Episodes
Image of Mike May, Chief Evangelist, GoodMaps in a light blue polo shirt.
13 Letters
May 6, 2021

Getting Unlost

From having his story written in Crashing Through to founding Accessible GPS company Sendero, Mike May has been a household name in the world of access and inclusion for decades. Mike joins us this week to talk about what it was like to have his eyesight restored after decades as a blind person, the evolution of accessible navigation, and what he's up to now as Chief Evangelist at GoodMaps.

Episode Transcript

Will Butler:
Hi everyone, you're listening to 13 Letters, the accessibility podcast from me, Will Butler, and my co-host Cordelia McGee-Tubb. Before we jump in to today's episode, I wanted to give a big shoutout to our transcript sponsor: Diamond. Diamond is an inclusive digital agency specializing in scalable, accessible, and high performance web and mobile applications. Check them out, at diamond.la. You can read all those transcripts at bemyeyes.com/podcasts. We have a really special guest today who has been a real trail-blazer, no pun intended, in the field of blazing trails for navigation, accessible GPS, and now he's working in indoor navigation. It's our friend, Mike May! Cordelia, what did you know about Mike before we interviewed him?

Cordelia McGee-Tubb:
I honestly did not know much about him. I had never met him before, I knew that he was a skier, and that he was interested in, you know, accessible navigation. I learned way more about him on this interview, so it's fantastic.

Will Butler:
He's had an incredible story. He's featured in this book, "Crashing Through: The True Story of Mike May." He lost his eyesight as a young child, and then gained it back again. Fascinating story, but Mike really is a blind guy through-and-through, and has worked tirelessly over the decades to improve the technology for blind people. So, we're going to hear today about what Mike's doing with GoodMaps, which is a project that's backed by American Printing House for the Blind, and just a really super exciting new start-up that Mike's working on. So let's take a listen, shall we?

Cordelia McGee-Tubb:
Let's do it!


Will Butler:

We've got a West Coast crowd this morning. We're dotting the map down from Reno to San Francisco to LA. Mike, how is life in Reno, Nevada?

Mike May:

Well, since I work for an East Coast company things start typically at 6:00 or 6:30. So boy, the Grand Ole hour of 8:30 in the morning and I'm feeling pretty good.

Will Butler:

East Coast company, Mike, you got a whole new gig. It's not that new anymore but what is the title you have now at GoodMaps?

Mike May:

Well, I got to pick my title. And I realized in retrospect it maybe doesn't tell you anything. But that was part of the purpose and being chief evangelist. And in many ways, that's what I am and have been evangelizing navigation. And the better you get around, the better you engage in life. And so I guess that's a chief evangelist now at GoodMaps.

Will Butler:

Evangelizing. That's a very techie title. You don't hear that much in any other industry. Do you?

Mike May:

Now, you hear it a bit from people like Josh Meili and some of those other leaders in the industry. So I think I'm in good company.

Will Butler:

So much of the work and accessibility is just getting awareness up, right?

Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mike May:

When it really is. And I'm not being facetious when I say the better you get around, the better you engage in life. I've always said that acuity is really not what determines your level of blindness, it's how well you get around. There's people who've got black dark 00 vision, and they travel the world and they get around, they engage in everything. And then there's low partial people who are fearful and stay at home and don't do anything. So I think we should have a life acuity scale, and not the Snellen scale of 20/20, 2400, and so forth.

Will Butler:

Right. They have a functional scale or something like that, right? I want to ask you about that acuity scale, and you have a very unique experience with that. For those who have read the book Crashing Through, it's an incredible introduction to blindness. Before we kind of dive into that, what is up with this thing? You're kind of obsessed with independent travel? Am I right?

Mike May:

You could call it obsessed, or I'm just enamored with it. It's the child side coming outdoor. I wanted to do it myself, and there's a fine line between being afraid and being curious. And I've always thought about that and explored that notion. And I introduced the concept 20 years ago when accessible navigation really got launched with our backpack version of GPS, and that term is the power of getting unlost. So I support the notion that we've been trained as blind people not to get lost. So the traditional O&M technique was, learn your route and here it is, walk three blocks, turn left, walk two blocks, turn right, go four blocks.
And then you think to yourself, "Self, was that a three, two, four? Was that a three, four, two?" And so it's so much based on memory and sequential navigation because you didn't want to get lost. But if you had the capability to get lost, which means you could rescue yourself or find your way out of that pickle, then it would make things so much more interesting. And most importantly, you're independent, not just from other people, but you're independent from that three, two, four sequence that you've had to memorize and you can now start to explore the world.

Will Butler:

Reducing that cognitive load, right?

Mike May:

Well, I think reducing the fear factor. You definitely don't want to get lost if you can't bail yourself out. So now we have other tools to bail ourselves out. We have apps, certainly we have cell phones, it's something we didn't have years ago. And we still need our traditional tools, of course, of being able to ask for sighted help. But that's not 100% reliable, either. I know and as you know, sighted people want to be helpful. Sometimes you can't get their attention, but let's assume you do on a street corner and you ask for help, they may try to be helpful, and they really don't have a clue where to send you. So off you go in the wrong direction. That's a pretty inaccurate way to travel. So my theory is always been asked five people directions to the place you're going and then average the answers.

Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

I love this phrase, the power of getting unlost, and you're talking about fear. And I think like an important part of independence that you're getting out here is confidence, being able to confidently navigate on your own.

