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Morphic at CSUN – Gregg Vanderheiden Interview Transcript

At the CSUN, assistive tech conference, I had the pleasure of talking to to Gregg Vanderheiden, who’s a Professor and Director Trace R&D Center at the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. He was at CSUN to talk about a project called Morphic. This is an interesting solution to a problem many of us face now and helping other people or we will face eventually. So I asked Greg to come on the show to talk about Morphic.

Below is a transcript of our conversation created by the service and corrected by Steve Sheridan. You can listen at 19:40 on the NosillaCast about a product called Morphic.

Allison Sheridan 0:01
Welcome to the show, Greg

Gregg Vanderheiden 0:26
Well, pleasure to be here.

Allison Sheridan 0:29
All right. So on my show, I like to always start with what’s the problem to be solved? Where does what problem is Morphic trying to solve here.

Gregg Vanderheiden 0:38
The problem basically, is that we’re creating a world where you basically have to use a computer in order to for education, and employment and even socialization these days. And it’s great for those of us who use computers, but they’re out of reach of many. And COVID, of course, has made this even clearer.

Allison Sheridan 0:59
Yeah, you have to have a computer to get a vaccine.

Gregg Vanderheiden 1:03
That’s right. And, or as you’re isolated in your home to order food to communicate to have any contact with your family. And many individuals, not just older people, but a lot of people who are older, are completely cut off if they can’t figure out how to use the computers. And they’re really pretty complicated.

Allison Sheridan 1:23
Right, right. So the idea of Morphic is to try to find a way to make the computer more accessible to people who are possibly afraid of the computer or are confused by it or have trouble navigating all the complexity of it, right?

Gregg Vanderheiden 1:40
All of those. There are many who kind of use a computer or use it superstitiously. But there’s also a lot of people, a lot of us have sent computers off to our parents or grandparents, only to have them tell you that, “Oh, this is really nice. Thank you very much. Would you come please take this away? I can’t do this.”

Allison Sheridan 2:00

Gregg Vanderheiden 2:01
Yeah. And so there’s there’s two forms of Morphic, there’s a Basic and Morphic Plus. They both do kind of the same thing. The Morphic Basic gives the ability to pop up a little bar and some very common controls for making the screen larger, and things like this, are right there. And these are things that are built into the computer already. But there’s so buried that people don’t know where to find them. And if you show them, they can’t find them when they go back and look, etc. And so having them in a little bar that’s right there that you can click on. And now you’ve seen these sometimes on webpages, but Morphic works on the whole computer, not just inside a web page.

Allison Sheridan 2:46
Yeah, so after Greg showed me this at CSUN, I installed it because it’s free to download and install. And like he says it’s a little a little white bar that’s floating down in the bottom right side of my screen. And I can increase and decrease the text size. I can show or hide the Magnifier. I can click a button to copy. I can read selected text. And I can change the contrast and color. And all of those features are in the menus in the accessibility system preference pane on the Mac. But they’re buried like you say, I mean, they’re they I often sit there looking at the accessibility controls going okay, well, where was that? What was that thing called again? And I’m good at this. Now I’m mentioning this on the Mac, but this is cross platform, right?

Gregg Vanderheiden 3:26
Yes, it works on the Mac, and I’m also on Windows.

Allison Sheridan 3:29
Okay, okay. So that’s, that’s morphing. Basic that just that gives you easy access to those commonly used things for making the screen a little easier to read and deal with.

Gregg Vanderheiden 3:43
Correct and the the Plus does that but it allows you to customize that menu. And so think of having a strip down the side of the screen where you can have buttons that you could make… Let’s just talk about for an elderly person, a grandparent or parent who gets confuse. And and you have you know, one button that will automatically call you or you can have another button that will automatically open up their email. You can have another button that will automatically provide them with the weather. Another one you’ve ever one of the common things we hear is people who say, well, we have a weekly phone call, especially during the pandemic. And every week it takes 20 minutes to get grandma on the phone or grandpa on the phone. And the you know, it’s like you think that after the third week or something? Well, what you find is we get older we have what we call crystallized intelligence, where we’re just as smart as we always were about stuff we used to be. This is not like dementia where you start degrading. I’m just talking about people that you talk to when they’re upright and whatever. But when you try and teach them something they just can’t learn something new. That’s because as we get older, our intelligence will crystallize. And so we can have great conversations. We can teach people, we can do all sorts of things. But we don’t learn as well anymore. And so you give them something new and they can’t figure it out.

