Charmtech sets its sights on the mainstream

Charmtech founders Yevgen Borodin and I.V. Ramakrishnan.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

Interactive software designed to make digital content accessible to the vision- and learning-impaired may soon change the way everyone surfs the web.

It’s the natural evolution of many high-tech products, noted Yevgen Borodin, a research assistant professor in Stony Brook University’s Computer Science Department: A cutting-edge product establishes a niche audience first, then swims into the mainstream.

That’s the plan at Charmtech Labs LLC, which Borodin cofounded in 2010 with SBU computer science professor I.V. Ramakrishnan. Based in the university’s Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology, Charmtech markets the Capti Narrator, software that makes digital content more easily consumable for those who might otherwise struggle with it – and may prove to be the next big thing for the online universe at large.

Capti Narrator, which became commercially available in 2013, has already established itself as an assistive technology – an umbrella term for assistive, adaptive and rehabilitative devices for people with disabilities – and in the English as a Second Language, or ESL, market. Many early adapters came from the education market, which according to Borodin is bulging with potential.

“The English language learning community and the assistive technology community account for at least 20 percent of students in the United States,” he told Innovate LI. “That’s at least 50 million students who are learning English or have some kind of difficulty reading, such as dyslexia.”

Capti Narrator is a cross-platform technology enabling Apple and PC consumers to listen to news, documents, e-books and more in a selection of natural-sounding voices. Hands-free voice controls are meant to assist users who are visually impaired or can’t otherwise understand the digital content.

The “text-to-speech” technology has been honored repeatedly, including an MIT Technology Review Innovator Under 35 award this year for Borodin and a 2014 FCC Chairman’s Award, honoring “advancements in accessibility,” for Charmtech Labs.

The startup has also been well-funded by government agencies. Borodin, who earned a Ph.D. (2009) and a master’s degree (2005) in computer science at SBU, has personally collected nearly $4 million in federal research grants, including roughly $2.4 million earmarked specifically for Charmtech Labs.

Among the bigger scores: $150,000 in Charmtech seed grants from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation; $200,000 through multiple grants from the National Eye Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health; and more than $1.3 million in innovation-research funds from the National Institute for Disability and Rehabilitation Research, including a recent $500,000 grant to support development of new assistive technologies for the vision-impaired.

“Think about speaking to your web browser,” Borodin noted, “and having the web browser speak back.”

That research harkens to Borodin’s earliest work on data access for the sight-impaired. His first federal grants, awarded before Charmtech Labs existed, funded computational models exploring how blind people interpret and interact with websites; they also supported development of early software designed to help such users skim text more effectively.

“A sighted person looks at a webpage and quickly runs through the content, picking out what’s important,” Borodin said. “The brain isolates certain things – what’s bold, what’s capitalized – and gets a sense of what you’re skimming through, like speed reading.

“But blind people cannot selectively choose,” he added. “They have to listen to everything.”

So Borodin worked on methods of “picking out what’s important” – programs that not only summarized digital content, but gave the user enough flexibility to hear more content of interest.

While not all of Borodin’s research has infused Charmtech Labs – he’s also tinkered with unrelated “tactile gloves” that allow blind users to “feel the structure of a webpage” – much of it has. And with new features in the final stages of development, Capti Narrator’s commanders are now eyeing bigger targets.

To make the flagship product more useful for educators in general, Borodin and his staff have worked with local teachers to learn how to best adapt Capti Narrator for instructional uses. One recent innovation involves a flashcard game for ESL students and teachers. Another advancement, slated to go live in January, will give teachers the ability to create and share playlists, “a valuable teaching resource,” Borodin noted.

Charmtech Labs’ R&D should be further bolstered by the startup’s acceptance into Empire State Development’s new Innovation Hot Spots program. Managed locally by SBU, the state initiative offers tax breaks, mentoring, continuing education and business-development assistance to startups affiliated with Island incubator programs like CEWIT.

The plan for 2016 is to bring an enhanced Capti Narrator to larger audiences, starting with “a Siri for web browsing specifically for the assistive technology market,” Borodin noted.

From there, the company – which employs about 20 people, including 10 full-time researchers and programmers – will look to appeal to all web surfers. Text-to-speech programs are applicable to “anybody who’s busy or moving a lot,” Borodin said, “any professional, anyone who’s driving or flying or exercising or commuting, any busy parent who needs to look after the kids but still wants to read, anyone for whom it just makes more sense to speak out loud to their assistant.

“Niche markets are usually the early adapters for new technologies,” he added. “But we want everything we develop to be universally accessible. Some groups of people might benefit from it more, but we want everybody to be able to use it.”