Mike May:

I remember when I first moved to San Francisco 1987, '88, and I lived several blocks from Jerry Coons. At that time, he lived in the Haight. And so we'd walk to a center point, meet up with each other and then walk around the city for hours. And he had the knowledge of the city and the streets and everything but there were routes he hadn't explored before. And because we were doing this together, and we were supporting each other's information with what we knew independently, all of a sudden, we're able to even explore further and get unlost even back in the days before there were GPS. Later on, when we had GPS, Jerry and I would explore the city. And now we could get into all kinds of trouble not only in San Francisco, but in other cities because we had that tool that would help us find our way.

Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

The power of getting into all kinds of [crosstalk 00:07:55].

Will Butler:

No better guy than Jerry to do that with.

Mike May:

Right. They always say with a four wheel drive vehicle that it just allows you to get deeper into the snow or into the woods and get stuck further away.

Will Butler:

I like that analogy for blind people. Mike, I want to talk about how you brought GPS to the blind community and first, I really want to give people your story for those who haven't heard it. So you weren't born blind but you became blind pretty early on in life, can you tell us just briefly about that?

Mike May:

I lived in Silver City in New Mexico. I was born in Denver but we went there for a job. My dad was an engineer in a copper mine and calcium carbide is used in miners lamps because it doesn't take much oxygen to burn underground. Somebody left a bottle of this calcium carbide in the garage. I wanted to use the jar that it was in because I was making mud pies. I got that jar, I took it over to some water and doused it and that powder turn to acetylene gas. And we happen to be next to a pile of burning garbage. So gas spark explosion. Mike ends up in the hospital at age three and a half and was totally blind. Lucky to live though, so that was the upside.

Will Butler:

I should say everything I've learned about you, we've known each other a while. We haven't talked about all this stuff. And everything I know is from the book, Crashing Through. As an aside, what has it been like being sort of I don't know if this is true or not, but from my view, one of the most sort of well documented blind people out there. Do you feel your story has been sort of like warped at all, or does it serve the purpose that it was intended for?

Mike May:

Well, there's a lot of discussion around that topic. And believe me, it came up a ton when the book first came out. And when I signed movie rights, I remember sitting in a room at an NFB convention talking with a bunch of people. And they were powerful, smart blind people that Brian Bashan introduced me to. And we sat around and talked about the upside and the downside of how this public information about blindness was going to impact the sighted world. I was invited to a dinner with Mark Mauer back at one of those conventions, and he's busy at conventions.
And he made time to talk to me and make the point. He said, "Mike, you have the ability to really positively influence blindness, or you can ruin what we've worked so hard to do depending on the media output." So I felt a lot of pressure, particularly as I had hundreds 1000s of interviews and international press around the Crashing Through book and my eye operations. And I wanted to make sure that I got it right. You don't always have control over the media. So it was a real finessing act to try to make that all turn out right and positive for blind people.

Will Butler:

I really recommend the book for anyone because for all of its pros and cons and using your life as its content, it really does give you a sense of sort of the essence of what it means to be blind, specifically, because without spoiling it too much, it talks about your journey into regaining some of your sight. And it's a very unique situation that you're in. Before we get into that, tell us what it was like being a blind kid because you were very active. And you were very accomplished by a young age. What were the factors that you think led you to have that confidence?

Mike May:

Oh, gosh, it wasn't me. I suppose I had the raw ingredients to be independent and be curious. But though those flames were fanned by my mother, there's one way to approach independence is just ignore the kid and see what happens. But she was very protective as a parent, but at the same time, she went to bat for me before the mainstream school laws were passed in the early '70s. She went to bat for me to get into a school with my neighborhood kids at a local high school. And you can just picture her sitting at a table or with the school board, taking her shoe off, like Khrushchev did, and banging it on the table and saying my kid is in your district, he's going to your school, end of story.
And to have that kind of advocate not only set the stage for me, but it also taught me an example of how to advocate for myself as I progressed and went through high school and then into college and before we had as many resources and laws at our disposal that we have today. So it was really parents and teachers, my mom in particular, and a number of teachers who really made a huge difference and giving me the opportunities that I had.

Will Butler:

There's a physicality to all the activities that you engaged in, skiing ,stories about you riding your bike around as a blind kid. Stories that are totally unfamiliar if you've met other active blind people, but nonetheless what's your take on physicality and what stops most blind people from really using their bodies to their fullest capacities?

Mike May:

Well, I think it's no surprise, particularly to somebody who goes blind later in life and all of a sudden you can't see, is how much being physical depends on vision and how much fear impacts your ability to take a step to go outside of your comfort zone. That is a real concern and a real fear and you can't just command that away. So I think I had the benefit of growing up this way. I'm just blind, this is how we operate. My mom treated me as this is normal, I was among five kids in a family. So You can't be overly protective when you've got five kids.
And as a single mom, she gave me a lot of responsibility. And the physical part of my upbringing and my adventures really came down to, if I'm going to interact with my friends, if I'm going to go bike riding, or if I'm going to play football, they're not going to make any compensation dispensation for me. I have to play along the best I can. And if I want special rules, I need to make them up and advocate for them. But if I want to engage a lot of times particularly as a kid that involves being physical.

Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

And how did you get into skiing in particular?

Mike May:

Well, Cordelia, I didn't start skiing until I was 27. And I kicked myself for that because the earlier you start these things, the better you get, the less fear you have. And my friends at UC Davis, they grew up skiing back in the days when lift tickets were eight bucks, and now they're 150. And I had one of my good friends who's introduced me to a lot of adventures in life in both business and in fun, travel and in skiing for a name robberies, went up with him and some other friends and got introduced to a blind ski program in Kirkwood, California, and became very close friends and then co director with Ron Salviaolo. At the time was the Kirkwood Instruction of Blind Skiers we renamed it to Discovery Blind Sports, which goes on to this day, having trained a lot of blind skiers and guides and develop some very significant blind ski race programs.

