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Innovation & Startups

Conversant Labs: Improving assistive technology for the visually impaired


Chris Maury’s vision has been on the decline since he was diagnosed with Stargardt macular degeneration in early 2011. The genetic eye disorder causes progressive vision loss, usually to the point of legal blindness. 

Shortly after his diagnosis, Maury left his job as product manager at Klout in San Francisco to develop accessibility technology for those who suffer from vision loss and impairment. In 2012, he founded Conversant Labs to improve the lives of the blind through improved access to technology. The following year, Maury moved the company to Pittsburgh. 

“While we are an accessibility company, our core technology is speech recognition and voice-enabled applications,” says Maury. “Carnegie Mellon is where a lot of the research in these fields was started, and being based here in Pittsburgh allows us to draw on that expertise.”

Conversant Labs builds audio-only applications for the blind and visually impaired. The company is one of the start-ups in the current cycle at AlphaLab, a leading accelerator in the country. In addition to Founder/CEO Maury, the Conversant Labs team includes Greg Nicholas, a software developer with a background in natural language processing and building applications for the accessibility industry, and Fran Kostella, who has 30 years of experience building alternative user interfaces 

“The tools currently available for the blind to interact with everyday technologies are severely limited,” says Maury.  “Expensive, difficult to learn, and not supported by many common services, these products leave the majority of the blind community without access to computers or the internet.”

Maury recently spoke at the 29th Annual International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference in San Diego. His talk focused on the limitations of traditional accessibility technology known as screen readers, which display web content visually for users on a monitor and convert text to synthesized speech so users can listen to the content.

“Screen readers are amazing tools for making computers and mobile devices minimally accessible, but the standard that we set for our tools should be much, much higher,” Maury says. “We should be creating applications and experiences that go beyond plain accessibility and focus instead on usability.”

“Our approach throws out the visual component, creating an audio-only experience optimized for blind users,” says Maury. “Using voice commands, users are able to complete tasks they might otherwise avoid.”

Conversant Lab’s first commercial application “Say: Shopping,” a voice-enabled shopping client for making online purchases that will allow blind users to shop independently.

“Shopping is one of these tasks that is difficult for the blind and visually impaired to do independently, often relying on others to go to the store for them,” says Maury. “Creating an experience that allows people to shop independently and from the comfort of their homes is a big win for improving quality of life.”

Say: Shopping is now in beta testing and will likely be released into the Apple App Store by the end of May. 

Writer: Amanda Leff Ritchie
Sources: Chris Maury, AlphaLab and conversantlabs.com
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