Local company ViewPlus opens the world of science to the blind

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Corvallis has a unique company within it, and it’s been around for over 25 years – a company that makes braille printers and embossers so blind people can feel more than just words on the page.

“Our technology opens up a world of possibilities for blind people in STEAM – science, technology, engineering, art and math,” says Dan Gardner, CEO of ViewPlus, located on SW Airport Avenue in southwest Corvallis. Gardner, who joined the family business in 2015, is the son of John Gardner, professor emeritus of physics at Oregon State University, who led the team that invented the technology.

John Gardner’s vision came from blindness

Dan Gardner shared his father’s story that led to these special printers. John Gardner was born in Mississippi with severe vision problems. According to OSU Oral History Interview, he suffered “from both glaucoma and a birth defect which left him blind in one eye and with restricted vision in the other”. Despite this, John Gardner continued his college education at Rice University and then a master’s and doctorate from the University of Illinois.

The OSU Oral History interview wrote, “After six years as a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania, Gardner joined OSU’s physics department in 1973, where he established himself as an international authority on a technique called perturbed angular correlation spectroscopy.” Dan Gardner said he was 4 when they moved to Corvallis.

In 1988, Dan Gardner said, his father had eye surgery that didn’t go as planned. The OSU oral history interview further explained, “Gardner underwent what was believed to be routine surgery to help relieve the symptoms of glaucoma that had plagued him his entire life. To the surprise of many, his eye reacted negatively to what had been understood to be a simple procedure, and he walked out of the operation after losing his sight completely.

Professor Gardner continued to teach; however, in physics, reading graphs and tables lacks the nuance needed to understand the data. Instead of letting that get in the way, he decided he had to do things differently. He changed his focus, which led to his vision, as written in the OSU interview, “to improve the conditions faced by visually impaired and blind workers in science by developing technologies that would allow scientific research by the blind”.

Gardner created a university team to work on this research, secured funding from the National Science Foundation, and in 1996 they developed and patented a new high-resolution embossing technology that works with braille printers. Unable to license the technology from a manufacturer, Gardner and his wife founded ViewPlus. They licensed the technology from OSU, paying royalties for 20 years. The first product, an embosser built on a dot-matrix printer, was launched in 2000.

According to the OSU oral history interview, “In 2001, Gardner retired from OSU to devote all of his energy to this fledgling business. Since then, ViewPlus has grown steadily and is now recognized as a global assistive technology leader, specializing in braille printers, braille translation, tactile graphics, tactile audio systems and audio graphics.

Commercial building in Corvallis

After leaving OSU to start the ViewPlus business, the Gardners leased space with the Business Enterprise Center, Beak, on Ninth Street. In 2012, the Gardners moved ViewPlus near the airport. As ViewPlus grew, they eventually took over the entire Airport Avenue building, where they still stand today.

Dan Gardner said the networking has been beneficial for the company’s growth. As a Benton County start-up, they got involved in the Willamette Network of Innovators Expo, which presents all the local inventions. He also mentioned that Oregon Entrepreneur Network and Seena networking group of CEOs, have been instrumental in growing their business.

Gardner has made it a policy to source locally whenever possible. Next door is Oregon Rubber Mills, which supplies rubber to other manufacturers of products purchased by ViewPlus. Around the corner from SW Third Avenue is Ram-Z Fab, a machine and fabrication shop that makes some parts of the printers, while RelianceCM on SE Eastgate Circle makes circuit boards. Another nearby Corvallis supplier mentioned by Gardner is Plastech Inc., an injection molding company, located on SW Hout Street.

Offices are streamlined and set up efficiently. Gardner explained how Richard Graff, a manufacturing consultant who had previously trained in lean manufacturing practices, took advantage of the time during the COVID-19 outbreak to further streamline company practices. Gardner said her daughter, while attending Crescent Valley High School during the pandemic, created new production manuals to help train employees on how to use the various stations.

Like many other companies, ViewPlus has encountered issues during the pandemic. Gardner said the Corvallis-Benton County Department of Economic Development has been helpful not only in providing personal protective equipment (PPE), but also in advising on how to apply for Paycheck Protection Program grants. (PPP) through the Small Business Administration (SBA). Gardner says his parents were on the computer early on to be one of the first to receive the apps.

PPP grants helped payroll, while the SBA Emergency Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) program prepared them for the future by allowing them to borrow money to purchase available inventory and invest in the development of new products. While teachers and students stayed home, many also took their ViewPlus Braille graphics printers home and learned how useful the printers are in their daily lives.

As one grateful customer wrote in a testimony “If you want to be reminded of the difference you make, my 8-year-old daughter has thrived at homeschooling, thanks to your products. I was able to personalize her program to that it suits him perfectly.

“Before Covid, I had no knowledge of braille or braille technology. Once I realized how little my completely blind daughter was learning at a distance school, I had to catch up in a hurry. Your products have been a godsend. They are incredibly user-friendly for laymen like me. I couldn’t homeschool my daughter without your Tiger Translator, Braille Embosser and Braille Readers/Displays. So, A MILLION THANK YOU from a grateful customer! Tim Fahlberg, math teacher.

“Our tactile graphics went from ‘nice to have’ to ‘need to have’,” Gardner said. “Our business is becoming profitable – without subsidies – for the second enter the third year. Having gone through the lean manufacturing process, connecting to great networks and having great employees — beyond family — have been integral to their current success, he explained.

Gardner boasted that the company’s employees enjoy working there for several reasons. The first is that they enjoy being part of a purpose-driven company that makes a positive difference in the world. Another is his emphasis on implementation, as he puts it, “how to make a society be people-centric,” with options like flexible hours and being lifelong friendly. Another point he highlights is the excellent gender ratio of employees, which is atypical for most in the assistive technology manufacturing industry.

The future

Three years ago, ViewPlus partnered with American Printing Press (APH) – a non-profit organization funded by the federal government, to provide Braille textbooks and materials to blind children in every state. This partnership has helped expand their key K-12 market. It is important to reach children before they are 10 years old, as braille can be difficult to learn and often more difficult for adults, as their fingers are not as sensitive.

Gardner says ViewPlus is passionate about reaching children while they are still imaginative, creative and interested in exploring subjects beyond words – science, technology, engineering, art and math. In the United States, many children are not always “merely blind,” but have comorbidities that lead to blindness or low vision. ViewPlus technology is evolving to help in many areas.

For example, the “VP SpotDot” uses Hewlett-Packard color inks that can help sighted people understand the same charts and graphs that blind people can create with technology. HP, with its local campus also based in Corvallis, helped fund research to develop this combination of color ink and Braille printer.

SSoftware that makes existing technology like Adobe, Word and Excel accessible to the visually impaired is currently in developmentand TTheir next product will be a PDF integration that fixes 40-year-old technology, making it easier for teachers to access old-fashioned stored volumes of information and not have to reinvent the wheel to use it.

While ViewPlus’ stated mission is “to empower people around the world by making information accessible through innovative and inclusive technology solutions,” Gardner believes its mission is to help reverse the attitudes of people who may including negative views such as the blind and visually impaired are not as appreciated or as well supported in much of the world. “I want to make the blind person the hero because they have technology and accessibilities to contribute to society to their full potential.”

By Stacey Newman Weldon

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