Will Butler:

And where does the CIA fit in here? Because the in the book the CIA is mentioned.

Mike May:

You're [crosstalk 00:17:04] talking about the Culinary Institute of America.

Will Butler:

Are you SWAT? Is there a cone of silence here that we need to avoid? What's going on? I don't want to step in any landmines.

Mike May:

No, I was in graduate school in DC, in International Affairs, and came across that the CIA was interviewing at our school, and I thought, "Oh, what the heck? Blind CIA blind agent, I should go interview." And one thing led to another. And eventually, I got hired as a political risk analyst working on Africa. And learned an amazing amount about myself and that was really my first professional job. And I did end up working in that field specifically, but it was a fascinating experience. And of course, going through all the security clearance stuff ahead of time, and being in the CIA building. That's so iconic. Was an amazing experience. I was just there for a year or 13 months.

Will Butler:

The CIA and FBI and some of these agencies, they do hire quite a number of blind folks, don't they?

Mike May:

They do now. I was the first person then was hired at the CIA and shortly after I was there another blind woman was hired, and now they have somebody in charge of accessibility, and they do all sorts of things.

Will Butler:

What was that like being the first blind guy at the CIA?

Mike May:

Well, from a practical standpoint, it was really hard. Because in those times 1977, '79, this is prior to personal computers. And so what people had was a lot of print. So the typical political risk analyst comes into work, looks at a pile of prints, maybe a foot and a half high, and has to figure out how to go through that, sort it out and read it.

Will Butler:

How did you get hired?

Mike May:

Well, it is amazing. Well, when you think about it with that sort of expectation that you're going to read all this print material, how do you talk to an employer into hiring you? And I'm sure I use the naive approach of well, we'll figure it out. Which is sometimes just what you have to do. But most employers don't really go along with that. They're petrified of hiring a blind person. I fortunately, shortly after I started work, I met the Director of Central Intelligence, Admiral Turner, and he said, "We will make this work. You let me know what we need and we'll make it happen."

Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

That's awesome.

Mike May:

With that kind of support at the highest level in the CIA, others underneath him were going to do backflips to make sure that I got what I needed. And that's what happened. Well, they had to innovate in order to get me material that was relevant for my job. I have hanging on the wall here behind me a map of Africa, that the shop at the CIA made it's picture of a jigsaw puzzle about two and a half by two and a half feet, all the countries intricately cut out in wooden shapes with a little pin in the capital, to just give me a geographic understanding of the layout of these countries, and how their borders all related. That was just one of many tools that they customized for me.

Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

That's fantastic. And since you mentioned maps, I kind of wanted to jump into GPS, because you've had what I feel like is a lifetime of incredible innovation around accessible navigation, how did you get into GPS technology?

Mike May:

Well, I've always been curious about what's around me. And we all know that side of people bless their hearts will tell you certain amount of information, but they just can't tell you everything. And they by definition, they're filtering what you hear about. My mother tells me stories when I was three years old, and she's driving me across the Bay Bridge to go to my eye doctor, and it's super foggy, and she can't hardly see anything. She's trying to concentrate on the road and I'm saying, "Mommy, mommy, what's out there? I hear something." And I'm hearing foghorns and other things. And she said, "There's nothing." And I wouldn't take no for an answer.
So she just made stuff up. She would start telling me there's Mickey Mouse's out there, whatever. And so I've always been super curious about surrounding information. So when I joined Arkenstone, in 1994, '95, and they were looking into the first use of GPS, I was really captivated by the idea. Oh, my gosh, there are 10s of millions of points of interest, I could know about the businesses that are around me, I could walk down the street and have a narration of every single store that I'm passing. I can hear every intersection and I don't have to depend on that site and filter for that information. From that time on to this day, I've been captivated by that information and that possibility.

Will Butler:

In the long history and the continuum of this, if in 1994 we were at the very beginning, how far have we gotten in terms of maturity for these devices to really enable blind people to exist on a level playing field? Have we reached maturity on GPS? Or do we have a long way to go?

Mike May:

Well, a lot has changed, of course, and there are some things that haven't changed. The value of that location information is equally important and enticing today as it was 25 years ago. I call it LIFE, Location Information For Everyone. And sighted people they've always had the benefit of being able to look around and see what's there. And Teresa Costello, famously said, "Think about all the print signs being taken down, and that's how it would be for a blind person when there's no location information." And a sighted person could picture that they've always had an alternative of the GPS, which was not as good, but it was useful and still is useful. For us, we had the sighted passer by, our memory, and very little information to go on.
So GPS made a huge incremental dent in our lives. The main thing that's changed is that it's gotten smaller, more powerful, more information everything is grown exponentially but the value is very much the same and now the benefit is even greater since we have options. When I first launched GPS in 2000 there was the backpack version, and then the braille node and then the tracker and the pack mate and others came along and validated that this was really valuable and gave blind people a choice. And of course, that's what it's all about. And there's not one solution that fits everybody all of the time. Today, we have multiple apps, and we have different kinds of hardware, and even different databases that we can choose from in terms of our location information.

Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

We were on GPS technology going from the backpack to the BrailleNote to I guess, now it's on people's wrists, which is interesting because I recently I read a quote of Vice President Gore talking about you, Mike and was saying I think it was in the mid 1990s, he was like, :"It won't be long before Mike and other people are wearing GPS devices on their wrists." I'm like-

Mike May:

Exactly. That was on the White House lawn, and I don't know '98 or something like that.

Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

And lo and behold, that future is now.

