Accessibility in Tech – Margaret Pickering | “Technology is allowing people to live longer with a far better quality of life”
As our tech blog series draws to a close, we sat down with Margaret Pickering, COO at Stickmen Media and MTech Games to talk about the impact tech can have on those with disabilities and how it can be used for rehabilitation.
You’re the COO at Stickmen Media, tell us a little about the company?
Stickmen make apps and games for mobile console and PC, as well as AR and VR content and back end web development. We also act somewhat as a product incubator for some clients. Brook Waters and I founded Stickmen in 2012 to get back into making games after Brook’s previous games company lost their test equipment in the earthquakes. We ended up doing far more than just games which has been a massive advantage to the company. Aside from the variety of the work we’ve worked on some bleeding edge sciency projects that have sharpened us up in so many ways.
You came from a musical background, so what led you into the world of tech?
I got into rock music when I was 17 and that comes with its own level of tech (amps/processors and keyboards etc), and then started training as a graphic designer, followed by co-founding a web design company that I was involved with for 13 years. Through a series of coincidences and accidents I ended up working on some music for a game 8 years ago, and after the earthquakes I started Stickmen Media with Brook.
You’re also COO of MTech Games, which uses virtual reality for rehabilitation – How did this idea come about and can you run us through the process? (What have the results been like so far?)
The idea actually came from the Burwood Academy of Independent Living at Burwood Hospital Spinal Unit. Clinicians were frustrated at having no objective way of measuring diagnosis or progress, and no safe way to check readiness of a patient to drive safely, so they partnered with Callaghan Innovation and Stickmen Media to create a VR solution, where spinal patients could learn and practice wheelchair driving skills while in bed, and where their performance data can be measured. We created a true to life 3D model of the TransitioNZ unit at Burwood Hospital that can be explored in VR using a real wheelchair controller. We have set up tasks in the environment that measure someone’s ability to steer as well as other issues such hand tremors and cognitive impairments. Brook and I formed MTech Games to commercialise the trainer and create other solutions for rehabilitation, and it’s currently being used in trials with the Human Engineering Research Laboratories in Pittsburgh, USA, who are the world’s premier spinal injury research organisation.
How can tech impact the life of someone with a disability?
That’s a massive and fascinating subject! The extent to which tech can impact anyone depends somewhat on the type of disability they have but it has massively revolutionised the lives and possibilities for a huge number of individuals. In the case of spinal cord injury, technology is allowing people to live longer and more importantly with a far better quality of life than ever before. If we only look at spinal injury, on one extreme someone with a high level spinal injury like Christopher Reeve is only able to survive at all with the help of technology. Medical technology is making amazing progress in helping patients recover movement, and the latest wheelchairs, controllers and exoskeletons are giving people more freedom to live active, productive lives than ever before. We can now centralise a patient’s data and provide targeted care, and with the aggregation of all that data we can learn a great deal about the needs of people with these types of disabilities.
How far do you think tech has come since you first started out in the industry?
When I started my web design company the internet was established but raw so to speak, so really a lot has changed, especially in the last few years. The internet has enabled an explosion of tech obviously, but everything has moved so far and so fast it’s hard to get one’s head around! The resulting connectedness of everything has brought about paradigm shifts in how we access information and learning as well as providing frictionless communication, marketing and delivery channels, which opens up literally endless possibilities.
They say tech is a male-dominated industry – what is it like being a female in tech?
Honestly I’ve never taken much notice. I played lead guitar in rock bands for years and that’s 99.999% male dominated even now. I’ve always just assumed I would do what I wanted to do and gender has little to do with it. I’ve had fantastic, average and awful experiences working with both men and women! Having said that I appreciate that not everyone feels the same way. It should be an obvious no-brainer that the same options are offered to girls and boys at school (or at home) with no bias in terms of encouragement. With awareness growing around diversity this seems to be improving but there’s definitely an awful lot of room for improvement.
Why is it important that tech should be made accessible to everyone? Going forward how do you think this can happen?
Tech is incredible but how we use it is more important. It’s an umbrella word for tools that humans develop to meet a huge variety of human needs, sometimes effectively, sometimes less so. It has an amazing ability to take us to new heights of understanding, learning and performing certain tasks, and will be incredibly important in making life on earth sustainable as we clean up after the last few generations of technology! In this century we are also likely to become a multi planetary species. The diversity of skills and talents to successfully do that involve getting tech and the opportunities it provides, to every corner of human habitation.