Local teen creates device to help blind people communicate with appliances

Jack DuPlessis, 14, works to improve the Talking Laundry module, front right, which allows people with visual impairments to get audio feedback from washers and dryers. | Photo by Boris Ladwig

A 14-year-old Louisville resident has created a device that allows people with visual impairments to get audio feedback from their washers and dryers.

Jack DuPlessis, who will attend duPont Manual High School in the fall, developed the Talking Laundry module at First Build, the GE Appliances subsidiary and innovation hub, where his father, Sam DuPlessis, works as design leader.

The technology can help people with visual impairments remain independent and can compensate for visual deficiencies of America’s aging population.

The gadget’s origins date back to a competition at FirstBuild, in which a community member introduced a stove for the visually impaired, which featured grooves to allow for the proper placement of pots and pans, and audio warnings about hot surfaces.

Sam DuPlessis

The elder DuPlessis said that he learned that modern appliances often are not very user-friendly for people with visual impairments. For example, modern appliances often have round knobs that can be turned 360 degrees, but which lack a home position. That means people who have trouble seeing cannot figure out in which position the knob is.

DuPlessis talked about the challenge with Jack, an avid programmer, who had taught himself some computer programming languages.

Jack wrote software — about 1,000 lines of JavaScript code — that uses a GEA appliance’s service diagnostics board to provide feedback about the knob’s position. The board typically is used by service technicians to figure out why a machine is malfunctioning.

FirstBuild sought feedback about the device’s effectiveness from students at the Kentucky School for the Blind, who encouraged Jack to improve the functionality, for example, by having the device announce, on command, how much time remains on a washing or drying cycle.

“They helped find bugs,” Jack said. “It was very helpful.”

The device, about the size of a portable hard drive, needs a power connection and plugs into the back of GEA’s recent laundry appliances. Jack recently stood in front of a washer and dryer, turning their knobs, which prompted a synthesized voice from the module to announce “spin level high,” “whites” or “starting whites with an estimated 69 minutes left.”

Larry Skutchan

Larry Skutchan, director of technology product research at the American Printing House for the Blind, said many modern appliances are so user-unfriendly for blind people that they’re essentially useless.

Skutchan said that the knob on his previous washer and dryer had no home position, which meant he relied on other family members to return the knob to the proper position once they were done with the appliances — but that didn’t always happen.

And that’s a huge problem because it increases blind people’s level of dependence on others.

“Being independent is really important for people,” Skutchan said.

He praised Jack for his ingenuity and for solving a problem that can help lots of people.

The National Federation of the Blind estimates that about 7.5 million non-institutionalized people in the U.S. between ages 16 and 75 had a visual disability in 2014. That includes about 145,000 in Kentucky.

FirstBuild leaders also hope the Talking Laundry module boosts sales for GE Appliances. In at least one case, it already has.

“I got these two now,” Skutchan said, pointing to the GEA appliances at FirstBuild that were connected to the Talking Laundry Device.

A close-up of the Talking Laundry module. Magnets hold the device in place. | Courtesy of FirstBuild

For laundry duties, he said the appliances and Jack’s device have made a world of difference.

“You can do it just like a sighted person,” he said.

Jack said that getting that kind of feedback is “a pretty exciting feeling.”

“You don’t get to do that every day,” the teen said.

“You should be proud of yourself, Jack,” Skutchan told him.

The elder DuPlessis said that the module also can be helpful for people whose vision deteriorates with age or those who have their washer and dryer in low-light environments.

Jack said his interest in coding began in fourth grade when he learned about the educational computer programming language Scratch. He enjoyed the lesson so much that he began dabbling in other computer languages.

Even now, on summer break, he spends many days at FirstBuild, working on improving his Talking Laundry device — though most days he does sleep in and joins his father at the site after lunch.

FirstBuild Director Larry Portaro said the Talking Laundry project exemplified the kind of work for which the innovation hub was created: People with a passion for an idea come in and use FirstBuild’s collaborative approach and available expertise to create an inexpensive solution to an appliance-related challenge.

The modules can be ordered online for $99. They’ll be made to order at FirstBuild, so delivery takes about five weeks.

While people who contribute to projects at FirstBuild generally receive some financial compensation if their product goes into mass production, it’s unclear whether Jack’s work on the talking laundry gadget will boost his allowance, which he usually augments by mowing lawns.

“We haven’t figured that out yet,” his father said with a chuckle.

Jack does not seem too concerned, though, as he already is mulling his next projects. He wants to develop a better charger for his phone, and a computer case with better sound dampening.

He also has designed Pac-Man-like games and a JavaScript-based game that allows you to check your typing speed and accuracy.