Mike May:

It is. We have our smartphones with GPS and my app folder for navigation has something like 15 apps in it.

Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

But let's go back to the backpack. I'm very curious about what this was actually like. So would a person be wearing this large backpack that would send out signals? I'm not very familiar with how GPS technology works. So what was that early stage of this like?

Mike May:

Well, and there were a number of us who were motivated and had strong backs because those about 12 pounds consisted of a laptop of your choice. And laptops were still two, three pounds, they didn't have to be a 10 pound backpack. But the real challenge was all of the separate pieces of the equation. Now, GPS is on a chip inside of a phone, back then it was on external antennas. So this backpack was sprouting two antennas and it had so many connections, including the keypad that invariably something would come unplugged or would get jittery. And that was really the biggest challenge. Of course, batteries would run out. The hardware and all the connections was probably the bigger issue than really the weight of the unit.

Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

It sounds almost like a jet pack. It doesn't necessarily magically transport you from point A to point B, but it enables you to get from point A to point B much more easily.

Mike May:

That's very true. And ironically, the technology that we're using today to scan and map a building is a backpack with LIDAR and cameras. And it's very reminiscent of the Strider backpack from the '90s. Different purposes, the Strider backpack was showing us how to get around, the latest CPS backpack for mapping and positioning that we're using in our GoodMaps, explore product, the map buildings is different, but still facilitating the process of getting around better. Now, that navigation is indoors versus outdoors.

Will Butler:

Back in the day when you were wearing a backpack like this, whatever mission were you actually getting was it pretty minimal?

Mike May:

In the very beginning, we got points of interest and there were no street maps. So let's say in the '90s, then it evolved to getting more streets. But the data has definitely improved and gotten denser and richer over the years but it started out with the basics and has just expanded since then. But it was the same sort of information where you're hearing your local Starbucks and the heading and distance to that particular location. That's very much the same today as it was then.

Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

I as a sighted person, I do take in everything around me and auto filter it, and I wonder how do you strike that right balance of giving people enough information without overwhelming them? Because maybe someone wants to know say, the name of the establishment or where the door is or how tall it is or there are a million different things that you could indicate about one's surrounding. So how do you decide what that sweet spot is for initial information and then let someone dive in more to deeper information about something?

Mike May:

Well, you try to do it with software with a computer with options, but you're exactly right. We went from a time when there wasn't enough information to now a time where there's too much information and how do you filter it. So you have configuration settings that you can modify for your particular situation. So sometimes I might just want to go wandering around and want a sampling of everything. And other times I'm thinking about stuff, all I want to know is where do I turn? And I don't want points of information every 10 seconds as I'm going along. So you need the ability to make those changes yourself.
We also try to make this software smart. So for example, we can know with the GPS app when you're moving, or when you're not moving. And if you're not moving, you want typically different information. So for example, you probably have stopped in an intersection. So let's say now's the intersection. And when you're moving, you probably want the information that's ahead of you and not 360 degrees around you. So let's only give you the straight ahead, or let's say ahead into the 11 o'clock or one o'clock position. So you try to be as smart and software to filter but you also then want to give the user the capability to manually override that in case their situation changes, and they want to modify what they're hearing about.
Because vocal information is obviously a lot more overwhelming than visual information where you can have little snippets of what you see, and then look at it more closely or not. The audio version of that is a little bit tricky. I will say that having a braille display can definitely help in that situation. So if you're in a vehicle and you're carrying on a conversation with a person, it's easier to monitor your points of interest and your location information on a braille display, versus having an earphone and listening to information constantly, while at the same time trying to carry on a conversation.

Will Butler:

And this is a spoiler alert for folks who haven't read the book. The books too old. It's been out too long though for me to feel bad about it. Where along the career path, did you have these operations that gave you eyesight back? You are like 45, or something like that when you regained this tremendous amount of eyesight.

Mike May:

The timing of my visual restoration was end of '99. I had the first operation which was a stem cell transplant to replace the burn tissue in my one eye that still had light perception. Then four months later after that healed, then I had a cornea transplant, which is a much more standard operation but it can't be conducted if you have a burned eye. So with the healthy tissue eye then I had the cornea transplant and in March 2000 I got a low level of vision back but when you've had zero, zero to what I had, which on that erroneous scale is was about 20 over 1000 was pretty huge. Zero to that level was really a big deal.

Will Butler:

And you can read this in detail in the book, but I really like to hear it from you going 41 years, growing up with very little eyesight, almost no eyesight and then suddenly having it restored now 21 years later, looking back on that moment, what was it like?

Mike May:

Well, I went ahead with the operation despite the fact that it was bad timing. I was launching my company, Sendero. It was a hustle. I didn't really need vision, in terms of quality of life. I had a good job, family and I travel and why did I need vision? I was used to operating without it. And in fact, there was many potential downsides to an operation that was quite unpredictable. And if you read the history of other people who've had vision restored after long-term blindness, the results are not very good. There are people who've suffered depression and suicide and mostly no positive stories.
So against that backdrop, I went ahead because I was curious. And sure enough, my curiosity was fulfilled and still is in terms of visual information, which it sometimes was extremely overwhelming and interruptive but other times it was fascinating to see stars. And people can explain stars to you all you want but until you grasp the magnitude of those little specks of light, millions of miles away visually, it's not 100% the same. That's not to say that I ever felt like I was missing out on anything because I was blind, but I certainly got a different perspective and a very interesting one when I was able to have this low level of vision.

Will Butler:

And so what is your visual acuity today?