Allison Sheridan 5:15
I’m glad you brought up that example. My father had, I think it was 13 patents. He was an engineer, brilliant guy, curious about everything. And yet, when I tried to show him an easier way to do something on his computer, he lost his ever loving mind at me. I mean, he was like, “No, no, I don’t need to learn this. I know how to do it the way I’m doing it, don’t I’m gonna have a heart attack if you tried to teach me this!” I mean, it was really I mean, that was crystallized right there, you’re not going further.

Gregg Vanderheiden 5:44
And you don’t understand it, you think all of the person’s being whatever, and and it’s not. It’s just that you’re making someone who is intelligent, feel stupid, by asking them to do something they can’t do. That’s like if somebody had very low vision, and you said, Oh, let me show you. I get more stuff on the screen. And you make all the fonts really small. That you can understand that he that you’re taking it outside of their reach. But we can’t understand cognitively, the inability to learn, especially by people that we’ve known who are brighter than us. Yeah, yeah. But, but they get to that age.

Allison Sheridan 6:21
And not everybody has that. My mother was the other way around. My mother would try and learn anything.

Gregg Vanderheiden 6:26
Oh, yeah. No. And that’s the thing is that people say well that’s not the way old people are. And then it’s my favorite is if you’ve met one old person, you’ve met one old person. And that is they’re all over the map. Some of them are brighter and sharper than we are.

Allison Sheridan 6:39
By the way, Greg and I both have gray hair. So we can talk like this, right?

Gregg Vanderheiden 6:44
Crystilization, that’s right. But now, so we’ve sent this off to our grandparent, and they have this strip on the side. And one of the buttons is they click on it and it automatically drops them right into the family call. It doesn’t launch Skype, it doesn’t launch them. It literally one button they click and they’re on inside the call.

Allison Sheridan 7:04
Oh, really?

Gregg Vanderheiden 7:05
Yes. Another button. They click and they’re watching their their worship service on Sunday. It doesn’t launch something that they have to do something do something, you know, it’s one click.

Allison Sheridan 7:15
How does it do that?

Gregg Vanderheiden 7:15
Well, that’s part of it. Well, you it’s that’s the way we designed it. You make it so that it doesn’t open an app, it it launches into what do you want to do. You want to make these buttons be what the person wants to do. So think of it, a button gets them the pictures of the grandkids, okay. Everybody else goes up to Google and they know how to do all that stuff. They don’t know how to do anything except the thing says, family pictures, and they click it and bingo in their screen, they’re looking at the kids pictures. They click one they’re looking at their mail. They click one, they call somebody. They click one, there’s the weather. They click one, and there’s their best friend’s Facebook page. They click one and there’s one that will help them with something else they want to do on the computer because it sets it up so they can share their screen with their son, daughter, whoever else can do it. So they have, think of the old push button radio, it’s that simple. You got to strip down the side and it’s always there. That’s the other thing is that you have an iPad, they used to be really easy to use. But you can give that to somebody who’s older. And it’s nice. They got all these little buttons, they push one it opens up an app and not only I have no idea what to do.

Allison Sheridan 8:29
Right, how do I get back?

Gregg Vanderheiden 8:29
Yeah. It’s like, well, you just have to swipe up. No, no, not swipe up. You got to swipe up. No, no, no, not right down, from the middle up, though. No, you went too slow. You went too slow, you got to go faster, you know. And it’s like, take this away from me.

Allison Sheridan 8:43
So I’m still stuck on how, like, when I when I launch Zoom, I can click a link in an in an email or calendar invite that takes me right to the Zoom. But I’m immediately met with, Well, do you want to test your microphone first? And do you want to test your video? And there’s all these there’s all these layers in between that don’t let me in right away? How do you how do you get around all of that?

Gregg Vanderheiden 9:07
We do a podcast too short to get into it. But yes, click and it pops up a thing with the meeting. And there’s a button that says enter. And that’s all you do.

Allison Sheridan 9:17
It just says I’m gonna override those settings. So intelligent coding,

Gregg Vanderheiden 9:21
It’s, it’s actually there’s ways most of the applications have ways of doing things. It’s just that even you or I may not know how to do that. We figured out how to and then we put that in here. That’s the whole thing is, make it easy. And then this bar that I talked about, you know, he said, Well, that was all fine. But what if those aren’t the buttons my grandmother wants. That’s the part and as you saw when I demonstrated to you last time is to go to a web page and all the buttons that you could have are there. You just drag the ones you want to onto a bar, you say push it – bingo. That’s what shows up on your grandmother’s page.

