Student Spotlight: Anastasia Reinhardt

Blind Ambition

Senior Anastasia Reinhardt takes on a summer internship at Microsoft to help create assistive technology that benefits the blind – people like her brother

By Sean Patterson

Anastasia Reinhardt

What’s a college student to do when she has a love of computer science and a desire to improve the lives of those around her?

In Anastasia Reinhardt’s case, secure a summer internship at Microsoft Research to help develop technology that will guide the steps of the blind. Reinhardt, a senior computer science/English double major and William Penn Honors Program student from Vancouver, Washington, is spending the summer at Microsoft’s world headquarters in Redmond, Washington, where she has joined an assistive technology team tasked with a project called Soundscape – an app that employs a headset apparatus that serves as a navigational device.

The premise is simple: Give a headset to a blind person that provides sound cues as they walk. Using audio beacons that already exist in many businesses, the app interprets data from these points to determine how far away a given place is and relays the information to the user.

“It’s basically capitalizing on the fact that most blind people have a good sense of direction based on sound,” Reinhardt says. “Using these sounds is a more intuitive navigational device than, ‘Turn right in 250 feet,’ because a blind person doesn’t have the context of maps or distance like sighted people do. My internship will explore ways to integrate this technology with third-party apps.”

As Reinhardt explains, there are two branches of research in the field: assistive technology and accessible technology. The former is technology that’s been specifically designed to help a person with a disability perform a task, such as Soundscape. The latter is broader, tasked with making existing technology accessible for more users, such as closed captioning on YouTube.

For Reinhardt, the motivation to develop assistive technology comes from personal experience: Her older brother, “Ziggy,” is blind.

“Growing up with him, you ask yourself the question, ‘How can we help his experience or improve his life?’” Reinhardt says. “I worked with my dad and my brother on a kind of navigational app a couple summers ago. We didn’t get as far as something like Soundscape, but it was nice to be able to work with the end user, my brother, and be able to ask, ‘OK, what actually would be helpful for you?’

“You just have to put yourself in a different mindset – in their shoes – because there are simple things, like walking to your next class, that are a really big challenge.”

Reinhardt credits her George Fox experience for helping bring out her empathetic side. “When I came here, I thought that helping people and social justice were OK, but since being here I’ve found lots of value in other people’s experiences and gained a greater appreciation for what it means to be a Christian, and in my case, a Quaker. I’ve been inspired by professors like Bill Jolliff in the English department and Brian Snider in the computer science major. Both have been super encouraging to me.”

It was Snider’s Human Computer Interactions (HCI) course that affirmed Reinhardt’s desire to use technology to improve the human experience. “A lot of computer science focuses on the design and development of products, but there’s a ‘softer’ side to it – the side that’s not all about algorithms. It’s often looked down upon because it’s not super technical, but it’s that side that prioritizes the user and how life can be improved for that person.”

And it’s a career path that fits perfectly with Reinhardt’s faith.

“Getting into Quakerism has been part of why I got more interested in doing something that directly benefits people, as opposed to doing whatever kind of tech job, and then retroactively saying, ‘Well, I guess this is how it helps people or glorifies God,’” she says. “I want to do something that is a direct benefit, and I think I’m on that path.”