Mike May:

Well, my visual acuity is 20 over 1000, but that is a poor representation of what I see. Because as it turns out vision is not just low, medium and high. It varies tremendously across the visual cortex. So for example, I can see colors extremely well, almost as good as a fully sighted person. So I can tell you red, yellow, green, and I could immediately after the bandages came off on March 6, 2000. And I can detect motion pretty well. Somebody can throw me a soccer ball and most of the time I can catch it in the air.
But I have virtually no depth perception, and no detail recognition or face recognition. So no reading print, which would be a huge benefit in life and face recognition would be great. And depth perception I just have to deal with. So that same situation where somebody throws me a ball in the air, I can see it moving, but if I have no depth perception, will I catch it or not? So vision is very complicated and what you're being measured when you hear 20 over 1000, that is one single aspect of your detail perception. And it doesn't really represent across the whole spectrum of your visual acuity.

Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

Why do we use that scale, then?

Mike May:

I think, it probably just came about I don't know how many years ago as a way of representing the common way to analyze and to develop a metric of people's visual acuity because reading print really was a huge thing that you wanted to determine and that reading the E on the eye chart was one way of doing it. And having a scale that said, at 20 feet, this is what you can see, and at 10 feet, this is what you can see and so forth. But it doesn't take into account things like color and motion and face recognition, which are also huge aspects of vision.

Will Butler:

All right, [inaudible 00:37:48] my vision is better than 21,000 but I can't. I can't see the stars or identify every color perfectly. So there's obviously a lot more complexity going on there. Then we're measuring with that standard scale.

Mike May:

And I realized that as I talked to different blind people who have peripheral vision or center vision, where they can see really good in that small straw of tunnel vision, and nothing off to the side. And sometimes we could team up in that situation because I could see more around me and I'd say, "Oh, hey, there's a sandwich board here at a restaurant, I wonder what's on it." And then I get my sighted friend with a visual acuity for reading print, could say, "Oh, I didn't see the sign but now that you told me it's there, I can read it."

Will Butler:

Can I ask you how it felt like in those first few years and maybe how it feels today to be given this thing that everyone says you need so badly?

Mike May:

Well, as I said, I was very cautious about how the new vision experience was perceived publicly, but also among the blind community. I had a few blind acquaintances that said, "You've got everything, why do you get this blessing? And I wish I could have vision." A lot of people feel that way, they'd like to have vision and there's nothing wrong with that. It just isn't something that I necessarily needed. So it was really icing on the cake for me.
The first couple of years had a lot to do with media attention and then the release of Crashing Through which happened six, seven years after the actual operation. So that first 10 years of the 2000s was a lot of attention around the new vision experience and giving talks. And to this day, I still go to an fMRI machine at University of Washington where Dr. Ione Fine, who has been studying me since this happened, is still evaluating how my vision is changing and trying to learn more about the visual process and they can help other people.

Will Butler:

So it sounds to me like you feel good about it? But can you understand those historical anecdotes about depression and all these things coming from the restoration of vision? Do you understand where that comes from now?

Mike May:

I understand academically why that happened in those situations, and I realize is people who've come to me and said, "Hey, I'm thinking about having this operation. Or I have a family member and we're thinking of having this operation, what advice do you have?" And my advice is consider your circumstances, don't think that having vision is going to fix things, fix your relationships, your job, all of a sudden you're going to have a job and life is going to be good because you have vision. It doesn't work that way. And you certainly don't want to go through a new vision experience when a lot of things are changes. So are you a person who embraces change or are you a person who really prefers your comfort zone?

Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

How did your new vision experience change your work at all?

Mike May:

But this was an important aspect of how things evolved in the first five years because I didn't know that I wasn't going to be able to read print, I thought, well, if I work hard enough at it, then I probably can figure it out. And it took me several years to realize that what I really need to do is integrate my tools. And when you think about it in terms of life and accessibility in general, this makes perfectly good sense. There's not one tool that does everything and that includes vision. So we use a combination of our tools. I had low vision, a weird hybrid kind of low vision, but it was a new tool and I had to use that in conjunction with my cane, my dog, braille and it took a bit of time to realize that I needed to be the best blind guy, totally blind guy that I possibly could with these new tools, and not to let the new tools degrade my blindness skills, my echolocation, the other things that had served me so well.
And when I realized that, and I started working on that approach, it took a lot of pressure off vision. I could use it for spotting landmarks, or looking around enjoying the environment as I walked rather than trying to use the vision to detect where there's cabs because I couldn't without depth perception and with low contrast, let's say between the sidewalk and the street, I couldn't see the cab. So let's forget about the cab and look at the flowers off to the side, and I'll use my dog, or my cane for the cab. That kind of tool integration is really what became the most powerful thing that worked for me.

Will Butler:

So you've chosen it's basically to continue to live as a blind person would?

Mike May:

Yeah, functionally. Exactly. And I realize I have a different combination of tools, but so do you. As you've described well, you have a different kind of vision than I do, you use it the best you can and use it along with other blindness tools. And that kind of integration is really what I think ultimately people need to adjust to when they're in a transitional state from blind to sighted or sighted to blind.

Will Butler:

So final question about this, what do you use your sight for? Where do you find it useful?

