things that really holds his attention is electronics. How did we determine how much screen time is right for our child? The same way we measured everything else that he consumed. We question if it is providing a healthy benefit, or is it just empty calories, to be consumed sparingly.

Different abilities require different tools. Screens are a tool that we can use to improve our lives. Our son has sensory processing disorder and cognitive verbal delay. Typical verbal and written lessons are more challenging for him than for most kids. Educational apps on his iPad and shows on Netflix allow him to learn at his own pace, and repeat lessons as much as he needs to without testing the patience of a teacher or classmates.

Using these tools, and with help and encouragement from his teachers, he has advanced past grade level in several subjects. We can attribute his progress directly to his guided use of technology. Just like any tool, not all screens are the same, and if used correctly they can help produce great work. It’s how you use them that makes all the difference. To bring it back around to the food analogy, we are happy to let him consume healthy content that helps him grow.

VR glossary

We are going to be hearing about VR more and more, and with new technology comes new vocabulary. There’s a lot to learn, so let’s get started!

Presence: The feeling that what you are seeing is real, and you are in that reality. It’s a feeling of “being there”.

Field of view: The height and width of your vision. Basically how much you can see around you.

Near Field: Objects close to you are said to be in the Near Field. Because of the way vision works, the closer the object, the more three dimensional it appears.

Far Field: Objects far enough away that they don’t need to be as visibly detailed as objects close to the subject.

Mid Field: Objects that are close enough that they need to be detailed, but far enough away that stereo vision has minimal effect. These objects don’t have to be as detailed as objects in the near field, but more then far field objects.

HMD (Head Mounted Display): This is the part that you put on your head. It contains two separate screens, one for each eye, with each having a lease in front of it that provides magnification and focus.

Latency: This is the amount of time it takes for information to travel out and back. In VR, high latency can cause a delay between head movement and what is displayed on the screen, which can cause nausea in many people.

Resolution: How many pixels make up the image. Usually described by width and height, such as 1920×1080, which means the screen has 1,920 pixels going across its width, and 1,080 going up and down.

Pixel Density: This is a ratio of how many pixels a screen has in a square inch. Usually abbreviated as PPI, for Pixels Per Inch. Two screens can have the same resolution, but drastically different pixel densities. For instance, a 21” computer monitor and a 50” TV can both have a resolution of 1920×1080, but the pixels on the 25” screen are packed much closer together, and are frequently smaller. This results in a clearer image because the blocks of color are closer together. 

Refresh Rate: How frequently the image is replaced on the screen. In VR, a high refresh rate is very important because the image has to be updated frequently, otherwise the human brain becomes uncomfortable and becomes disoriented or nauseous. 

Screen Door Effect: When the images on the screen are magnified like they are in VR, somethings it is possible to see the individual pixels. This gives the effect of looking though a screen door, where there are small out of focus lines in your vision. The higher resolution the screens are, the less noticeable this effect is.

Frame Rate: Frame Rate is the number of times a brand new image is displayed on the screen per second (also known as Frames per Second, or FPS). This is reason this is important for VR is because a low frame rate will cause nausea, due to the delay between what the brain expect to see as the head moves, and what the eyes are seeing. A high frame rate also means smoother movement. For VR to not cause nausea and headaches, the sweet spot seems to be 90-120 FPS. Because the image is being split up, with alternating images for each eye, that means each eye is going to see 45-60 FPS. Any lower and we run into problems.

Room Scale: Room scale refers to a VR experience where you can walk around. Some headsets work better for this then others right now, although updates are coming fast. Right now the HTC Vive is the goto room scale experience to have. Games like Budget Cuts allow you to move around a building, taking out robot security guards in a quest to steal your termination papers. It’s more immersive, but can cause discomfort in some people. 

Seeing is believing

As I wrote about in my last post, VR is going to change all kinds of things. The visuals have reached the point where our brain actually thinks what we are seeing is real. That is a great thing for all kinds of applications. I want to talk about one thing that isn’t great about it. 

Last post, I talked about being immersed in a crowd, feeling the emotion and the energy. There is danger in that, the immersion may be so persuasive and emotional that it becomes the reality. But it’s only one side of the story. What if the other perspective doesn’t have VR? Their story may be less emotional and thrilling, but it’s still a story that needs to be heard. We have to be careful to not take the exciting and thrilling as truth. Truth is often the middle ground between two fantasies. Remember that while what we can see is important, it is not the whole picture. We need to seek out other sources of information beyond the thrilling immediacy of our eyes. VR is a great tool, let’s be careful not to rely on it to much, or wield it carelessly. 

