Mark Goldberg
Mark Goldberg

What’s it like to have a visual impairment? That’s what U of G student Mark Goldberg wondered – and now he’s followed that interest to develop a smartphone app that allows users to see for themselves.

The third-year computer science student designed his first app – called POV (“Point of View”) — to enable users to glimpse the world as it’s seen by someone with a visual problem.

Having seen his invention named as a finalist during a recent student design contest, he’s now working on broadening the app to include more categories of visual impairments.

Goldberg hopes to offer users an at-your-fingertips way to understand challenges faced by people with impairments. He also hopes to help spare those with visual disabilities from confusion and questioning, however well-intended.

And he says POV might motivate more users to speak up for improved accessibility for people with visual problems. “Everyone should have a normal view of the world and the ability to live comfortably and with understanding from everyone,” he says.

His app was among nine finalists from more than 100 submissions in this year’s Innovative Designs for Accessibility student competition, run by the Council of Ontario Universities (COU).

Past its main screen with POV arranged like the letters on an eye chart, the app provides short written descriptions of several visual conditions. Clicking on each one changes the view of a user’s surroundings through the phone’s camera.

So far, it includes achromatopsia, or the inability to perceive colour, and deuteranopia, or red-green colour blindness. The app also allows users to mimic a pinhole view caused by glaucoma, as well as blurred vision.

He figures the main selling point is the mass market for handheld devices. “Almost everyone has a smartphone. It’s a very easy thing to download a free app.”

To develop his invention, Goldberg used word of mouth and social media to connect with people who have visual impairments. He also did lots of reading, coding and software development. He learned a few tips from U of G courses and had support from Prof. Dan Gillis, School of Computer Science.

Maybe the most difficult task was modifying the camera’s hardware settings on his phone to effectively distort its function.

Now fine-tuning his app, he aims to include more types of visual impairments.

Goldberg had been keeping an eye out for contests to test his software development smarts. Besides zeroing in on a specific issue — in this case, increasing accessibility – he liked the idea of making a difference in people’s lives.

“I like to create and invent and have something original,” says Goldberg, who lives in Toronto. “Anything I create, I want or like it to have purpose.”

Other finalist inventions in the COU contest included a wristband that vibrates for people with visual disabilities to signal when friends are nearby, a portable toilet that accommodates wheelchairs and a mapping system to rate accessibility of campus walkways.

Students showed off their ideas at the Ontario Centres of Excellence discovery conference this past May. This year, 18 of 21 Ontario universities took part in the contest, which is supported by the provincial government.

Goldberg says judges were impressed by his idea and his 90-second elevator pitch. One judge suggested the app might help designers create other products.

Referring to people with visual impairments, he says “it’s important to design with them in mind, not just someone with normal vision.”

Now working in an eight-month co-op placement in Toronto, he’s developing software for use by auto dealers in online auto trading.

He has also developed another app intended to make smartphones themselves easier to use.

“I really wanted to have an app in development; it’s a booming field.”

He’s interested in robotics and thinks he might work in web design and development one day. “I like design, anything that merges technology and design.”

To try out the Point of View app, visit the Play Store on your smartphone and search for “Mark Goldberg.”