Mike May:

Well, there's simple things like standing in line that is useful. I had ways of standing in line before, so it's not like this is life changing. But I don't necessarily have to touch somebody with a cane or have to concentrate. It's hard about standing in line. Sometimes I can be deceived by that so I have to be careful. Enjoying the environment around me is good. I like to think of things that you can't perceive through your other senses that only vision can detect, and then see what I can see with those things. So for example, when I'm in a hotel room up 30 floors, and you can't really even hear the traffic or it's way in the distance and I can look down and see the motion of all these vehicles in the different colors and try to figure out Oh, that might be a bust because it looks kind of long. And that must be a car, that's a truck.
Or if I see a bird fly by that window, I would never know that as a blind person. And does it matter? Does it change life? Oh, not really, but it's just intriguing to be able to find these visual things. Another thing is standing on top of a mountain and looking across to some other mountain peaks or terrain, and trying to figure out what it is, I can't see the detail but I can see there's white, there's brown, there's green, and trying to figure out what it is. And if I'm lucky to be with a sighted person, they can help me decipher what I'm looking at. And then once your mind's eye has those blanks filled in or those names filled in, then I feel like I can actually see that panorama that might be 10 miles away. It's pretty amazing to have that visual perception.

Will Butler:

So you get the vision back and then you've you're starting Sendero, when you look back at Sendero, can you in a nutshell tell us what you guys accomplished and how you move the ball forward for independent navigation?

Mike May:

Well, when I spun off the accessible GPS from Arkenstone and founded Sandero, the long term mission really was let's have GPS eventually be ubiquitous and free. And we're pretty close to that in terms of outdoor navigation now. The GoodMaps Explorer app is free, huge step beyond what we were talking about. I think in 2000 we sold the GP at the Strider backpacks for $1,500, $2,000. And then the  BrailleNote products, those were 5,000, these kind of numbers in order to get GPS. Now, we have a free app, it's ubiquitous around the world. Now, the new frontier is indoor navigation because a very small percentage of buildings are mapped and that's really what we're all about to try to then confront that new frontier of navigation.

Will Butler:

How long were you involved with Sendero? Was it up until recently or did you kind of transition into other projects at a certain point?

Mike May:

Well, Sendero was founded in late '99. We launched our products in 2000. And then, around 2012, I think is when we really went from the BrailleNote to the iPhone, still with some of the hardware being sold. And then in 2017, I left Sendero. It was still running. And I went to Seattle to be the CEO of the Lighthouse for the Blind there. And this is really when I thought, okay, I've done everything I can do in the navigation business, let me go do some other things and see if I can make a difference in terms of a huge challenge in the world, which is unemployment among the blind. So I went to Seattle, and then subsequently to Wichita to another blindness agency. So I was out of navigation for about two and a half years. Sendero finally shuttered at the end of 2018, and the software was split up between the San Francisco lighthouse, which has the Sendero maps that runs on the PC, and Aira, which has the iPhone app called Seeing Eye GPS in the US and they're still handling that and working on it and making tweaks to it.

Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

In terms of indoor navigation, and maybe this is where we get into talking about GoodMaps go back to earlier we were talking about how an individual who wanted to know about their surroundings would wear this large backpack. And now with GoodMaps, it sounds like only one person has to wear that backpack one time to kind of create a map, a 3D map of the indoor location. So for an individual navigating there, they just need their phone?

Mike May:

Great summary. That's exactly right. You can take that backpack as the mapper scanner person and walk the building. So let's say it's an airport, if you were to tour around that airport, it would probably take you couple hours to walk all the different corridors. And that's pretty much what the process is. This LIDAR camera system is spinning the whole time getting this 3D Cloud image of the space that you're in and of course, you have to walk into each office or side room that you want to map, restrooms, et cetera.
So that mapping process is done once, and then there's a process of labeling it and refining it that comes afterwards. But when I go to that airport or that location then with my phone, my camera is picking up my surroundings. So my camera doesn't have to be exposed, it can be in a pocket or in a purse. That camera is picking up my surroundings referencing it against that 3D Cloud image and telling me where I am, and much better accuracy than some previous beacon systems. But it's just on the phone.
And interestingly, with the new iPhone 12 Pro and Max, they have a basic LIDAR built in for camera purposes, but you just see where this is going. The GPS that was in a backpack all of a sudden is now on a phone, the LIDAR, which was in a backpack is beginning to be available in a phone for certain functions. So we can see a situation five, 10 years from now when the mapping is being done from a phone and not from a backpack.

Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

And what happens after that? So we kind of tackled outdoors, or at least it sounds like tackling more urban areas and then indoors, what about how well does this technology work with if you were to go explore, say like a national park?

Mike May:

Well, I don't think we'll ever run out of stuff the map, you're exactly right. There are trail maps. As I've been learning my new area in Reno, I've been trying to check out some of these other trail map apps and making those accessible and I was thinking, boy, I sure would be nice if this camera could detect the trail. So even if it's not on the map, a sighted person can walk along, and they can see where there's a beaten path. It's pretty obvious to them. And my dog is pretty good at that. But she might not tell me where there's an intersecting trail or she might take the intersecting trail if there's choices, and a camera could figure that out.

Will Butler:

All right [crosstalk 00:52:20] identify currents or something like that.

Mike May:

What's that?

Will Butler:

Well, identifying current. Well, they call them currents like there's this little stacks of rocks that they put on the cell.

Mike May:

Right. There's all sorts of things that could be discovered off track. There was a piece recently were a Google hackathon evolved into a camera system for following lines. So you have bike lanes that are delineated by lines, you have tracks that have lines that people run according to. And they use the camera for a blind person to run independently of a guide, with the camera tracking those lines. All of these kinds of things now that we're shifting into camera based navigation can start to improve navigation both indoors or outdoors, off the grid, on the ocean, there's all sorts of possibilities. I guess, maybe space is next, we'll have to talk to [crosstalk 00:53:17] on maps.

Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

Eventually maps. And it sounds like it also could apply to virtual spaces like virtual reality as well.