Allison Sheridan 9:59
So Gregg is not exaggerating. It’s killing him here that I’m only doing audio because his demonstration of how to set up. Morphic Plus was, it was shocking to me how he just went, Okay, what do you want? And I said, I want to be able to blah. And he goes, Okay, let me put a button up there, let me name it that, you want a little icon there, there, boom. Now I save that now that’s just gotten pushed out to you on Morphic Plus. I mean, it was it was spectacularly rapid and obvious to me how you were doing with how to do what you were doing. So Morphic Plus, and that was the helper person is what we’re talking about.

Gregg Vanderheiden 10:39
Right. And that was for a custom button. For the one where you just said I wanted to have such and such news, you just drag it on, you’re done. You want to have the weather, you just pick a weather service, you drag it on, and you’re done.

Allison Sheridan 10:50
So you have a bunch of standard ones.

Gregg Vanderheiden 10:51
Yep, yep, we have all the standard things we can sort of think of. And then the one I showed you was that if it’s not something that’s here, then it was as quick as you said, to make up a brand new one that was completely custom.

Allison Sheridan 11:05
Well, I had to challenge you, right? I couldn’t just let you pick this stuff you already had there, right?

Gregg Vanderheiden 11:09
Yeah, that’s right.

Allison Sheridan 11:10
So if if somebody has, let’s say, I have more Morphic Plus, and I’m going to be helping my my father work on his computer, I’m going to try to set this up for him. So then, how does, so there’s a component that gets installed on his computer and I’m just doing everything from the web? Is that right?

Gregg Vanderheiden 11:31
Yeah, you what you do is you install Morphic on his computer, and the and you can do that just using the screen sharing that’s built right into Windows or built into the Mac OS, if you want to install it without ever going over there. So you just install Morphic or you can just talk them through it. It’s very easy, just download it, double click and it installs itself. Then you go up to a web page, and you say I want to create a bar for whatever their name is and you give the email of the person that it’s going to be. And you set up the bar. And then you push it, they would get a an email. And again, you if they’ve never used a computer before you can call them up and talk them through just opening up the mail and clicking once to accept it. And then bingo, it’ll show up on their computer. And then from then on, if they call you and said well, this is really nice, but could I have a button that launches, you know, this caller, makes it so I can call so and so. You just go up to the website, drag the button in, put their name in, push it, and bingo, it shows up on their computer. And they go Oh, thanks. They push it and it calls.

Allison Sheridan 12:46
Wow, that’s that’s pretty cool. I’m as you’re saying this, I’m thinking of all different things. I think the button that I would need with one of my relatives is the button to start a screen sharing session. Because we can screen share with them, everything goes way faster. But getting them to that point every single time, it’s like 20 minutes to get, it’s like, okay, click here. You know, you’ve told them 28 times but like you said.

Gregg Vanderheiden 13:11
And that’s on of our, that’s one of our pre made buttons.

Allison Sheridan 13:13
Is it really?

Gregg Vanderheiden 13:15
Yeah, yep, you drag it onto the bar. It works especially well on on the PC, actually, because Windows has something called Quick assist. And all they do is they just click the button, and you on the phone, you just say enter this number. They type in the cell number and bingo.

Allison Sheridan 13:35
Oh, wow,

Gregg Vanderheiden 13:36
it’s that fast.

Allison Sheridan 13:37
Wow, that is cool. Okay, that’s awesome. So I’m sure everybody who’s listening is thinking, yeah, but what’s your business model here? What do you what do you what are you going to soak me for this, Greg?

Gregg Vanderheiden 13:48
Morphic, well it’s been put out by a nonprofit organization, Raising the Floor. And the Morphic Basic is basically free. And Morphic Plus the cost is going to be based basically on how much sponsorship we can find. We would like to make it absolutely free for everybody. And if we can find some sponsorship, as a matter of fact, we have sponsorship now enough to be able to provide it free for the first year, even for the Morphic Plus for all the early adopters for it. And beyond that, we don’t know. You know, we said well, gee, you know, maybe, you know, $6 a month or something like that. Would would would help to do it, if it’s all dependent on how much it costs to do support. As I said, it’s all being done out of a nonprofit. And what we’d really like to do, because we really think this is sort of something that just needs to be out there, would be to get two things. Would be sponsorship for the just the underlying costs and then set up a network of community to provide support for people. And then it could be available free. So we’re not trying to generate revenue with this, we’re just trying to get it out there because so many people just absolutely are being cut off without having something like this.