10 things that Virtual Reality will change forever

10: Musical concerts

Everyone knows that live performances are the best way to experience music. With VR, we can be in the crowd, on the stage, the music and the people all around us. Like this Paul McCartney performance of Live and Let die on Jaunt VR. Want a less public show? An artist can record an unplugged session, just them and an empty room. They are playing just for you. How much would you pay for that?

9: Tourism

I have been to Rome and Paris and the Great Barrier Reef and the surface of Mars. On my phone, in my living room. It’s rudimentary, but even that is impressive and will only get more immersive as time goes on. Here is a video about a company called Visualise producing a VR tour for South Africa.

8: Home buying

Want to walk through a house before you buy it? No problem! Strap on a headset and take a tour! Sotheby’s is already using the Samsung Gear VR to show tours of homes in LA, New York, and the Hamptons. Find out that the previous interior decorator was an idiot from the comfort of your own home. 

7: Journalism

With VR we can experience the war zone and see the destruction. The New York Times and USA Today have apps for Android and iPhone now. We can be in the middle of the protests or the rally. Emotions and mood are hard to convey in pictures and words, but put me in the middle of it and I understand the energy. 

6: Empathy

It’s hard to understand what it’s like to be verbally or physically assaulted unless it has happened to you. VR is so immersive that we feel the anger and aggression directed at a victim, and we can start to understand the pain and fear that victim suffers. A company called Immersive Journalism is trying do just that. Chris Milk has an excellent TED talk about his quest to create the ultimate empathy machine. Hopefully this technology will help us become more understanding and tolerant. 

5: Relaxation

We live in a noisy world, and more and more of us are living in urban cities. Apps like Guided Meditation put you in a calm, relaxing environment, and escape the cement and steel and bright lights for a little while. Give me one of these and a hammock and I’ll be a happy guy!

4: Long distance communication

If you have ever video chatted with a friend or family member via Skype or FaceTime, then you know that is much better then a simple phone call. Now magnify that by a factor of 10, and you’re just about there. VR will bring us closer together. For business it will mean that a global company can communicate more efficiently and reduce travel costs. This will save huge amounts of time and money and increase productivity across the board. 

3: Gaming

Gaming has always pushed the boundaries of technology.  The first widespread use of VR will be among gamers, and they will be the beta testers for everyone else. Even once VR is widespread, gaming will continue to push the technology forward with new experiences and interfaces. Check out what Void VR is doing for instance.

2: Entertainment

Virtual reality entertainment will explode as creators will no longer be limited to displaying a flat image. Suddenly the viewer is inside the story, able to look at whatever they want, whenever they want. This will present difficult challenges, and many movies will be better presented with a field of view that is wider then it is now, but will still be limited. 3D space is difficult to manage, and won’t be ideal for many applications. Where it will really shine, however, is world building. If you can imagine it, you can create it in 3D space, and people can walk through it. Sports events will be presented in VR, like this years Daytona 500, which will be streamed in real time by a company called NextVR. How would you like to watch your favorite team or sporting event right from the sideline, or any number of other places?

1: Education

Access to information and infrastructure are some of the great limiters on a persons life. With VR, those barriers can be significantly lowered. With VR, you can learn to weld steel anywhere, without touching a torch or using up raw materials. Get in a bunch of practice, take a test using real life materials to prove your skill, and you’re in! Learn to drive a truck without even stepping inside one, take a couple physical tests to prove your skills, and viola! Now you’re a truck driver! StriVR Labs already have systems in use like this already  in the NFL and other sports. Imagine firefighters training in an extremely hot environment, outfitted with dummy equipment and VR headsets. Thanks to an immersive VR world, the firefighters get to practice without catching anything, or anyone, on fire!

Tasks that require extensive practice and repetition are excellent candidates for VR training. Practice scenarios can be built and reused without wasting resources. People in rural areas and developing counties can practice and learn and improve their lives anywhere there is a computer.

Virtual Reality may be not be real, but it is limitless. And it’s going to make a huge difference in our world.

I want to know what you think about VR. What do you think the risks are? What are you most excited about? Let me know in the comments below, and let’s talk about it!

Systeming the game

China is building a game that gives you points for acting like a good little communist. Behave, and you get faster internet, better loan terms, and other perks. Misbehave, and get ready for the slow lane of life. Associate with good patriots, and get bonus points. Non-conforming friends will drag down your score, so be careful who you associate with. It’s like a credit score for your life. It’s evil, pervasive societal control dressed up as a game. Here’s a video that talks about it: https://t.co/CPZOPkyHcG

America is about 70% there.  We already map relationships, monitor communications and activities. It’s just lacking a friendly interface and a point system. 

I don’t believe that the ultimate goal of our surveillance system is to implement a program like China’s, I just want to point out that the tools are the same. Remember that we are the government, we are the gatekeepers, and we have to be vigilant.