Mike May:

Well, huge things are being done with VR with all these the Oculus headset and some of these other things, and I think for a blind person being able to explore virtually and understand an environment before you get there is a huge benefit because then when you actually go and you're having to use your mobility device to get around, you have a mental image of where things are and that's a lot less stressful than if you were trying to figure it out a new.

Will Butler:

So Mike, why is indoor navigation such a tough nut to crack? Can you walk us through this? You'd think it would be in ways easier than outdoors, but it's not, is it?

Mike May:

Well, the big difference is in terms of positioning. So outdoors, you have GPS and there are multiple global satellite systems. I think there's three or maybe four now. And the GPS chip sets in your phones pick up at least two of those systems. So that's worldwide, and no user pays for that. US military spends about $90 million each on these 24 plus satellites. And then there's the European system and the Russian system, Japanese system. So those are all up there covering the world. You go indoors that GPS doesn't work. It's a GPS denied. So now you have to have some equivalent of GPS. And people for years have worked on what that would be. Initially, it was dead reckoning, which meant using a compass, gyro, accelerometer, motion detectors to determine where you were going kind of a sophisticated pedometer. And by and large that hasn't worked particularly well. It can work if you have different systems within the building to correct for errors that accumulate because when you go by magnetic fields, it throws a compass off. And many things affect dead reckoning.
Some of the new systems today, some of the apps are still trying to use dead reckoning because it is the Holy Grail because it doesn't require any mapping to be done in order to navigate from point A to point B. There's a camera system called clew C-L-E-W, that you can try indoors, and it works pretty well just using a camera and not dead reckoning per se. But the same concept of let me start recording my position at the door, I'm going to walk around the store, and get back to the pharmacy, get my stuff and now I asked the system, take me back to the front. And it's recorded your movements and it can take you along the same path you came in on.
So those are some of the approaches being used indoors where you don't have GPS, you don't have a worldwide system for positioning, let alone mapping. And a mapping had to be done outdoors too. So that's something that just is going to take time and scale in to accomplish. But the positioning has been the bigger challenge. And that's why this evolution of cameras and LIDAR all of a sudden makes indoor positioning much more financially viable than it was previously.

Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

I'm thinking back to what you were talking about earlier about having multiple tools in one's tool set. And something that I'm just thinking about now with these mapping technologies is the way that they can coexist as a tool with kind of way-finding points in the physical built environment. I remember, the first time I visited the new Lighthouse for the Blind headquarters in San Francisco and I went on a tour and they were talking about how they have different types of floors for the hallways versus the more quiet space or having a carpet versus a smoother surface. And this isn't really a question but just an observation that I love that there are these kind of parallel tracks of having physical way-finding tools working in conjunction with these digital way-finding tools to really empower people to confidently navigate.

Mike May:

Right, it's all part of knowledge is very powerful when it comes to navigation. So if you know and you've hit the carpet, you know there's something's happening or the hard floor something's happening. And I've always found in the information we give to users that that environmental information is also useful. So for example, if you know that the steps to a building have bushes on either side when you're navigating, that's very helpful to distinguish that particular entrance from other entrances along the same block, for example. So that information can be contained in the point of interest information, something aside a person doesn't need, but a blind person needs.
The BART stations in San Francisco will have one elevator. And so you need to know that's on the northwest corner, 35 feet from the intersection of Powell and Market. And if you have that in the announcement that you get, then you can go looking for that because one of the common things with GPS is what we call the final frustrating frigging 50 feet. You get close but you can't find the door, so you need this environmental information. And this is really where visual assistance comes in handy. It's amazing sometimes if you ask a sighted person on the street, "Can you tell me where Jones Cafe is?" "Oh, I'm not from here."
And I want to be a little snippy and say, "I'm not asking where you're from. I'm asking you to use your eyeballs and scan around and tell me where is the sign to this store which I know is within 50 feet." But sure to that I can call up Aira or Be My Eyes and get a visual person on the other end, look into my camera, who's not going to give me some cocky answer, they're going to just [crosstalk 01:00:12] around and help me out. And that's really using our combination of tools again, where we use the navigation system to get me near the entrance, and then we use another tool to help zero in on that door.

Will Butler:

When they're volunteering, we always tell people or the agents, we tell people like, "You're being their eyes, you're not their brain here." Blind people have brains, they know what to do with the information, they just need the information.

Mike May:

Well, chances are with Be My Eyes, they aren't even in the same country as we are, so it doesn't matter where they're from.

Will Butler:

You never know. Well, and we do have this Be My Eyes integration into the GoodMaps products, so that people can grab Be My Eyes, and get that pair of eyes at the last quadruple frigging 50 feet. But I want to know a little more Mike, before we let you go about how GoodMaps works and what it really does. So you've moved beyond beacons, you move beyond dead reckoning and you're using this LIDAR technology to go into a space and do what? And what is this service you provide to companies? And then what is the service you provide to the user? And how is it different from all those 15 other apps in your phone?

