Who Are Your Blind Sailors?
San Francisco's Ed Gallagher was an avid sailor when he went blind 15 years ago at the age of 44. But in the last few years he and a couple of other disabled sailors began experimenting with some gizmos that would allow Ed to actually said a boat again--by himself. They jerry rigged a rudimentary system consisting of a laptop and a bulky camera strapped to a bike helmet, to allow someone with sight to direct him from anywhere in the world. They since improved technology with things like Wi-Fi, a more compact webcam embedded in sunglasses, and a small Asustek network computer. The solution isn't perfect, but it by gosh has the blind Ed out in the SF Bay, sailing "alone."
So what, you say? How could such an outlandish use of those technologies matter? Because Ed is a classic type: a "lead user," that is, a customer whose demands are ahead of those of the majority of the market, and who have much to gain from a solution to such needs. And these folks can be KEY for companies wanting to improve their innovation.
That's how, for example, auto makers came up with the idea of antilock braking systems (ABS) from the airline industry--planes have much more extreme braking needs than cars, and they developed ABS to meet them. The result: auto makers adopted antilock braking system (ABS) technology to autos with great success.
Already, Ed's technology is showing similar abilties to adapt to other less extreme needs: it's been used to help blind people recognize the difference between regular yellow mustard and Dijon in a refrigerator, for example. There are four million blind people in the US. 75% are not employed. Developing technologies to help them work is a tremendous potential market. Lead users like Ed--as opposed to just gathering a bunch of researchers in a room to "think of something"--can help show the way.