Allison Sheridan 15:16
You know, I’ve had a vision for a long time have a community-based service called, Help My Parents / Relative / Friend, Please. I don’t have a good name yet. But the the other piece of this is that the person we’re helping is usually the person who knows where every one of our buttons are to push, right. And we know where their buttons are. So usually, if like, I want somebody to help my brother. And if you help my brother, I’ll help your mom. And then if they help your mom, then you help their next door neighbor, and we can all help each other. But everybody has to take a turn in the bucket with it. Because I’ll be perfectly delightful with somebody I don’t know. But if it’s my child trying to teach me something, oh, we’re going to be a whole different conversation.

Gregg Vanderheiden 16:01
You should call it, Pay it Forward,

Allison Sheridan 16:02
Pay it Forward, yeah, there you go. There you go.

Gregg Vanderheiden 16:05
I’ll do something for you, you just have for somebody else,

Allison Sheridan 16:07

Gregg Vanderheiden 16:08
One of the other, one of the other groups that we have, and it’s sort of a hidden feature on on Morphic, is for people who have to use assistive technologies, like screen readers, if they go to a library or to a school or something, they can’t use every computer like everybody else can. There is at the library, maybe one or two computers upstairs in a resource room that they can use, and everybody else can use any other computer. So one of the things we’re working on with Morphic is the ability for someone who does use assistive technology to be able to sit down to any computer. So you have Morphic on, all the computers at the library. And, and it’s really handy for everybody else, because it makes all these things easy as we talked about before. But if you sat down and you needed AT, when you sit down, you just sign in, and your assistive technology would be pulled down, installed on the computer and set up just the way you need it to be. Now when you get up to go away, it disappears. So for the first time, somebody who needs assistive technology, a special software, would be able to sit and use any computer, at home or at grandma’s or at the community center at the library, just like everybody else can.

Allison Sheridan 17:19
So not just setting things like text size and magnification and contrast. But you’re talking about actually having your your own assistive technology software there.

Gregg Vanderheiden 17:29
Yes, instantly installed on demand and then disappear when you leave.

Allison Sheridan 17:36
Interesting, interesting. So you guys have a lot of vision here. This is, this is really nifty. I have never seen anything like this. And I’ve been watching this space for a little while. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that does what Morphic can do today, or certainly what your vision is for tomorrow. So this is this is really terrific. If, now people can sign up to download Morphic Basic for free right now and get on the list for when Morphic Plus comes out. Is that right?

Gregg Vanderheiden 18:04
Yes, and Morphic Plus will be out next month. And you can, again, if you’re one of the early adopters, you get it free for an entire year. So and free after that if we can get sponsors and if not, it’ll be something that’s very, very affordable, you know, more like the price of a cup of coffee or two.

Allison Sheridan 18:25
There you go. And as the cost of a cup of coffee goes up every month, you know… So where would people go to find Morphic?

Gregg Vanderheiden 18:32
Just go to And right there describes it to you. And you can click and download the Basic versions today on Mac and PC. And the Plus versions will be out next month.

Allison Sheridan 18:51
I thought of one more question. What did you write this in?

Gregg Vanderheiden 18:55
Oh, it’s written in C# for the PC and in Swift on the Mac. So it’s written in native code.

Allison Sheridan 19:04
It’s native, but it’s okay. But you’re doing both. That’s great.

Gregg Vanderheiden 19:07
Oh, they’re both and you’ll love it. It installs literally in on modern computers in about three seconds or two seconds. Yeah, it’s very fast.

Allison Sheridan 19:19
It is. The Morphic Basic bar is the fastest thing I can launch on my Mac, I can tell you that I did it right as you’re starting to talk and I went, Oh, there it is already. It’s great.

Gregg Vanderheiden 19:29

Allison Sheridan 19:29
All right, Gregg. Thank you so much for coming on the show. This was this is really interesting. And I bet you’re gonna see some signups from people who listen to the NosillaCast. I appreciate your time.

Gregg Vanderheiden 19:39
Well, we very much appreciate that. And we’re looking for feedback as well. Any ideas that you have for anybody has for making get better. We’re looking for that. Thank you.

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