Mike May:

Well, let's start with the differences. The unique aspect of GoodMaps is the mapping. There are other companies doing mapping out there, but mostly at a very high commercial level $100,000 million dollar lighting systems and navigation systems indoors for target and Home Depot and so forth. So GoodMaps has this LIDAR camera mapping system, and we get the venue to pay for that mapping, and that's what funds the business. That's our business model. So we need people in their individual areas to advocate for their favorite museum or mall or whatever to be mapped. And the value of that map is not just in terms of accessibility, the best way for accessibility to work is when it's multi purpose. And the maps are multipurpose so that a venue owner can justify spending the $5, $10,000 $20,000, whatever it takes, depending on the size of the building to have it mapped.
And the other purposes could be asset tracking, if they have stuff and they want to know where it is in the building. A lot of hospitals have hundreds of 1000s of dollars of things that they can't find, if I left the building or stuck in some closet unused, first responders need to have maps so they know when they're going in to a building where their colleagues are, where the different rooms that they need to go into. So first responders need maps, and the list goes on. So mapping for a venue owner as a multipurpose use, which then in turn is benefit to blind people. Because on our end as blind users, we go into a building if it's mapped and we have an accessible app like GoodMaps Explore, then we're getting information about reception desk is straight ahead, the restroom is on your left, we can set a destination indoors and treat it just like outdoors to get the kind of location information we need to navigate independently in a building.
And sometimes you have people in a building to give you assistance or you can only proceed with a guide. But a lot of times you're on your own, particularly when it comes to things like a mall. Wouldn't it be great to navigate that independently once that mall has paid for the mapping and is using it for those other purposes as well as for sighted people. And blind people aren't the only ones who are getting lost inside of airports and malls.

Will Butler:

So what do you say to the venue owner who's thinking, "Mike, I've got a blueprint, all I need to do is call my architect and get that blueprint converted into an accessible format. And then I've got my map."

Mike May:

It's not that easy. A blueprint can help but it's amazing how many buildings after they've been remodeled and over time their floor plans are a hodgepodge. The mapping is so easy with this LIDAR camera system and so much more detailed and you're able to update it. The blueprint is hardcopy and much harder to deal with, so if we can give them digital maps of their building they cannot only have more accuracy, they can also delineate who goes where? This is employees only, this is public, et cetera. So there's a lot of benefits to having a digital map of a building.

Will Butler:

The blueprint is the idea and the GoodMap is sort of reality.

Mike May:

Well, it's the difference between hardcopy book and a digital book, it's a lot easier to modify a digital book. A hardcopy and you have to have it reprinted and it costs a lot of money, digital book is much easier to not only update but also to distribute.

Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

And to annotate it.

Will Butler:

So what venues Have you started mapping, Mike?

Mike May:

Well, of course, Louisville, Kentucky, where we're based is where we have quite a few buildings mapped. We have a project in conjunction started out with the American Foundation for the Blind in Huntington, West Virginia, a number of buildings are being mapped there. We are developing a presence in the UK. We have different facilities, oh gosh, in spattered around the country, it's not nearly enough. But for a person listening to this podcast and they say, "Oh, I want to go walk into a local building around my place." They probably aren't going to find one unless they're traveling. They can go to these buildings virtually though within the app to get a sense of what it's like, and maybe whet their appetite to get their local building mapped.

Will Butler:

So I can walk around the building? Or how do I explore the map in the app?

Mike May:

You virtually place yourself in that building and then you use the same functions, like where the function called look around, and as you point your phone in different directions it tells you what's over that way. And it's sorted by proximity. So the nearest thing to you ahead comes first and then further and further away. And if you're at a virtual location that look around capability, rotating your phone, pointing in different directions, will give you that surrounding information. Same thing outdoors, you can virtually explore outdoors or virtually explore indoors to learn an environment before you go there.

Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

That's super cool, and has so many awesome applications. I'm just thinking about even just the first day of a job, eventually when we can go back to offices, knowing where you should go when you walk in that sort of ability to get comfortable with an environment before you even go there is really useful at a lot of scenarios.

Mike May:

Amen. And it's really important that you're not late for that job, that you understand the surroundings if the employer has some trepidation about how well you're going to be able to travel or go out to lunch or things like that. If you seem confident and the environment prospective employers always appreciate the fact that you've done your homework.

Will Butler:

Now more than ever, we don't want to approach strangers and ask for directions and get taken in our arm and with someone you've never met and do all these things that during a pandemic feel much riskier than they did before.

Mike May:

And you're seeing the same camera technology being used for things like people detection, how far away are people from me?

Will Butler:

What did you think about that? When Apple came out with that, the six feet social distance detector and the new devices?

Mike May:

Right. And I just saw an announcement yesterday, there's super sense another app has the ability to tell you if the person is wearing a mask or not.

Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

Oh.

Will Butler:

Wow. Well, Mike, I want to congratulate you because GoodMaps I heard was recognized at CES this year.

Mike May:

The Consumer Electronics Show the first time I haven't attended in many, many years. I've been going since '84 and to do it virtually was really frustrating. But to win an innovation award, recognizing our technology was huge and acknowledgement of what we're doing and the potential impact that it has.

Cordelia McGee-Tubb:

That's so well deserved.

Will Butler:

Yeah. I know, it is. And they missed you. 37 straight years of seeing you there they were like, "Where's Mike? Let's give one more award and maybe he'll come back." Yeah, that's great.

Mike May:

Well, I can't wait till we can be there again in person next year.

Will Butler:

Yeah, absolutely. I've seen the videos. There's some great videos on the press coverage of the CES GoodMaps Award of how the app works. We'll put it in the show notes. We could do this all day long but we'll let you go for now Mike, if you promise to come back later on and keep us updated about how everything is going.

Mike May:

Well, happy to do it. And if anybody wants more information, certainly get the app on either Android or iOS versions, GoodMaps which is one word, space Explorer. That's the name of the user app. And give us feedback because when you first come out with an app, and it's been out since September, you don't have all of the features, everything that we have added to apps when we've put out multiple versions over many years. But I think my goal was hopefully that we had the best features and the most demanded features into the app. And that will continue to be true, and it's a result of feedback we get from people. So [crosstalk 01:10:53] keep us posted on what you think and what you'd like to see.

Will Butler:

Thanks for listening to the Be My Eyes Podcast, everyone. Go subscribe to 13 Letters if it strikes your fancy, and we'll see you again here next week.