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Zappos helps blind skater Jason Bishop get back to tricks

Fast Co.Exist 2019-07-11 20:00:56

At age 25, competitive skateboarder Justin Bishop lost his vision to the degenerative eye disease retinitis pigmentosa. But seven years later, he’s pulling even more insane stunts, thanks to a new assistive technology that he helped pioneer.

It’s called the Sonic Localizer, a portable sound system that’s the size of a boom box but with eight small speakers positioned in a tight line so that their sound waves overlap and mostly cancel each other out. Instead of just blasting one giant wall of sound, the device uses this “acoustical phased array” to create a tightly focused beam of sound. The beam narrows the further you get from the device, so when Bishop positions it near a ramp or jump, he now has a homing beacon he can follow. Stagger a few around a skate park, and the various rhythmic tones create what he calls a “soundscape” of machine-made echolocation.

Technology company Not Impossible Labs designed the device to be piloted by Bishop as part of an “Absurdity Project” with the shoe and clothing company Zappos. For Zappos, the idea represented a unique way to highlight their brand values and team build at the same time. “The Absurdity Project allowed us to tap the Zappos family to solve an issue of inaccessibility someone in our community was being hindered by, ultimately inspiring others to break the mold and do impossible things,” says Tyler Williams, the company’s director of brand experience in an email to Fast Company.

To do that, Not Impossible Labs initially asked Zappos employees to identify a generally difficult-to-solve problem and person whose life is affected by it. Someone who used to skate with Bishop shared about how he’d been on track to turn pro before going blind. “One of the main governing principles at Not Impossible is called ‘help one, help many,'” says Not Impossible CEO Mick Ebeling. “We take a problem for one person, in this case Justin, and we create a solution that works perfectly and powerfully for him.”

The product development process started in September 2018 and took about seven months of trial and error to complete. At first, the team tinkered with the idea of using GPS technology to relay Bishop updates on his location as he moved around a park. That changed when everyone realized that Bishop already relied on sound to help navigate his environment. He just needed something that he could interpret at high speeds. Having Bishop shape that solution ensures it will likely work well for others. To inspire more people to use these devices, Not Impossible made a short documentary.

Bishop was already a role model for some kids with disabilities. In Las Vegas, he works for an after-school program that teaches kids with autism sports, including skateboarding. But his reach is likely to grow a lot more now that he’s earned sponsorship from the major skate companies Element, Electric, and Nixon and continues to push limits. The Sonic Localizer was especially helpful while shooting his recent street video (this version includes audio description).”You get to learn a spot faster,” he says of the device. That comes in handy when you’ve got a limited time to nail stunts in strange places before getting kicked out.